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The Development of Jazz in South Africa

by The Late Prof. Hotep Idris Galeta

The Late Prof. Hotep Idris Galeta

One cannot write or talk about an art form without serious analysis of the numerous socio-political conditions responsible for its creation and development. The development of Jazz and its effect upon popular music in the United States and the rest of the world are the direct result of the African slave trade and the African Diaspora in the United States. This unique musical art form initiated by African/Americans during the latter part of the 19th century is probably the most influential musical phenomenon produced on the North American Continent.

The social conditions which spawned this dynamic art form is rooted in the human rights abuses and oppressive conditions experienced by Africans captured and uprooted from their traditional cultures then transported in the most barbaric and inhumane conditions to an alien environment as slaves. It is these dynamics coupled over the years with exposure to and assimilation of European arts and cultural forms that gave rise to new modes of musical expression which began to develop within the slave and Creole communities in and around New Orleans as well as other areas in the United States. These were the early embryonic beginnings and early developmental stages of what was to become known as Jazz.

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 musical culture upon it over the years. These two variants coupled with an environment of legislated racism, gross human rights violations, created the unique artistic forge and mould responsible for the evolution of South African Jazz. The first contact South Africans had with black Americans and black American music in particular was on the 30th of June in 1889 when the minstrel troop of Orpheus Myron McAdoo’s “Virginia Jubilee Singers” from Hampton Virginia appeared in concert in Cape Town. Their appearance was to have a significant impact upon the music scene as it later influenced the creation and formation of the “Kaapse Klopse” or “Coon Carnival.” To use the derogatory term of the racist American, south of that time, “Coon” being the equivalent of the South African derogatory term of “Kaffir”, “Cooley” or “Hotnot”.

It is not clearly known how such a derogatory racist American term “Coon’ came to be known in Cape Town, however given South Africa’s racist colonial past leaves little doubt for speculation as to it’s origin. The “Coon carnival’s” popularity decreased as the struggle for liberation intensified over the coming years. McAdoo’s Minstrels stayed and toured throughout South Africa for eighteen months visiting places such as Grahamstown, Kingwilliamstown and Alice where they visited and performed at Lovedale College. Musical history also indicates that their impact and influence on the performing arts culture of the Eastern Cape was quite significant as it influenced the rich Xhosa choral traditions in existence there. It is somehow ironic that this genre of Creole/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 introduction of Jazz into South Africa took place shortly after the 1 World War, around 1918 and this introduction was again via Cape Town. The first Jazz recording was only made in 1917, and this by the all white New Orleans Band called “The Original New Orleans Dixieland Band”. Some of these early recordings were brought to Cape Town by American merchant seaman. Local white and coloured bands (the mixed racial population group resident in the Cape Town area) and even some visiting American musicians were instrumental in popularizing early New Orleans style jazz at the Cape after World War 1. To the white musicians who played it and the white audiences who danced to it in America and elsewhere in the British and European Imperial colonies it became known as Dixieland. Given the dreary social life and appalling conditions in the townships, it is easy to understand why the introduction of the radio, 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 1920’s. It was in Queenstown in the Eastern Cape however that Jazz first developed and started to take on its South African character. Of all black people in South Africa at that time, the Xhosa nation were the most educated as the result of the early establishment of the British Missionary school system

The introduction of Jazz into South Africa took place shortly after the 1st World War, 1918 and this introduction was again via Cape Town. The first Jazz recording was only made in 1917, and this by the all white New Orleans Band called “The Original New Orleans Dixieland Band”. Some of these early recordings were brought to Cape Town by American merchant seaman. Local white and coloured bands and even some visiting American musicians were instrumental in popularising early New Orleans style jazz at the Cape after World War 1. To the white musicians who played it and the white audiences who danced to it in America and elsewhere in the colonies it became known as Dixieland. Given the dreary social life and appalling conditions in the 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 1920’s. It was in Queenstown in the Eastern Cape however that Jazz first developed and started to take on its South African character. Of all black people in South Africa that time, the Xhosa nation were the most educated as the result of the early establishment of British Mission schools.

The exposure to European Hymnody and classical music plus formal education gave rise to a black upper class and a group of very sophisticated musicians and composers who embraced this new black American art form called Jazz. In the 1920’s Queenstown became known as “Little Jazz Town” because of the New Orleans styles that were resident there.

The most popular bands there in the 20’s and 30’s were Meekly Matshikiza’s “Blue Rhythm Syncopators” and William Mbali’s “Bif Four” who entertained both whites and upper class blacks. Some of the earliest preserved examples of South African Jazz were recorded by Gumede’s Swing Band on Gallotone GE 942 in the late 1920’s. It was during the late 20’s that Boet Gashe an itinerant organist from Queenstown popularised the three chord system, the forerunner to the Marabi and Mbaqanga styles that were later to be perfected in the township shebeen environments of Johannesburg and Marabastad 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 under go further innovation during the 1930’s into the 50’s. The music of the townships served as an important platform and vehicle for developing singers and instrumentalists. Larger 15 piece bands such as the “Jazz Maniacs” were formed by popular Doornfontein shebeen pianist turned saxophonist, Solomon “Zulu Boy” Cele who saw the possibility of developing marabi into an orchestral form. This band was to feature and develop some of the legendary township Jazz players. They included saxophonists Mackay Davashe, Zakes Nkosi, Ntemi Pilliso and Wilson “Kink Fish” Silgee. The Jazz Maniacs are significant because they carried the spirit of marabi 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 Moeketsie, Jonas Gwangwa, Sol Klaaste 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 Wood Peckers and a 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 marabi 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 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 clubs, Jazz was gradually being deprived of its multi racial audience. The 1950’s are remembered as the days of passive resistance against the Nationalist government’s institutionalised racism, but it 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. young emergent musicians such as Dollar Brand, Chris McGregor, Johnny Gertse, Sammy Moritz, Makaya Ntoshoko Mra “Cristopher Columbus” Ngcukana, Jimmy Adams, “Cups and Saucers” Kanuka, Hugh Masekela, Kippie Moeketsie, Henry February, Anthony and Richard Schilder, Harold Japhta and this writer included. We took to this new exciting Jazz form from America like ducks to water. The real milestone occurred when one of my future mentors to be, visiting American pianist and Jazz educator John Mehegan came to South Africa in the late 50’s on one of those State Department sponsored tours. After the tour he assembled a local group to record an album for Gallo Records entitled “Jazz in Africa”. Beside Mehegan on piano the group consisted of Hugh Masekela on Trumpet, Jonas Gwangwa on Trombone, Kiepie Moeketsie on Alto Saxophone, Gene Latimore on Drums and Claude Shange on Bass. When Mehegan departed for 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 Moeketsie, calling this new band “The Jazz Epistles” One of the most dynamic and creative bands of the late 50’s. The band recorded two albums “The Jazz Epistles Vol. 1 and Vol. 2” played a few gigs around the country and disbanded when Masekela and Gwangwa left to study in the U.S. 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; many stayed and continued to produce creative music in a political environment that became increasingly oppressive and brutal.

In the Western Cape, musicians such as Basil “Mannenberg” Coetzee, Robbie Jansen, Paul Abrahams, Chris Schilder, Gilbert Matthews, and many others to 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 using their 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 programs and some come from community jazz education programs. Gloria Bosman, Judith Sephuma, Melanie Scholtz, Zim Ngqawana, Andile Yenana, Lulu Gontsana, Mark Fransman, Buddy Wells, Paul Hamner, Keshivan Naidoo, Marcus Wyatt, Herbie Tshoali, Themba Mkize and the late Moses Taiwa Molelekwa. These are 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 is creating a significant impact upon the South African jazz scene by the development of new concepts and ideas within the South African jazz genre. This bodes extremely well for the development of jazz in South African which like in nazi Germany some sixty odd years ago had been suppressed and stifled during the turbulent apartheid era.

Around the beginning of the 20th century, the earliest Jazz piano style emerged, centred in New Orleans. This style was created and initially dominated by the pianist Joseph Ferdinand La Menthe, better known as “Jelly Roll Morton” (1885-1941) Morton was a combination of ragtime pianist, composer, blues and Jazzman rolled into one. He began playing professionally in the “Redlight District” of New Orleans called Storyville in 1902 when he was seventeen. Morton is also regarded as the first true Jazz composer. He was the first to write down his Jazz arrangements in musical notation and was the originator of a large number of pieces that became staples in the Jazz repertoire of that time. His arrangement of his own composition “Jelly Roll Blues” in 1915 was the first published Jazz arrangement in history. He became an itinerant pianist in 1904 and started to wander throughout the U.S. stopping off in places such as St Louis at the time of the Worlds Fair, then on to Chicago, the West Coast into Canada and Alaska and returning to Chicago by 1923 where he made his first recording. “Jelly Roll” set a precedent by playing piano at the recording session for the all white band “The New Orleans Rhythm Kings”. Morton is undoubtedly the father of solo Jazz piano. His piano style represented a synthesis of the chief elements of the blues, piano rags and orchestral Jazz. A few years before his death in 1941 he capped his eventful career with a massive recording project at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. (May-July 1938) where he related his version of the history of Jazz and illustrated it with piano solos and song, making fifty two records with more than one hundred pieces recorded. Allan Lomax the American folk music historian interviewed Morton and supervised this historic recording project. Few of the people he influenced recorded in his day. Today however there are one or two “Jelly Roll” Morton specialists who attempt to preserve his style the way he played it. James Dapogny is one of them; having recorded a C.D. on 22/09/1993 entitled “Original Jelly Roll Blues” on the Warner/Electra/Asylum Label.

During the 1920’s it was generally believed that Chicago had the best black bands and that New York City was home to some of the finest Jazz pianists.

This belief amongst musicians and Jazz fans was predicated upon the fact that during the 1920’s the Harlem district of New York City became the Center for the development of a highly technical and hard driving solo piano style as “Harlem Stride”. The master of this new approach in the early 1920’s was James P Johnson (1891-1955). Johnson began playing ragtime piano professionally in 1904 and gradually adapted and innovated his style to the changing times of the post World War 1 era. The highly competitive spirit that existed amongst black pianists of the period led them to practice constantly in order to excel at the frequent “cutting” competitions that separated the “wheat from the chaff”. Johnson was a prolific composer, composing most of the music he played but publishing very little. His “Carolina Shout” became a test piece for would be Jazz pianist of the era because of its rhythmic complexity and speed. Johnson’s protégé, Thomas “Fats” Waller (1904-1943) was regarded by some as representing the summation of the Harlem style and the link between it and modern Jazz pianism. Waller also made another contribution to Jazz history by successfully adapting the style of Jazz pianism to the Hammond and pipe organ. “Fats” Waller became the most widely known of the Harlem pianists. He toured quite extensively throughout the U.S. and Europe as a solo pianist, accompanist and singer. He was also a prolific composer of Jazz and popular songs. His well known compositions are “Honey Suckle Rose”, “Ain’t Misbehaving” and “I’m Gonna Sit Right down and Write Myself a Letter”. The Harlem pianists not only influenced their contemporaries, but also later generations of Jazzmen. In the Midwestern part of the United States during the 1920’s and 30’s Earl “Fatha” Hines was laying down the foundation for a deferent kind of Jazz piano. His pianism first attracted the attention when he played in Chicago with Louis Armstrongs “Hot Five” band. Hines developed a piano style in which his right hand played melodic figures similar to those of a trumpet, but in octaves, while his left hand provided the firm bass as in a rhythm section. His style combined with the smoother approach of Waller, influenced most pianists of the next generation, notably Teddy Wilson (1912-1986) who was to play a crucial role in the band of Benny Goodman during the swing era of the late 1930’s into the 1940’s and Art Tatum who performed mostly as a soloist and who was regarded with awe for his phenomenal technique and complex virtuosity.

After World War 1 leading European composers such as Alban Berg, Paul Hindemith, Darius Milhaud, Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg began to take cognisance of the rich promise and vitality of Jazz and began to incorporate some aspects of the style into their works. These composers first heard authentic Jazz when touring black Jazz ensembles played in Europe or when they the composers visited the United States; for example Milhaud when he visited Harlem in the 1920’s and Ravel when he went to Chicago in 1928. The best known works inspired by Jazz are Darius Milhaud’s “ La Creation Du Monde” (The Creation of The World) (1923) Ravels “Piano Concerto In D” (1931) and Stravinsky’s “ The Ebony Concerto For Dance Orchestra” (1946). Jazz also inspired a number of American composers to write works employing elements within the Jazz genre. Amongst the most enduring of the symphonic works have been Aaron Copeland’s “Music for the Theatre” (1925) and George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” (1924) “Piano Concerto in F” (1925) and “An American in Paris” (1928)

The evolution of Jazz piano since the post -World War 1 period, right up to the present day is often the result of innovative, impressionistic European classical influences introduced into Jazz, especially Jazz keyboard harmony. These influences and others will continue to change and mould the face of Jazz and Jazz piano in particular, as the influences of a broader global culture impacts on its evolution. During the 1940’s Jazz piano underwent another major change with the introduction of the Bebop style. This radical new style was introduced upon the Jazz scene by a group of musicians who used to get together after working hours at a club in Harlem called “Minton’s Playhouse” There they would play and exchange musical ideas until the early hours of the morning. Usually the group consisted of pianist Thelonius Monk (1917-1982) drummer Kenny Clarke (1914-1986) guitarist Charlie Christian (1919-1942) and trumpeter John Berks “Dizzy” Gillespie (1917-1992). The alto saxophonist Charles Christopher Parker (1929-1955) also known as “Bird” also joined the group of experimenters and became one of the exponents of Bebop. Parkers’s contribution to the evolution of Bebop is enormous. He composed quite a number of innovative pieces that has become Bebop standards. His most well known pieces are “Now is The Time” “Scrapple for the Apple” and “Moose the Mooch”.

Bebop was still based on the principle of improvisation over a chord progression, but the tempos were faster, the rhythms extremely syncopated, the phrases longer and more complex with exciting new tone colours and dissonant harmonies. The melodic signpost of this new music was the “flattened fifth” of the major scale, which thereafter joined the other “blue notes” or “bent tones” of black music. Thelonius Monk one of the revolutionary pianists of the Bebop movement, pianistically came from the stride piano style of James P. Johnson. Where as most of the Bebop players were playing lines that had a melodic curve, Monks lines had sharp angles. His improvisation was spare and choppy and his playing always provocative. As a composer he contributed numerous pieces that are standards in the Jazz repertoire. They are “In Walked Bud” “Well You Needn’t” “Epistrophy” and that evergreen Jazz classic and beautiful ballad “Round Midnight”

The most innovative pianist to emerge during the Bebop revolutionary years was Earl “Bud” Powell (1924-1966). Powell was a classically trained pianist whose fast highly individual and technically proficient style laid its stamp upon this new music. Bud Powell was undoubtedly the most overwhelming creative pianist in the “Hothouse” of Bebop. His powerful driving style was incredible and his album “The Bud Powell Trio” recorded by Blue Note Records in the 1950’s is a perfect example of those qualities. Monk and Powell were to become two of the major influences on modern Jazz piano. In the late 50’s the pianist and composer Dave Brubeck born in 1920, a student of Darius Milhaud and Arnold Schoenberg achieved great popularity with his blend of classical music and Jazz utilising different meters of time. This was to be another innovative step in the development of Jazz piano. Jazz piano has developed very rapidly over the last forty years. This rapid development has been largely due to the emergence of younger conservatory trained pianists. During the late 1960’s and early 70’s a small number of highly regarded Jazz musicians were appointed to professorial positions at academic institutions in the U.S. allowing them to combine teaching with touring, recording and lecturing. They filled positions as guest lecturers, composers in residence, and artists in residence, visiting professors and tenured professors. The by-product of this innovative concept at academic institutions was that the young aspiring Jazz artist could now study the art form at tertiary level.

By the 1980’s there were sixty or more academic institutions that had established Jazz Studies Programmes in the U.S. This new generation of tertiary educated musicians were unlike any previous ones in the history of Jazz. The most striking feature of this group was their youth at the time of attaining “Super Stardom”. Many are and were in their twenties. The came well prepared as they had begun their musical studies as children, had played in grade or high school bands or attended summer music camps and later went on to study music further in college. There they were exposed to both the Western Classical and African American musical traditions. They then incorporated their knowledge and skills of advanced keyboard harmony and theory into the development of Jazz pianism. This tradition continues up to the present and will continue into the future as more tertiary institutions in the U.S. and around the world offer Jazz and Jazz education programmes.

Pianists such as Herbie Hancock, Chick Correa, Bill Evans, Mulgrew Miller, Kenny Barron, McCoy Tyner, Keith Jarrett, Geoff Keezer, Stephen Scott, Bennie Green, Brad Maldau and a host of future young emergent pianists who had this exposure to formal musical education will continue to change and mould the face of Jazz and Jazz piano.

Jazz remains alive, vibrant and well and continues to cross the barriers and bring people together in the joy of music.

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