R.I.P. Pianist Andre Petersen: Penny Lane Memorial Haunts Fans with Memories

One ironically uplifting outcome from Covid deaths has been the opportunity for fans to get to know their deceased artist better as the Spirit lives on. And the spirit of music lives on, or whatever that dear one managed to ‘put out there’ in this world of struggles and successes. For jazz and music fans, a few but not insignificant deaths from Covid-related illnesses have added to the continuing series of Lockdowns, all which have hit the music and hospitality industry in monumental ways. But let the music live on as in the recent loss of several favourite artists in the Cape Town arena, namely a local bassist Alistair Andrews and a more internationally exposed pianist, Andre Joseph Petersen. Both musicians were peaking in their career goals, with new albums being recorded and new professional vistas enriching their talents.

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Of note was the Penny Lane Memorial for Petersen (1978-2021) held at CapeTown’s famous landmark, St. George’s Cathedral, on 31 July 2021. The three-hour service can be viewed at https://youtu.be/_PD0v9qzDRU. All Jazz Radio Internet Radio wishes to honour this beautiful tribute to Petersen, or ‘Dre’ as he was affectionately known, and carry forward Dre’s Spirit to grow his brand of South African jazz to heights still unknown. His planned study and residence in the United States starting in September was, instead, abruptly curtailed with his hospitalisation and passing in July 2021. To add to family woes, Andre’s brother, Denzil, had also succumbed to the Covid virus and died a few weeks before Andre’s own transition.

A devout Christian, Andre sparked many memories from those who had also walked with him. For most, Andre lived his favourite biblical verse in Romans 8, verse 28 which ran thematically throughout the Memorial: “We know that in all things God works for good with those who love him, those whom he has called according to his purpose.”

The Memorial started with soul singer, Heinreich Frans, and three singers presenting a moving gospel rendition of “Life is in Your Hands” and “Jesus is Right With My Soul”. The somber piano tones of Mark Fransman , the tenor saxophone reflections of Zeke le Grange, and the soft whispy drums of Clement Benny portrayed the spiritual likeness of musicians who had grown up with or been mentored by Andre. The four singers, led by Frans, further enhanced how gospel and soul styles marked the solemnity of the service, just as Andre would have wanted. The Memorial ended with the band’s addition of a sad Jonathan Rubain, a Ghoema guitarist, who just wanted to burst out loud and play Ghoema in joy and dance, to lead his mentor and friend to that heavenly home. “Andre took me overseas for the first time to perform”, he commented as a favourite psalm was played.

Various pre-recorded YouTube videos were screened, showing how Andre had creatively explored his musicality, migrating faithfully from his early classical music training at the University of Cape Town’s College of Music to ‘discovering’ what was to him a peculiar sound, called ‘jazz’. This writer [Carol Martin] met Andre in the late 1990s when he was teaching children in an after-school program in Athlone. We discussed his interest in perhaps teaching in other youth music programs that were starting to pop up, albeit in very small capacities, in various townships. One in particular had been started by the late jazz pianist, Hotep Galeta, at Turfhall Primary School. Galeta’s children were attending this school which was equipped with both music teachers and some instruments. He called the program, ‘Turfhall Jazz Music Project’ or ‘Turfjamp’. When I approached Andre to see if he could join this program, I recall his excitement, but which was punctuated with a bit of humility: “You know, I’m only now starting to learn more about jazz, and occasionally go to Hotep’s house for some tips.” Andre then invited me to one of his classical music recitals at the school he was teaching in, and I became convinced that, indeed, he was very skilled in his classical repertoire. His jazz came later, but with a burst of unstoppable energy as we have seen!

I had always taken delight in watching Andre move his preferences to jazz styles, only now to learn from the Memorial presentation that Andre’s father would not accept Andre pursuing jazz at College. Andre was, indeed, a consummate classics buff, and made his mark by supporting and cultivating local Choirs in his Bridgetown area of Cape Town as well.

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Mixed with music videos about Andre over the years, and live performances by fellow jazz artists, like Mark Fransman, and some other family member, eulogies were spoken by family members and pastors about Andre’s Christian loyalty to family and society, in general.

DOWNTOWN JAZZ – Andre Peterson Quartet; May 28, 2019 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BewdbRm7f2k

Andre Petersen & Bokani Dyer in concert @ House on the Hill; Premiered May 27, 2021 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qgwxHu7BE5g&t=5s

Older brother, Winston Petersen, reminisced about how Andre could fit into a size 8 shoe box, literally, when he was born in 1978. “He didn’t choose music; music chose him,” Winston remembered. “In Grade 4, Dad took Andre to UCT for a music aptitude test (with Nancy Hoffmayer) which he passed. Andre loved working with his hands also, and the teachers were so impressed with an ashtray and match box holder Andre made from wood (it was actually made by me!).” Andre was a perfectionist: “If you believe in God, you can go anywhere!” Winston recalled Andre’s joyful hope.

One telling story proved his craftiness: “Andre became so enamored with jazz that he would sneak out of the house when his father went to bed (around 9.30pm), push the family car out of the driveway so as to make little noise, and drive to the Monday night jazz jam at Swingers nearby. Upon returning home, Andre pushed the car quietly back into the driveway… “…so Dad never knew.

Dr. Michael Rossi, Professor at UCT College of Music spoke about how he befriended Andre over 20 years ago upon Rossi’s arrival to teach at UKZN and through the years often asked Andre to join his live tours and recording sessions. “Andre had profound piano abilities, and more notably, an ability to swing.” Rossi mentioned that even American jazz pianist, Kenny Barron, referenced Andre as a “swing” master during Andre’s tours in USA.

Dr. Andile Khumalo of the University of Witswatersrand (WITS) coached Andre during his PhD studies. “Andre asked students to get to know classical music and become familiar with the jazz masters. I saw an embodiment of kindness in Andre….he believed that kindness would enable one to hear and see better.” Other academics, like Professor Brett Pyper, Head of the School of Arts at WITS, spoke highly about Andre’s PhD research which Pyper had co-supervised.

A number of collaborating musicians shared tender stories: When 14 year old Darren English, a Capetownian and now multi-instrumental musician, met Andre who remained an important mentor and friend. Legendary trumpeter, Feya Faku, remarked that Andre “had such a great soul…. And cherished classical music so much.” Norwegian saxophonist, Morton Halle, a long time collaborator, remarked how Andre was an “important figure on the international jazz scene….an uncompromising artist….having his own voice but with influences from the whole wide world of music.”

Of note, South African classical pianist, Dr. Kathleen Tagg, based in New York, had met jazzman Andre in 1996, but only started working with him in 2014 as a duo team wedding the classical (which Andre adored) with jazz styles. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tlir-Aq2BOM
They had performed on three continents, at various concerts, small and big, and as she recalled, “No phone call ever lasted less than an hour.” They had big plans ahead: “I was super excited to know I would be joining Andre in a few weeks’ time in the USA for a collaboration. His kindness and brilliant intellect were always deeply rooted in humanity, always present in the moment, his musicianship and technique being his spiritual guide… a consentient gentleman.” Her accolades were non-ending.

Dr. Maxwell Holland, spiritual mentor to Andre and senior pastor at Kingdom Life Ministries in Johannesburg where the family did fellowship, said of Andre: “He wore Jesus so well… I’ve seen Jesus walk this Earth…. We don’t need a tombstone for this man because all of his music and life is in our hearts…Andre was going to move to the USA, but instead, he has moved his music to the heavens, for all of us.”

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Courtesy Gregory Franz

Mercia Isaacs, Chairperson of the Vuya Foundation which sponsored some costs for Andre’s Masters Degree studies in Belgium, told ‘a little South African miracle story’ about meeting Andre in November 2011 who needed money to courrier his studies application to Belgium, believing in his wishes to complete his Masters Degree in Belgium, and appreciating his staying in communication with her. Andre had continued to shower her with great thanks for her assistance. She continued, “One morning, he called me to say, ‘I have received my Masters’”…. Up to this May, he would call me every month to check on me, as I suffer from a health condition.”

Tributes were made briefly by other pastors and family members, notably Andre’s father in law, Denville Willie, who had just lost his own mother to Covid a week earlier. Denville and Andre had discussed earlier: Why bad things happen to good people. Denville reflects: “I now know… To the end, you held on to God with integrity…We will take care of your wife and Zion, until we meet again.”

Sister to wife Chantal, Denay Willie read Chantal and daughter Zion’s letter to Andre, about “our timeless walk together…your love was deeply honourable… your perfect peace and my perfect plan for you….You will always be our Papa.”

Child Zion could not hold back her tears, as with the rest of us.

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Andre Petersen, his jazz bassist wife, Chantal Willie, and singer sister, Denay Willie, are known in Cape Town for their undying support for youth jazz education as well as growing South African jazz styles, ever mindful of the musical legends, living and late, who have laid solid musical foundations. Andre’s future with Chantal in academia and performance looked very bright. As educators, Chantal and sister Denay have spearhead the Rainbow Academy from some ten years ago to offer a range of arts development for youth.

Courtesy: Urban Craft Magazine

See https://www.facebook.com/denaywillie01music Andre and Chantal’s  short-lived November-December 2014 ‘Talk Tones Sessions’ held at the District Six Museum’s Homecoming Center on Saturday mornings provided exposure for young musicians to meet, listen to and interact with, leading jazz musicians in their town.  See my article in Amandla! Issue No 37/38, December 2014, entitled “Talk Tones Sessions: An Initiative to grow youth artistry”.  Such programs need more funding and arts supports if youth are to ‘grow’ the music as part of their own livelihoods.

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