Home to the Story of South African Jazz
Interview Adam Glasser
I am trying to build a connection with South Africa. I spent more time physically out of it but I have never left. My SA began with my dad and King Kong. I saw it when I was 4 and was fascinated by the knife dance because they all had knives tucked into their back pockets and my mom took me back stage afterwards. I was interested in the knives and I remember the slope of the great hall and its carpet. And I remember the King Kong cast leaving and we want to the airport and watched them from a viewing balcony at the top. And it was full of the relatives of the cast leaving and there were loads and loads of adults crying. It was momentous.
I was at Parktown boys from 68 72. When I was in standard 9 I got a motorbike which gave me freedom to travel the city. And I used to go into town to Kohino Records and buy local records out of the bargain bin. I got some amazing SA jazz. I discovered Yakhal Nkomo. I discovered Tete Mbambisa. Stay Cool and as far as I know I am the only person to have recorded that gold dust Standard. It should be part of the SA jazz repertoire in the way that Misty is. That is a whole another thing.
I used to go to Dorkay House to try and reconnect with my dad. When I was in matric in 1972 there was a musical called Piri and McCay Davashe was the musical director. I used to go to Dorkay House on my motorbike and listen to them. McCay was very friendly to me. I was searching. I lived in Saxonwold my stepfather Zack Du Beer worked for Anglo. I lived in a world of swimming pools and white South Africans and had no reference to my dad. I was trying to reconnect with my dad's world and a lot of them knew my dad. I used to go and hang out and try and learn the piano but was really shit. I couldn't play two chords together and was very rebellious. I ended up being a dysfunctional learner then. I started hanging out with Barney Rachabane. He came out of rehearsals because he was in Piri and said to me lets go to Alex on your bike. And then one Friday in January 1972 McCay Davahse died of a heart attack and his funeral was at Uncle Tom's hall in Soweto. I attended the funeral which was all the cast of Piri including Sophie Mgcina and all those musicians were there hanging out and singing. And in my naivety I went there in jeans and a black T-shirt and everyone was dressed up to the 9s. And they thought who is this disrespectful white kid and I got some looks. Eventually I came to England to live with my dad and he was remarried. He sent me to Cambridge to do A levels. I followed that course and failed to get into Cambridge because of shit A levels. And all that time I was experimenting with jazz and then I went to Warwick University to do English. And they year in between I came back to SA and got various jobs. I was living with my folks and I started going to Dorkay House. And I got a job at the record shop at the Kinnie Centre opposite the Carlton Centre called Les Dicotheque. There were two branches, one there and one in Hillbrow. The owner Les Gorvey. And I loved it because I was hanging out in town and Hillbrow and had access to all these records that I could tape so I explored loads of music. I went back to Kohinoor records. I did not know Rashid Valley then who I am seeing this afternoon!
This was January 1976 and when I was there I used to take the cash takings across the street to the bank. There was a ticker tape that said riots in Soweto and the whole 1976 riots erupted then. It was spectacular for me because it was voyeuristic to drive passed Wits and people throwing stones and I felt kind of militant. I had been hungering for JHB band there I was at this key time. People used to come into my shop and listen to records and a guy came in Thabo Mashishe a trumpeter and he hooked me up with some guys and we went to Dorkay house and they let us rehearse there. I was in to Abdullah Ibrahim who was Dollar Brand there. I was involved in piano in a very messed up way. That was formative time for me and then I went back to the University and I did this English degree which I enjoyed and then I went to live in Paris for a year and I taught English as a foreign language.
I was not free in myself. In Paris I somehow got independent in my mind. .I went slightly crazy. I said to my dad that he held me back because I was really into music and should have been a musician. You should have supported me. I had a big teenage rebellion and said I wanted to go to Berkeley. Berkeley would turn me into a musician. My grandfather said he would pay. I went in January 1981 and it was the worst move I ever made in my life because I had no skills. Basically Berkeley in those days it did not matter if you played tiddlywinks there would be a class for you. You just pay. It is very egalitarian. I was stuck in a class of naïve people like me. And so I became suicidally depressed and left after 56 months. When I was there you had Jeff Taylor Watts, Donald Harrison. Terence Blanchard incredible musicians. I thought I was completely out of my mind to think that I could become a musician.
I went back to London and dropped out. I was 26 years old and my mind was fucked and spent most of that year doing driving jobs and fucking around. Towards the end of that year I got back into music and started from scratch doing function gigs. This was around 1982 and that is when I met Dudu Pukwana and Pinisie Saul. I went to a gig in 1982 it was Dudu and Pinise and Allen Kwela. They were doing this trio gig there. I was totally inspired and thought Dudu was fucking incredible. I went back home and wrote a piece of music and rang him up. I found his number in the Musicians Union directory and rang him up. Barbara Pukwana answered with her Swiss German accent. She said come and meet Dudu anyway and he invited me to a gig. They were in the middle of a set and Dudu said get on the piano, get on the piano. I said okay can I sit in on something South African. He said fuck you don't tell me what to do, and got really cross. Then I got to know him and started doing little jazz gigs and function gigs in London and then I met Ernest Mothle the bassist. Dudu was looking for a piano player and I had finished long residency in a hotel playing 6 nights a week for a year. And that had turned me from someone who was dysfunctional and couldn't play to someone who was able to hold a gig down and earn a living. I joined Dud's band in 1985 and used to go to his house and rehearse and that is where I met Pinise Saul Luck Ranku, Eric Richards and Tebe Lipere and Joey Maxim and that whole crew that were resident in London and I totally idolized them. In 1982 Dudu produced an album Bracknell live at Willisau. It is one of the best ever South African jazz albums. There is a pianist in the UK called Django Bates. He is the Joe Zawinul of the UK jazz scene. Born in 1960 he is a complete genius and has a huge international reputation as orchestrator writer and composer extremely important to European and world jazz history. He has just made an album with Dave Holland. Django played in his band before me. He is on Bracknell live at Willisau. A lot of the keyboard vocabulary that I have learnt about SA jazz was first introduced to me by him because he had gone and checked out the Soul Brothers and that sound and he plays synthesizers and he can quote anybody. He was like a major influence on a lot of us musicians in the early 80s scene.
I was incredibly self critical and insecure and they gave me a very hard time, but not out of a malice because that is what they did in that generation to knock you in to shape. If I was playing out of time, Dud would shout Hey fuck you concentrate Jamsa concentrate. It kind of destroyed me but there was something that kept me in there. And then we went on a tour to Spain, Italy, Belgium and I have all kinds of anecdotes from that tour because it was crazy with Churchill Jolobe. Eric Richards was the bass player. Fats Ramapopa the percussionist who died and Lucky, Pinise and Dudu and Harry Beckett the flugelhorn player. I was in the company of very heavy guys and very heavy personalities and I was hanging in there by the skin of my teeth. But, it was an amazing experience. In august of that year I wrote a composition called August 1 which Dudu liked and was going to record on his album. The composition is now on the syllabus of ABRSM (Associated Board of Royal Schools of Music).
All that time with Dudu was amazing because we did ANC benefit gigs and we did all kinds of weird gigs around London. I started a band with the pennywhistle player Robert Sithole and the bass player Andre Arendse. Brian Abrahams was involved and also Duze Mahlobo a troubled guy and amazing Zulu guitarist who came to live in London. Absolutely unbelievable with Bheki Mseleku on the piano and Eugene Skeef played percussion with them. He is a fountain of SA political and jazz history. He was deeply involved with Steve Biko. He was an active part of the struggle. He is on the board of the London Symphony Orchestra and is a real mover and shaker. We did a gig in 2014 when Don Laka came to London and we did a gig for Kgalema Motlanthe at the high commission. Eugene nailed it. He produced the show. It was very amazing.
Dudu recorded this album called Zila 86 and he recorded this track of mine on it and that put me on the map of a SA jazz. I was already 31 and only just able to hold my own as a pianist on the professional scene. For a long time I did residencies and learnt SA jazz standards and so on.
When Mandela was released and they had this concert for him in April 1990, my dad was asked by Mary Benson the writer to see if he could get the Manhattan Brothers to reconvene for this concert. He agreed to do this and went to speak to Joe Mogotsi and Nathan Mdlele. Who hadn't spoken for ages. Post King Kong, the Manhattan Brothers were active in the UK as a high class cabaret act. They would go and play clubs. They had a strong commercial presence and Joe was the guts of the band but Nathan was the front guy and there was an enmity that existed. I have a tape of Churchill Jolobe on a ferry from Brussels imitating them and we were in the canteen of the ferry. Pinise and Churchill were drunk. They used to get completely smashed on these trips. Churchill started imitating Joe Mogotsi and Nathan Mdlele in King Kong. Singing front stage and then going back stage and fighting. And then they would be back and singing. And the entire ferry was in fits of laughter. Churchill was a genius of Shakespearean quality. There are certain SAs whose imagination and humour is beyond the level of Shakespeare. You take Henry 4 th part 2 the tavern scene and we had those scenes in District Six and Sophiatown of the 50s. There were characters as large as life as Pistol, Nim and Bardolf and all these crazy guys, A dream of mine is to try and recreate this in a new form but that is another story.
These guys were so striking to my imagination and because of the socio economic context they survived in London and did very well. Dudu was on the European circuit. You would never in these days have a band of such radical quality but also disturbed and semi functional people, able to hold down those gigs. There was something about the cauldron of those days which enabled the Blue Notes and then Dud's band to express themselves on an international stage which today you wouldn't survive.
In early 1990 my dad said the Manhattan Brothers are getting back together and you should be their pianist. And I was terrified. We went in March 1990 to this rehearsal space called the premises and we had one month to prepare. I started rehearsing with Nathan, Josh Makhene and Walter Lerate. I started learning their repertoire. And when it came to the concert a generic South African band came over to back all the acts. It included Sipho Gumede on bass. I was the rehearsal pianist and did not play the show. We did a few warm up gigs but that huge show, Sakhile was the band and Jonas Gwangwa was the musical director.
We went to Vienna in 1998 and did two gigs with Joe Zawinul and his band Weather Report. We had done a demo tape and Joe had heard it. He was wanting to do a SA project he was a goodwill ambassador and Austria was the head of the OECD. We went to Vienna in Business class:
Zawinul was coming to London to play at Ronnie Scotts and he said that's great I will meet the Manhattan Brothers and we will rehearse at Ronnie Scotts and then we will go to Vienna together and do those two gigs.
We went to Vienna with the Manhattan brothers Joe, Walter Josh and Sonty Ndebele she was the singer. I wanted Pinise Saul to be involved but she was too big a character and Sonty got on better with Joe. We had this amazing weekend. I played piano because it was an idiom that Joe did not know so I showed him basic voicing's and he said you need to write this shit out because I don't read chords. So I wrote out the charts. Joe was complimentary to me. And then a few years later at the CTIJF I took him around CT for a day to Kalk Bay and Cape Point and it was utterly amazing.
With the Manhattan Brothers we carried on doing gigs and then Joe's hearing started to go and around 2004, I had been with them since 1990 and there were a lot of tunes that I had helped Joe with and facilitate what he was doing. I paid for the album myself and it was recorded in 2004. Caiphus Semenya's band was coming thro8uugh to play Edinburough festival. I managed to get Glen Mafolol, Godfrey Mxina and Condry Zigoubou to play on the album and so we recorded the album with the vocals in a local studio and then I added some horn players later. I brought the album to SA to try and get released. I had no experience of the SA record industry at all. I met Condry for breakfast and he said have you thought of taking it to Erving Schlossberg of EMI and he said he will put that out definitely.
I had been corresponding with Pallo Jordan to bring out Rufus Khoza a non active member of the Manhattan Brothers. He had said no we can't do that but organized a dinner in Pretoria for the Manhattan Brothers and made all of us including me a certificate to honour us. It was a proper celebration of the Manhattan Brothers from the DAC point of view. That was a good ending for the Manhattan Brothers and they never did anything after that.
I met Rashid Valley through Thomas Rome and he said if you bring out an album I will release it through the Asham label. I came back to London and I started working on this album which turned out to be Free at First and it was done by the end of December 2007 and featured David Serame and Pinise Saul. I sent the album to Rashid and at the time he was negotiating with Gallo the takeover of AI's catalogue. That negotiation was in process. The head of Sony at the time was Lazarus Serobe who was a big buddy of Thomas Rome. The album was released in 2009 on Ashams label and distributed by Gallo. And it was nominated for a SAMA award and it wins. Which was fantastic for me. In 2010 I hooked up with Mandla Baloyi and we went on this road trip with this stack of posters and suddenly I was like a local celebrity and we went to loads of local radio stations to promote the album. In April Nelson Mandela wanted to meet the SAMA award winners, there were about twenty of us and we all got to meet Mandela. It was incredible. It all went to my head. It all came to a grinding halt. I was already 55. I was not a young guy then. And then I got confused and thought I better do another album. In August I got a gig at the Arts Alive festival and I got funding to bring British bass player Alec Dankworth and also the English guys who were on Free at First were backing Stacey Kent and were around. And I made the album Mzansi December 2010 at SABC and I got Fana Zulu, Lee Roy Sauls, Rob Watson, Sydney Mavundla Khaya Mahlangu. I released that through Sheer and I got gigs at the festivals.
In 2015 I got a grant to do the South African jazz standards thing. In 2016 I discovered the scores my dad had of King Kong. I decided to go and do an instrumental gig in Johannesburg of arrangements of the tunes from King Kong based on eth scores my dad did. And that was the last thing I did in SA. I put a band together that consisted of Bheki Khosa, Basi Mahlalsela, Mpumi Dlamini, Viwe Kizana, Lwanda Gogwana, Nyati Magwana and Linda Sikhakhana and Spelelo Mazibuko. We did that gig it was very rough and Gavin Ekhardt recorded it for me. We had one or two rehearsals at Native Rhythms and we did a gig there and at Sophiatown the Mix and I went back to London.
However inbetween I had been researching King Kong and went to meet the pennywhistle player Lemmy Special Mabaso who died subsequently. I have a little bit of footage and photos of him, And he still sounded incredible. I went and interviewed Caiphus Semenya about King Kong and I also have an interview with the last two remaining people from King Kong David Serame, who has incidentally had a stroke and is in bad shape at the moment and Lindiwe Masela a chorus girl from King Kong. She is highly articulate. Part of my hope is to do something more to do with King Kong. We did this with the blessing of Ezme Mtshikisa. At the same time Eric Abraham decided they were definitely doing the revival of King Kong. They sent someone up to see my show. And then they put together a team which consisted of a respected British director Jonothon Munby and a crack team to do it. I did some gigs with Hugh Masekela in 2014/5 and always used to say to Hugh what about King Kong. He said he had a plan with James Ngobo at Market Theatre and it fell through. I felt those were the people who should have done it. I did not feel that King Kong should have been turned into a product by a foreign team but, having said that it is dangerous to slag off something before you see it. My dad and Leon Glukman were part of the synergy that made King Kong happen. I did not get a single call from them except for Jonothon Munby to say he knew that I had the scores and he wanted for me to provide them and my arrangements which would save their guy Charl Lingenberger from transcribing them.
After the SA jazz standards project later in the year, Bongani Tembi came to London and said he wanted to do something and they gave me some money to do a whole lot of workshops and gigs as part of the SA UK season. I hooked up with Gareth Lekrane a top British flautist and a mate of mine and also worked with Bheki Mseleku intensely in the last phase of his existence in London. He is the arranger of many Bheki compositions and he is a brilliant arranger. And could do big band and small band charts. .He helped me put together different bands and some of it featured Bheki's music and we had local South Africans involved Pinise Saul, Lwanda and Pumza Jezile, my daughter Abigail Glasser who had done some gigs with Pinise. We did a few gigs which were filmed by Jeremy Maggs. And then I had the funds to bring over Bokani Dyer who I had met the year previously. He was a featured SA soloist. In 2017 he was coming over with his trio because he has a foothold in Switzerland and at the Vortex. He came over with Spelelo Mazibuko and Romy Brauteseth. I arranged for them to come and stay with me and friends in the road and we had one day in the studio and we recorded 9 tunes. None of them are originals and are covers by Jimmy Dludlu, Jazz Ministers, Bheki Mseleku and Themba Mkhize. It is the context of the SA jazz standards. I would like to add Lwanda Gogwana to some of the tracks.
It is a struggle to keep a continuity without being here. And I cant give up the work I have over there. I am teaching at the school of London and I have gigs and sessions and odd things
The story with the harmonica is I started playing late. My dad gave me one when I was 17 but it was too difficult to play. I used to play on cruise ships and I went on a cruise ship in 1983 out of Miami and there was a very good harmonica player. I started to learn to play at 29. I started doing odd sessions and bits of gigs and then I had a few breaks I played with Sting and Annie Lennox of Eurythmics, a few orchestral gigs, sessions and films and stuff. Nobody plays the chromatic harmonica. And that became a strong element of what I do and very important to earning a living. Very few people can do this session work on a chromatic harmonica. There are many blues players. I started playing the harmonica and in 2011 Honer invited me. They saw a picture of me playing with Mackenze Matume, Rhythmic Elements they had a hit. I played with them at the SAMA awards. Honer invited me to come and see them in Germany. They wanted me to come one of their endorsees. I play a Honer and have been using it for years. It is a particular model called a CX 12.
I have this incredible energy for teaching harmonica. I know how to do this and I need the time to create the relationships and infrastructure that can do this. It is not about me it is about empowering people. Over the years connections build and you get to know people and can do stuff. And there are all these rich connections with different musicians and the scene is stimulating to me enormously. The music coming out of here there are huge opportunities for education and developing the music industry. I feel blessed that I still have this desire.
Over several years I was going to do Can Themba's the suit with Peter Brook and it just never happened. One of the mistakes I have made is I have suggested too much stuff. I am like little kid saying I can do this and I can do that. That is how I have messed things up before I have come on too strong. It is about managing the boyish enthusiasm in me. At the moment I am concentrating on my own thing.
The third album is called SA and Beyond. Around each song there is a little story like a provenance for each song. In 2013 I ended up staying in the same hotel as Donald Harrison. He is an elder of American jazz. I got to know him and he invited me to sit in and he asked Lwanda Gogwana to sit in and Lwanda learnt a very difficult tune of his called the sand castle head hunter from a tape. I thought this young cat learning the tune without a chart by ear was unbelievable and that tune I have recorded on this album.
I met at Ronnie Scotts last year the band from Erica Badu and I have recorded a version of a tune of theirs called Jerry Roll. Zandile, Bheki Mseleku tunes
The legacy side is still massively important to me. I don't understand why an official organization does not come along and literally create a huge compendium and organize the material, sort out the licencing and make it available in every high and primary school. If you are in Standard One you can learn this tune. If you are in matric you can learn these tunes and in university all of that. You need a lead sheet and the original tunes.
If someone is going to play Zandile they need to here Johnny Mekoa playing Zandile at the Newport Jazz Festival. You need them to be able to go through the stuff like a restaurant menu.
South Africans are incredible listeners at the stokvels and record societies.
The one thing I would do here is to suggest that we create a South African ABRSM.
Part of my plan is to get the compositions of Abdullah, Jonas Gwangwa and get them properly licenced and published as a book with access to the original source material. The ABRSM in London when it started 15 years ago the jazz syllabus had very good intentions but what they did is they took the model of Jamie Aebersold and they took for example a Miles Davis tune and had guys play it in a studio in London. For me that is a waste of time. I don't want kids to listen to my buddies playing the tunes in a studio in London. They must listen to the original source.
The thing about the harmon ica is there are not many harmonica players worth transcribing and for those that are like Toots Thielemans, his level of technique and expression is for an advanced harmonica player. Harmonica players need to think of other instruments. Once you have learnt your scales, arpeggios and standards that is the main focus. Your focus has to be on the material and the world you are learning. And then you learn the language. And the technique comes afterwards.
I am going at the end of this week to Bristol to do some workshops at the annual harmonica festival in Bristol. And all these harmonica players come along and all they are interested in is the harmonica. It is a narrow world. But what about the music? You need to be in the jazz and then put the harmonica into jazz. Not sit on the harmonica and bring a little jazz into the harmonica. I am hoping that I can complete a small harmonica book based on SA jazz standards and has musical education aspects so you can learn scales, arpeggios and theories and all of that in a graduated way which is not too much dog work and does not alienate people.
I bought 50 last time from Peter Tork Turnkey in Midrand and they cost R180 each.
These harmonicas have from middle C up two octaves all the white notes and when you have those notes you can practice intervals. It is a litmus test. When you give people a harmonica. Some people pick it up and they cant play it after half an hour. Others play it immediately and then you have to work with the enthusiasm. I have one student who is a British airways jumbo jet pilot and he is learning the chromatic harmonica. All kinds of people have got a harmonica story