Reedman Salim Washington: Decolonise and Fund Jazz Education, Please

During his recent Afrika Love concert tour in Cape Town, reed and wind instrumentalist, Professor Salim Washington came with a purpose and message about the jazz art form. As head of the Performing Arts Department at the University of KwaZulu Natal (UKZN) in Durban, American-born Washington was bidding farewell to South Africa for a year to create and teach at Columbia University in his former home of New York City.

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Respecting both African and African-American traditions, he wanted to pay tribute to one of CapeTown’s leading jazz legends, Winston ‘Mankunku’ Ngozi, who lived and thrived in Gugulethu’s jazz culture during Apartheid days. Winston would have turned 78 this year, had he lived. Thanks to Winston’s brother, Thuli Ngozi, who continues to keep Winston’s tenor saxophone under safe cover, Washington was able to perform his Kwa Sec concert in Gugulethu with that precious saxophone to the fans’ delight.

Respecting the life of such elders, Washington laid flowers at Winston’s grave in the huge Gugulethu cemetery; this seemed to spur Washington to eloquently reverberate through that saxophone Winston’s living Spirit in such songs as the ever popular ‘Yakhal’ Inkomo’.

Besides several recent albums (Dogon Revisited (2018) and Sankofa (2017), plus his composition in The Alchemy Project entitled, ‘Afrika Love’, honouring his ever loyal pianist, Afrika Mkize, Washington continues to focus on the importance of jazz education that heralds past legacies as well as current new themes. This importance attracted All Jazz Radio (and others) to pursue with Washington what his strategies are for promoting both formal and non-formal jazz education. Courting wisdom from decades of political activism, writing and composing, performing, and raising four children in New York, Washington was earlier drawn to South Africa’s experiences in dismantling institutional Apartheid, as well as the contemporary currents running through its jazz culture. A Fulbright Scholarship landed him at Durban’s UKZN in 2009 after which he continued his fascinating journey from 2013 to cultivate South African jazz talents, musicality, and the contributions of transatlantic and Pan-African jazz culture.

Critical Issues Facing South African Jazz

Washington admits that South Africa has one of the finest jazz cultures in the world. However, he sees two burning issues facing the jazz scene in South Africa: One is the lack of official support for the art form, and secondly, the notion of credentialing for lecturers at tertiary and secondary education levels needs reform.

Jazz in South Africa gets more support from the Nordic countries than from government. In KZN, this government gives millions of Rands to support the Philharmonic Orchestra, which is lovely to have, but maskandi musicians don’t get millions of Rands, jazz musicians don’t get millions of Rands. We’re supposed to be decolonial, post-colonial, but the European art form is supported in a way that jazz can’t dream of receiving such support. So that’s a big concern to me.

Regarding the credentialing for lecturers of music, there are jazz experts who have not pursued graduate and post-graduate degrees, but get their expertise from the bandstand. Their lifestyle and mentoring with others makes them jazz masters. But these masters are not allowed to teach jazz in the formal way, in schools! It is a concern of mine because somebody like Winston Mankunku Ngozi could not teach saxophone!

Winston Mankunku with Mike Perry: Credit Mike Perry Images

So we have a whole generation of students who are learning from teachers who may be experientially removed from this lifestyle jazz culture. Yet, these people are called ‘experts’. The real experts are sometimes languishing in peculiar situations, [poverty, lack of opportunities, etc] when they could be called on to teach the younger generations. I’ve noticed there are a lot of great players emerging who are also consulting with those legendary musicians out there to learn more. So I’m not afraid of these seasoned musicians’ contributions dying out.

Schools can tend to be elitist, yes, and young musicians, like Sisonki Xonti and others from the area townships schools, could have benefited from a Winston in the classroom – a win-win for both, giving employment to the jazz master. Yet, in the past twenty years, UCT has churned out teachers of music who are teaching at secondary and tertiary levels, which are producing more and more trained musicians. Then there are the smaller music programs, like IMAD (Institute for Music and Indigenous Arts Development), the Cape Town Music Academy, and The Little Giants, that are training youth and offering performance venues.

And that’s a great thing. I just wish we had it in the other provinces. KZN schools in townships don’t have music programs, even extracurricular activities at all. This is one of the stronger points about the Western Cape, though.


In my own way, in my own teaching and as head of the Department of the Performing Arts at UKZN, I’m trying to introduce mentoring. This means there’s a pedagogical distinction which brings different results from a ‘schooled’ candidate. In a school, the candidate is chosen to be mentored. Even though I’m entrenched in the formal school system, I try to bring the nonformal aspects into learning as well.

So what does that look like?

I didn’t learn jazz in school. In fact, I dropped out of school; that wasn’t the place where I would learn the music that I wanted to play. And the opportunities to join a big band were dwindling so a young person is almost forced to go into a school to learn. I think we need to know how to transform the conservatory for the purpose of jazz, because its pedagogy is set up on this 19th Century conservatory model, which has its virtues, but there are other virtues to bring to the music perspective.

Regarding mentoring, the South African Association for Jazz Education (SAJE) had funded a mentorship program called Sisters in Sound, more or less patterned on the USA program of Sisters in Jazz. As happens in the arts, the funding ran out – for both programs. Washington thinks such mentoring is extremely important for young females and should be revived.

That would be a beautiful thing. Jazz has been a boys’ club for too long a time. It’s time to expand. Female teachers are important. Women have been instrumental as teachers and as models – the black female voice is the sound of jazz. Young girls’ working conditions are horrible and, unfortunately, they are sexually molested, so they give up. We need to bring to account these men who abuse women as this might help increase females to enter and stay in the industry. I have talented women who underperform, and I expect there are things they’re not telling me because I’m a man. Maybe more female educators would help that. In the US , there are a number of scandals in the tertiary institutions, so there may be more scandals outside of the schools that affect women negatively.

Back to New York – What Next

In September, Washington becomes an international visiting professor for the academic year with Columbia University’s newly minted African American and African Diasporic Studies Department.

I’m super excited about that. I will be teaching two classes which I think will center around either South African jazz literature or South African practices. I’m still formulating it all in my mind. I also plan to teach a seminar on John Coltrane who formed the body of my earlier PhD research. I plan to use this seminar to help me write a book about him and his music. Teaching at Columbia will require a lot of preparation…. And I’ll be performing in New York as well. I raised my 4 children there. We lived in Harlem before it became gentrified.

Albums and Lockdown

Two albums were produced during Washington’s tenure with South African music: Dogon Revisited (2018) preceded by Sankofa, released in 2017.

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Sankofa (2017) represented my experiences in living in South Africa and the influences South African music had on me. The Sankofa bird is a Ghanaian symbol of the return of Diasporic Africans to the motherland. The idea is that you keep your eye on the past while moving forward with the wisdom of the past. So all that embodies my personal journey which means ‘ Sankofa’ as I had returned to the Motherland. I brought together South African musicians whom I felt shared my sentiments about music and life.

Dogon was recorded earlier but released in 2018. It was supposed to be a recording when I knew I would be moving to South Africa to do my Fulbright in Durban. So it is emblematic of what it was like for me to be a New York jazz musician.

The lockdown period since March 2020 proved fruitful for Washington as he could complete eight orchestral scores.

I’ve had this dream for a decade, and now, these compositions are finally being finished. I want a jazz ensemble, a philharmonic orchestra, a choir – either an African American or South African choir – I think a South African choir, and a 3-person percussion ensemble that could play African, South African, Brazilian and Cuban styles. I’d also like to have a female and a male poet to bridge between the semantic content and music, and give vent to direct social commentary to compliment the music.

This process started with the Sankofa album and will continue during his USA residence.

An earlier album, Harlem Homecoming (2006), was the result of the songs that grew up on the bandstand during my New York performance days. At that time we were recording live at St. Nick’s Pub in Harlem and we were also recording me with strings. So this was an earlier attempt to get to this grand vision I had to perform with strings. I was dabbling, trying to get my chops together.

The Alchemy Project with ‘Afrika Love’

Another current project Washington will enjoy contributing to is The Alchemy Project involving 5 musicians who come together from different parts of USA (and Washington’s South Africa) to perform and record each other’s compositions. Washington’s ‘Afrika Love’ song offers an endearing and memorable tribute to a favourite South African pianist, Afrika Mkize, who, one day, just phoned Washington to say ‘I love you’. Musicians include Salim Washington (tenor sax, flute, bass clarinet, oboe), Erica Lindsay (tenor sax, clarinet, alto flute), Samantha Bashnack (trumpet), Michael Ventoso (trombone), Sumi Tonooka (piano), David Arend (double bass), and Chad Taylor (drums).

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We have two grants from the Chamber Music of America to perform and record new works. Erica Lindsay and Sumi Tonooka are the grant holders but our work together was interrupted by Covid so we couldn’t meet up and perform. But we start work for 2021/2022 with rehearsals as soon as I get to New York. It’s a great group and has really helped me to grow as a composer. And I’ll be in the company of other seasoned, adventurous, intelligent composers.

No doubt, his exploits in USA will enrich his pedagogical baggage when he arrives back in Durban in 2022. As long as he doesn’t get too lost in his favourite city of New York which he considers the cultural capitol of planet Earth!

New York was my golden period, particularly in the 1970s with pop music. I thought that was how music was supposed to sound. Now, when I hear the current music, I realize that that was a golden era! Like when I was performing at St. Nick’s Pub in Harlem, it was an extraordinary time, and I said to myself, let me enjoy it while it’s happening.

Washington’s albums are available on all major digital platforms.

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