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The Development of Jazz In South Africa


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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 musicians—Dollar 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 writer—took 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.


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