South African jazz has had many elements contributing to its evolution and development, the most prominent and significant being the rich eclectic cultural diversity of the country's inhabitants and the influence of African-American culture upon it over the years. These two variants, coupled with an environment of legislated racism and gross human rights violations, created the unique artistic forge and mould responsible for the evolution of South African jazz.
The first informal contact the inhabitants of Cape Town had with African-Americans was during the American Civil War in 1862 when the confederate war ship Alabama
came into the port of Cape Town to replenish its supplies. The Alabama
patrolled the South Atlantic, where it would wait for Union ships to come around the Cape from the Far East on its way to the east coast ports of Philadelphia, New York, Newport and Boston. It would then attack, plunder and sink them. The Alabama
was one of the most notorious and feared Southern commerce raiders on patrol in the South Atlantic, sending a total of fifty eight Union ships to the bottom of the ocean during her two year patrol.
Confederate captain Raphael Semmes commanded this British built steam powered schooner. A mixed crew of British mercenary and Southern white sailors manned the ship. On board was also a small contingent of African-American slaves who served as cleaners and mess stewards, and also provided some sort of musical entertainment for the crew. When the Alabama
docked in Cape Town, the local population flocked to the waterfront to look at her. It was then that the African-Americans dressed in their minstrel outfits gave impromptu musical recitals at the dockside where the Alabama
Upon seeing this spectacle for the first time, some of the inhabitants of the city enquired from the white crew who the black entertainers were, and the reply was, " These are just our Coons!" Or more succinctly put, " Just our niggers!" The Alabama
was finally tracked down and sunk off Cherbourg, France by the Union warship the U.S.S. Kearsarge
on June 19, 1864.
South Africans had their first formal contact with African-Americans and African-American music on June 19, 1890, when the minstrel troupe of Orpheus Myron McAdoo's Virginia Jubilee Singers from Hampton, Virginia presented a series of concerts in Cape Town.
Orpheus McAdoo was born in 1858 in Greensborough, North Carolina. As a young man he attended the Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia, where he studied and graduated as a teacher in 1876. Before turning to music as a professional career in 1886, he taught school in Pulaski and Accomack Counties in the state of Virginia for ten years. In 1886 he toured Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the Far East after joining five members of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers.
Upon his return to the U.S. a year or two later McAdoo formed his own company by recruiting some ex-students and graduates from Hampton, amongst whom was his future wife Mattie Allen and his brother Eugene. With a newly formed troupe consisting of six women and four men, McAdoo set sail on a European tour in 1888. Two years later we found them arriving in Cape Town, South Africa. Their appearance was to create a significant impact upon the music scene, as it later influenced the creation and formation of the Kaapse Klopse, or Coon Carnival.
Since its inception at the turn of the century, the minstrel street carnival became an integral part of Cape Town's performing arts culture during New Year's celebrations. To use the derogatory term of the racist American South of the time, "coon" or "nigger" was the equivalent of the South African derogatory terms "kaffir," "boesman," "cooley," and "hottentot." If one looks back to the Alabama
's visits to Cape Town, one can now clearly see how the derogatory racist term "coon" came to be known and adopted in Cape Town. Given South Africa's colonial past, racism, class consciousness, and divide and rule tactics, there is little doubt for any speculation as to the name "coon" and its tenure, popularity and longevity amongst the working class coloured (Mixed Race) population of Cape Town. The popularity of the Coon Carnival, however, decreased as more and more young people became politised and the struggle for liberation intensified during the 1970s and 1980s.
McAdoo's minstrels stayed and toured throughout South Africa for eighteen months, visiting places in the province of the Eastern Cape such as Grahamstown, King Williamstown, and Alice, where they performed at Lovedale College, the black South African equivalent of Tuskegee University in the United States. Musical history indicates that their impact and influence upon the old Zulu and Xhosa choral traditions were quite significant, as it introduced innovative new harmonic concepts and structures. It is ironic that this genre of African-American minstrel, spiritual music, which became one of the key developmental elements of jazz in New Orleans in 1895, should also become a contributing factor and play a crucial role in the development of South African jazz.
The formal introduction of jazz into South Africa took place shortly after World War I, around 1920-1922, again via Cape Town. The first jazz recording was made in 1917 by the all white New Orleans band called The Original New Orleans Dixieland Band. Some of these early recordings found their way to Cape Town, brought here by American merchant seamen. Local white and coloured bands and, later, even some visiting American musicians, were instrumental in popularising early New Orleans style jazz at the Cape. To the white musicians who played it and the white audience who danced to it in America (and elsewhere in the European Imperial colonies), it became known as Dixieland.
Given the dreary social life and appalling conditions in the black South African townships, it is easy to understand why the introduction of the radio, the gramophone, and recordings of New Orleans jazz served as the biggest catalyst for the developing styles of early township music and black professional musicianship in the 1920s.
It was in Queenstown in the province of the Eastern Cape that jazz first developed and started to take on a distinctly South African character. Of all the black people in South Africa, the ethnic Xhosa nation were the most educated to European standards, as the result of the early introduction and establishment of the British Missionary Society school system. Formal education, together with exposure to European hymnody and western classical music, gave rise to a black upper class elite and a group of very sophisticated musicians and composers who embraced this new African-American art form called jazz. In the middle 1920s Queenstown became known as "Little Jazz Town" because of the many New Orleans style bands that were resident there.
The most popular bands there in the late 1920s and early 1930s were Meekly Matshikiza's Blue Rhythm Syncopaters and William Mbali's Big Four, who entertained both whites and upper class blacks. Some of these earliest preserved examples of South African jazz was recorded by Gumede's Swing Band on the Gallotone record label GE 942 in the late 1920s. It was during the late 1920s that Boet Gashe, an itinerant organist from Queenstown, popularised the three chord forerunner to the Marabi and Mbaqanga styles that were later to be perfected in the shebeen environments of Johannesburg and Marabastadt, situated on the outskirts of Pretoria.
Sophiatown, the legendary ghetto of Johannesburg, became the experimental ground for this vibrant new township music that was to undergo further innovative advances from the late 1930s up into the 1950s. The music of the townships served as an important platform and vehicle for developing singers and instrumentalists.
Larger bands such as the Jazz Maniacs were formed by the popular Doornfontein shebeen pianist-turned-saxophonist, Solomon "Zulu Boy" Cele. Cele, who was listening to the African-American bands of Fletcher Henderson, Count Basie and Duke Ellington, saw the enormous potential of developing Marabi and Mbaqanga into a big band style. His band was to develop and feature some of the legendary township jazz players, including saxophonist Mackay Davashe, Zakes Nkosi, Ntemi Pilliso, and Wilson "King Fish" Silgee.
The Jazz Maniacs are significant because they carried the spirit of Marabi and Mbaqanga to the dance halls and provided inspiration for a new breed of emergent jazz musicians such as Dollar Brand (now known as Abdullah Ibrahim), Hugh Masekela, Kiepie Moketsie, Jonas Gwangwa, Sol Klaaste Early Mabuse and Gwigwi Mwerebi. Some of the legendary Sophiatown vocal groups and singers associated with the Jazz Maniacs are the Manhattan Brothers, The Quad Sisters, The Woody Woodpeckers, and the group that was to launch four great individual singers, The Skylarks, consisting of Miriam Makeba, Abigail Khubeka, Letta Mbulu and Mary Rabotaba.
The demise of the Marabi and Mbaqanga big bands can be directly attributed to encroaching legislated racism, forced removals and regulations forbidding blacks to appear at venues where liquor was served. As the dance halls in Sophiatown and other areas around the country were destroyed, black musicians were shut out of the inner cities or had to play behind a curtain when playing with some of their white counterparts at white-only jazz clubs. Jazz was gradually being deprived of its multi racial audiences.
The 1950s are remembered as the days of passive resistance against the Nationalist government's institutionalised racism, but the decade is also remembered as a great age of jazz development in South Africa. A new strain of jazz began to emerge, which contained a greater American influence. This new strain was the result of the bebop revolution in the U.S. A huge collection of emergent musiciansDollar Brand, Chris McGregor, Johnny Gertse, Sammy Moritz, Makaya Ntoshoko, Mra "Christopher Columbus" Ngcukana, Ephriam " Cups and Saucers" Nkanuka, Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa, Kiepie Moketsie, Jimmy Adams, Early Mabuse, Henry February, Anthony and Richard Schilder, Harold Japhta, and this writertook to this new exciting jazz form from America like ducks to water.
The real milestone occurred when one of my future mentors, visiting American jazz pianist and educator John Mehegan, came to South Africa in the late 1950s on an American Department of State sponsored tour. After the tour he assembled a local group to record an album for Gallo Records entitled Jazz in Africa
that featured Mehegan on piano, Hugh Masekela on trumpet, Jonas Gwangwa on trombone, Kiepie Moketsie on alto saxophone, Gene Latimore on drums, and Claude Shange on bass.
When Mehegan departed back to the U.S, Dollar Brand added Johnny Gertse on bass and Makaya Ntoshoko on drums, creating a new rhythm section to which he added Masekela, Gwangwa and Moketsie, calling this new band the Jazz Epistles, one of the most dynamic and creative South African jazz groups of the 1950s. The band recorded two albums for Gallo Records, The Jazz Epistles Vol. 1 and Vol. 2.
They played a few gigs around the country but disbanded when Masekela and Gwangwa left for New York to study at the Manhattan School of Music in 1960.
That, unfortunately, was the end of the line for that kind of American jazz in South Africa. Many of the musicians who played it left the country because of the increasingly repressive political situation, this writer included. With the advent of the avant-garde in the 1960s, the Blue Notes, led by Eastern Cape province born pianist Chris McGregor together with saxophonist Dudu Pukwana, trumpeter Mongezi Feza, Bassist Johnny Mbizo Dyani and drummer Louis Moholo, took up the banner and propelled the music into a new direction. They also had to leave the country, but made a huge impact upon the British and European jazz scene with their fiery brand of South African avant-garde jazz.
Only Louis Moholo is still alive today; the rest died in exile before they could experience the freedom of democracy in the land of their birth. Many stayed and continued to produce creative music in a political environment that became increasingly oppressive and brutal. Here in the province of the Western Cape in the city of Cape Town, bands such as Os Wietie and Spirits Rejoice, with musicians including Basil "Mannenberg" Coetzee, Robbie Jansen, Paul Abrahams, Chris Schilder, Gilbert Matthews, and many others too numerous to mention, gave their commitment, time and creativity to the struggle for democracy. They used South African jazz as a platform and became deeply involved in the struggle for democracy on a creative level by using the music as a clarion call for liberation at United Democratic Front political rallies in the townships.
Today in a democratic South Africa, jazz is thriving in an environment of freedom and racial reconciliation. At present there exists an up and coming core of extremely masterful young musicians, both black and white. Some of them are graduates from tertiary institutions here in South Africa with vibrant jazz education programmes and others come from community based jazz education programmes.
Gloria Bosman, Judith Sephuma, Melanie Scholtz, Zim Ngqawana, Kevin Gibson, Andile Yenana, Lulu Gontsana, Mark Fransman, Eddie Jooste, Buddy Wells, Paul Hanmer, Keshivan Naidoo, Dominic Peters, Andre Petersen, Victor Masondo, Marcus Wyatt, Herbie Tshoali, Themba Mkize and the late Moses Taiwa Molelekwa.
These are just a few of some of the new innovative core of younger South African musicians who are responsible for taking the music into a new creative direction. Their vision and innovative approaches are creating a significant impact upon the jazz scene by the development of new concepts and ideas within the South African jazz genre. This bodes well for the development of jazz in South Africa, which, like Nazi Germany some sixty odd years ago, had been suppressed and stifled during the turbulent apartheid era.