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The Development of Jazz In South Africa


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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.


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