The Jazz Workshop
The Jazz Workshop has used their same location for 40 years. It is a good business. Jeff the drummer calls the jazz workshop the 'Hogwaarts of Cape Town, the place where magic happens.' The Barrow family will now be required to rent and renovate another building in the area for their jazz workshop. Jeff is a great fan of Merton's. He approached Mike Campbell suggesting Merton be given an honorary doctorate from UCT for his ontribution to jazz. Mike Campbell apparently said that was impossible. Jeff then said if it were Dollar Brand they would flock. Yet, says Jeff, Merton's jazz vocabulary is unlimited. He can score a composition as quickly as we can write with words, such is how he hears the music.
Interview Merton Barrow
How did you turn out to be a musician?
I spent my early years in Livingstone when I was about four or five because my dad had passed on. We were surrounded by the music there in the compounds as we used to go to the compounds and see the football matches and they would have the marimba's, shakers and everything would be there. I took part in those things. When I was five I was shaking and playing a marimba. I stayed their until about seven and then my mum came down here (Cape Town.)
I took violin when I was nine. I went through to Lycencia eventually with violin. Piano I started a bit late. I used to play in a little band because I went back to Livingstone and played in a little band there for two or three years. I could hardly play!
The interest started. Friends of mine invited me to play, Morris Goldberg, and that is where it all started and eventually Midge Pike, a very good friend of mine, a really good bass player got me to start playing vibes. I got my own vibraphone going. Influenced first by the Modern Jazz Quartet and later perhaps by Gary Burton a wonderful player and Lionel Hampton. I enjoyed the vibes. Harmony and writing came through because people started to ask me t owrite little arrangements for bands. I studied harmony and got into the various 2 5 1 progressions and various scales and studied chord families and a lot of work went into that writing and arranging.
From there I did all sorts of things. I did advertising and all sorts of gigs. Big band gigs with Jerry Bosman and arrangements with Winston.
When did you start the jazz workshop?
The jazz workshop started with friends in 1965. We started initially at the old Art Centre. It was a wonderful place, full of vibes. We started. I had written an arrangement for a big band. On the first Saturday afternoon, three players had arrived. That was okay. Over the following weeks it built up until there was no room left. There were too many people to play all the parts. It developed from there over three or four months.
The Art Centre is still there. I think it has Macdonalds in it now on the Green Point common. Do you know that place at all? It is still there and the old track is still there and of course the new Stadium is there. That is where it was. We met a lot of people there and a lot of interest from overseas players who used to come in and give a hand.
When did the Jazz Workshop move to town?
I did have to find other accommodation as the Art Centre had other activities there. We found other premises. We have been in this place for the last fourty years. What does that take us back to? 1974. We have been here for that long and it has been wonderful. We hae helped so many people. We gave workshops for disadvantaged people as there wasn't any chance for those. We had a lot of people coming from Khayelitsha and Langa, coming in to learn and study and a lot of them have done very well musically. I have seen some published works by people who used to come. It has done its work. It has helped a lot of people and certainly promoted music in general, all forms, including the classical side, but jazz was the main thing for me. I loved the idea of creating the music. I spent a lot of time with people on the improvisational side doing the theory etc.
What was the spark to start?
There was no place where you could play in a big band situation, not in Cape Town and if there were they would be too far for people to go to and sometimes dangerous. I wanted to start that. I wrote arrangements for trumpets and trombones, five saxes and piano bass drums and guitar. At first three people turned up to play and eventually there were enough people to play all the parts. I wanted to have access to people so they could play in a fantastic situation, where you could play music in such a large ensemble that was very organised with parts. People had to read and for people who couldn't read so the lessons started. People wanted to know more about how to improvise so the lessons started from that point of view. Everyone was so interested andso eager to learn things.
There was no colour bar because we had big problems in those days between the different race groups and we often had people around checking us out that we weren't conniving something illegal. I suppose it was slightly illegal as we weren't allowed to play together in those days. We used to have people watching out for us at the Art Centre. Even during performances. They warned us when there might be people coming to have a look and see what we were doing there. Anyway we managed. It was a difficult time.
We did one concert at the Wisemanhall. Winston Mankunku was with us and Monty. The guy in charge of the hall said we couldn't play together. It was a big advertised concert. I think Mark Murphy was there. He was quite a big deal. Anyway we said if we can't play together we don't play. They said okay Winston and company can play from behind the curtain. We played from in front of it and there were these amazing sounds coming from the back. That was the situation. If they were to allow us to play together they would loose their licence. It was a very difficult time. Anyway that has all progressed. Everything is fine now. There is no problem. As it always should have been.
Lessons all started because of this initial idea to get this big band going. I had friends. I had people like Dennis Combrink. He was fantastic. An alto sax player, a big help. And Ernest Vea from Mauritius studying architecture here. A wonderful saxophone player and he went eventually to New York and had a big band going in New York for five years. It was too much for him so he went back to Mauritius. He sent me a recording he had made in Mauritius, a wonderful arranger by the way. He studied at Berkely in Boston. They sent me the recording of all Mauritian players playing the most marvelous music. One of our students John Lockwood teaches at Berkely now, he is a bass player. A lot of people have learnt a lot. And they have put it to good use, teaching, playing, writing. One guy is doing movies in Los Angeles. Very good! I feel quite good we have done our thing. How long we can go on I don't know. We have never been funded and a place like this should always have been funded. Because of Cynthia, I don't know how she did it but she steared us through all sorts of financial problems. She has just been remarkable. Every thanks should go to Cynthia. She has been very unbelievable. And we managed.
Where did you learn your jazz?
It has always excited me the idea that you could take a song and do your own intrepretation of that song. That has always been with me. We used to gown to the Pavillion and watch one of these Beach bands playing. It was very exciting. I was only a little guy. The drummer was very good and it was very exciting all in all. The idea of being able to take a song which I seemed to do naturally but I wanted to know more about it so I studied more about the harmonic side of things which I was then able to teach people.
How was Midge Pike's influence?
Midge was unbelievable. Big big name. Wonderful guy, just encouraged everybody all the time. He encouraged me. He invited me to play and got me to play because I had some tough times too. He was really a superb guy. He landed up eventually outside of New York growing apples. He was remarkable, wonderful bass player, wondreful guy. A big encouragement.
We used to go down to the Art Centre on a Sunday evening and get there at about 7:30 in the evening and I would say what are we going to play and he would say I'll just play something. And that's what he used to do, he used to a play a "raga" as he would call it. He would play and then we would get into free interpretations which was unbeilevable. Monty was on drums and Vic Higgins was also a drummer, John Clayton sometimes on piano, very good and Johan Welsch, he was so good he sounded like Bill Evans. Johnny Gertze and a wonderful guitar player and he used to train with weights, Kenny Japtha. Kenny Japtha played the most remarkable jazz guitar. He inspired people. It was a big challenge to play a long with them. And an honour to play with some of this poeple. Winston was unbeilevable. Mike Fourie used to play, Ian Smith used to play. Ian was ver encouraging. Horse Schroader was the trombone player, also very encouraging. He now plays in Hamburg in the big band. There were some superb vocalists. I can't remember the names even. Ezra the tennor player and his brother Duke the trumpet player were fantsatic together. We did some recordings together at the SABC. George Kusell, you must mention George Kussell the bass player. There were a whole lot of people who encouraged me like Alec Noki. He had the longest gig in history. he used to play at the Old Mill Hotel in Green Point for thiry years. Jerry Bosman used to play with him and Billy Crawford on drums, George on bass and Alec Noki piano. I used to go along nd take my vibes and play with them. Those are marvelous days.
When you listen to Winston's playing and how he expressed himself on that horn and what he was feeling inside is evident when you listen to him playing. It must have been agonising for him to be told you can play not there or you must have certain papers to be here. And this came out in his music. A lot of players from that era and in those situations, like Cups n Saucer. There was so much going on.
Do you think the music was silenced by apartheid?
Record companies wanted to sell records at the time so they produced a lot of 78's which were targeted towards certain communities for sales reasons. They would not go out of their way to record a jazz band. They want to put out recordings that people appreciate. I don't know if the majority of people appreciate listening to jazz, not these days. The kids are into something else. Although we have or two or three students who really like the idea of improvisation. It is still there in a different way.
There were a lot of people out of the country like Dollar Brand. Dollar wasn't here he was overseas. A lot of people. I can't blame them. They want to get out. Hugh Masakela, a lot of people. Dollar phoned me from America. He wanted to do certain things when he came back. So I said, when you get back just give me a call. He wanted to know about string arrangements. Anyway that is another story?
Were there dips and peaks?
We always had work to do, there was always a dance or a party. At one of these hotels in Newlands we were playing upstairs at a party. And the guy said come and listen to this and we went downstairs and they were playing Elvis Presley. The drummer had the kit the other way round. And I said we had been playing that music for years. The only thing was they were playing a very heavy two and four. Mmm Chuch mmm chuck! That was a big difference. We were playing ding ding da ding ding, the walking. They were playing more rock. That was quite a change. We were influenced by that as well because we tried to incorporate what they were doing.
Did American jazz influence you?
We used to listen to everybody. There was Art Tatum for instance on piano and Thelonious Monk and Oscar Peterson and this man, this man. (Merton pulls a workbook from his shelf) Charlie Parker! Everybody listened to Charlie Parker and learnt from him. Thelonious we used to listen and couldn't believe what he was doing. We though was he just playing around, was he just messing around. He was playing things like (Merton plays a series of strong chords). We thought what is he doing. Later when we analysed and listened carefully. He is a genius. It was a big influence, and all the big bands like Stan Kenton. Benny Goodman's big band was wonderful. Don Ellis was excellent with a big futuristic sound.
There were not many international musicians performing here. I listened to Stephan Grappelli in the 80's. He was a wonderful musician. We had Stan getz but not many. It was also the difficult years with apartheid. Some people ignored it. There were shows that came to the Three Arts here. I suppose it was difficlut for them as well. They could have been blacklisted for other work. It was a difficult time. Things changed evenbtually to gewt some bigger names. Chick Corea was here eventually. It is much better now.
What the Americans were dong is just incredible. What they do is incredible. The way they study is intense. If you want to be good, you work to be good at what we do. If you want to be a good arranger there are amazing schools where you can learn. If you want to be a good player, sit down and practice, study.
We get into the recording studio a few years ago and we have to have all our parts ready to play. Nowadays you can do it at home. Technology has come in. It is easy you can do everything. You can sit down at home and create anything you want to.
How do you envisage the jazz workshop in an ideal world?
The guys who teach here teach because they want to teach and there is no salary involved. They teach and they get paid for their teaching. If the guy only has one student in the day then he gets paid for that. If he has more then he is paid for that. They should be funded, they should be supported. They are the educators. They shouldn't have to bother about how the next meal is coming. That is, in an ideal world I suppose it probably would never happen. Government should sponsor people?
Should they have a South African Jazz Programme?
This guy went out of his way to produce a South African reel book, have you seen it? The Cape Jazz reel book was started by Colin Miller. He had people in Sweden and Norway funding it. That is a good idea. It should be encouraged more. They should have paid for recordings. Somebody should have recorded everything.
Do you think South African Jazz has something uniuqe ?
Mmmhim mmmhim, the African feel of the jazz players is wonderful. They also need to be told that they have to make record sales. They got to be careful what they record and what they put out. There are a few labels in the world where you can treally play and they will go to the trouble of producing it. It doesn't happen here I don't think, there is anyone who can sponsor such a free expression. That is okay! Maybe it is a past era. I love jazz standards. I have written my own music as well. People are less interested to listen to my music, they would rather listen to Sinatra or Buble. Even Rod Stewart has done well with jazz standards. In America it is still there but it is not as big in America, there are not as many jazz clubs as there used to be. I think the colleges also changed their programmes a bit but you can still study to become a really great player or good arranger. They encourage people to be innovative and original.
What is it that makes SA jazz unique?
The ethnic side is the big thing. I had Donald Tshomela with me for a while. I sat down with him and we wanted to write down some of the melodies he remembers and we did. I have got them here. Unfortunately I could not see enough of Donald to do more. We got some of them. They need to be supported more. They need to be encouraged to record and invited to come and do their music. In the townships it is really appreciated, the jazz side. It is there. The world sits up at times and takes note of certain things like Ladysmith Black Mambaso and various groups, and broadway shows.
Are you creating an archive of compositions at the jazz workshop?
I have got it here. I need to write it out and maybe get it published. Not that I am thinking of the money. People like Cups are still there to be able to speak to them and get them to teach us some of the music that we missed. I must contact him. I don;t know it is just a lot of worlk sometmes and you have to think about earning money as well, preparing lessons for people. I should have more time to do other things. Teaching is not the easiest game in the world. It is a mixture of doing a few gigs and teaching part time and writing a hit song. There is so much talent. I don't know if it is exposed enough. I can;t remember of the last time we invitde people to come and play a jazz concert down in art centre. There msut be so much talent out there waiting for a platform and recording time. I am sure it is all there. It could be fantastic.
After the interview Merton explained the sad situation of the economic crisis of the day – greed ! James Kibby put the situation this way on facebook : “ the Jazz Workshop in Cape Town is almost 50 years old. established by Merton and Cynthia Barrow in 1964 it has operated and thrived in the same building in Buitengracht st for the last 40 years. but the building itself belongs to the council and now they want it back. a deal is in the works for a premises across the road but the other tenants in that building are trying to stop it because of "noise" concerns. so now a backup plan is needed. if anyone can help or knows of anyone with premises anywhere in town, gardens or green point that would be happy to help preserve the Very First Non-Classical Music School in Cape Town (or probably the whole of SA), “
I went to the Jazz workshop to chat to James. This is what he said.
Where did 'Acidrobot' come from?
Obviously my musical roots are in jazz. I got my grounding playing with Basil Coetzee 1986 - 1997 when he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He didn't play again after that. Shortly after that it was not that I gave up trying to play jazz guitar but i sor tof gave it up as my life's mission because no matter how good you are, as a jazz guitarist there are always going to be ten thousand guys in New York who are going to play circles around you. And that's the truth. That doesn't mean you give up on a love for jazz and it certainly doesn't mean that give you up a love for jazz guitar and it certainly doesn't mean you give up practicing all the stuff that you learn as a learner jazz musician and I still do the occassional jazz gig as well. I did one two weeks ago at Sins playing standards, playing all the stuff you grow up learning to play. My mission has kind of changed. I have always been not keen to do things that have been done before. And for a while I didn't really have a mission. I was wondering around wandering what I was going to do. And when you start playing blues it doesn't matter how good a blues player you become there will always be ten thousand guitarists in New York that will play circles around you.
I started listening to psychedelic music as a kid really. Bands like Love and Hendrix and all of that. It has always been there. My favourite musician of all time is Miles Davis. I always looked up to him because evrey time he made a new album he kind of reinvented the game. And the psychedilc thing with him was circa Bitches Brew '70. I was 7 or 8 years old at the time so I wasn't able to appreciated it even then. So I started to see after a couple of years of not really having any goals or any kind of mission, I suddenly started to see the possibilities of playing psychedilc music on guitar and using sound effects and textures and thta type of thing rather than melodies and solos. It started off with a blues band that I had running at the time called the 'Blues Jobs. We used to play every Friday night at Carnival Court. And then a thought we could stop playing long solos and all of that and start including these psychedilc textures in the blues stuff. That's what I started doing and I changed the name of that band to Acid blues. The bass player left so I replaced him with a guy who uses a lot of effects on the bass guitar as that complimented what I was doing. It became a whole new band. The bass player introduced me to a couple of DJ's in 2006.
For a while it was quite a popular thing for a DJ to include a live musician in their set, people like Rus Nerwich and Robbie Jansen played wit hDj's. Then I relaised that if I can play with a hip hop or house DJ then I could play with a trance DJ as well. That was more the textures and things that I was looking for in music. It was emerging at the time already. It started to emerge in the mid 90's but it took a long time. It only really started to become big about ten years ago. I started doing that and then you wouldn;t really recognise the guitar as being a guitar, its blending in with the music creating similar textures going on with the music. And then I looked around me and realised no one else was doing it. I realised that is what I got to do and that is where Robot comes from.
And then I got introduced to simple software Q base, Frooty Loops, that type of stuff and I was dabbling and then I discovered Ableton live and started using that shamelessly and excessivly. These days I use that as a composition tool and I play live with it as well.
I havn't gone the traditional root as a guitar player. Being a virtuoso has nothing to do with it. Obviously you need to have a good technique to express what you are trying to express. If you look around you and go to a jazz gig, if your mission as a musician is to reach people and to uplift people. You find if you restrict yourself to the jazz genre you are going to be uplifting maybe 15 or 20 sixty year olds whereas if you do what I do and play some of the bigger parties you are liftng 3 to 4000 people with what I do. You are reaching a helova lot more people. You are doing something that hasn't been done before. And instead of walking on a path that has been trodden already you are hacking the branches away for people to come afterwards. That gives me a bigger thrill than being the best rock guitarist in the world.
Was Basil on a jazz path ?
Not really, people used to think of him as a jazz musician. But he used to call himself a cultural musician. The whole thing of being a cultural musician was very important in the 80's. For us, we were very firmly in the struggle rather than sitting on the fence, liberal kind of thing. Basil was pretty hardcore. And he wouldn't call himself a jazz musician because for him jazz is a music that came from Africa and grown in America and had become very Americanised. He used to always complain about the Amreicanisation of music. Because I had just come out of prison at the time I felt I could really closely relate to what he was trying to do, but I couldn't play the guitar yet. I got my training from him on stage and in the rehearsal room.
Merton Barrow is established as a jazz great: Merton Barrow is probably the best jazz musician in the country. I came across him by accident. he has been running the jazz workshop since 1965. I came here for lessons in about 1983. I was 21 years old. The guy who was teaching me at the time was a guy called Nick Carter. He had been offered a job up in Joburg under what was PACT at te time, the Provincial Arts Council of the Transvaal. They offered him a job as house guitarist which is much better paid than teaching. Teaching pays nothing. He took that job and recommended me for the job of taking over his students in Cape Town which was a really nice break for me at the time. I had learnt a few jazz tunes but I had a good basic technique and I could sort of play. I could play enough to teach because at that time I was teaching mostly beginners. That is how I came across Merton and Cynthia. I took over from Nick in 1987.
Between 1983 and 1987 I was heavily involved in the struggle and spent time in jail and all of that. It was a very turbulent period of my life, learning more about life really than music. I came to work at the jazz workshop I realised where my focus should actually because in jail I didn't have a guitar. They wouldn't let people bring me one. I used to write in fucking triplicate every single day to the head of the prison, 'Please let me have a guitar.' I was there for three months and they wouldn't let me have a guitar. That's when I realised that I msutn't be putting myself in the firing line anymore. If I am going to be focusing on music than I must be focusing properly on music. That is why when Basil came along it was almost like a Godsend, marrying music and the struggle lives together in a constructive and positive way. I played with Basil for 11 years. We played all over the world, all over the country. It was a very good experience touring and playing in front of all those people. Something I am still grateful for. I miss Basil a lot because he said a lot of good shit. People used to criticise him the whole time because he was very outspoken. I used to love that and think we do need more outspoken people. Musicians do tend to sit on the fence. They go where the money is. Basil wasn't interested in that.
Jazz was the music that brought people together and got black and white poeple together. The rock scene was ver ywhite and te traditional msuic scene was black. The two biggest selling bands in the 80's were the Elementals which was a white rock band and the Soul brothers an all black mbaqanga band. There were two ver separate scenes. One was populated by exclusivley white people and the other one populated exclusively by black people. What they mean is that jazz was the music that brought people together.
Is this the case with the jazz workshop?
There was never ever any kind of colour here at the jazz workshop, we have always had teachers of all colours and students of all colours. If you go to school in Langa you are going to be surrounded by black people. If you go to school in Rondebosch you are going to be surrounded by white people. The Jazz Workshop was a very obvious exception. It was also the ver yfirst non classical music school in the country. People didn;t come here to study classical music, they came here to study modern music. That obviously entailed bringing the cultures of all different poeple's together.
The role of the jazz nmusic is to educate people about modern and improvised music.
Do you think the economic pressures on the jazz workshop are a conspiracy?
No I don't! I do think that the economic pressures on the jazz workshop could be greatly alleviated by the Arts and Culture department of the Western Cape and Cape government and I think that the fact the we are continually ignored by those people is a pity and definitely contributes to some of our hardships. I certainly don't think it is a conspiracy.
In which case is there something bright on the horizon for the jazz wrkshop in getting that support?
Yes. We are getting a new building. The city council wants this building back. Merton and Cynthia are going to take a slightly more hands off role and Robin, their daughter will run the show together with her husband who is a very high powered business man. He has got all sorts of ideas about creating a music shop and a coffee shop and more of a social aura around the jazz workshop.
THe city has come nowhere near this. We are having to rent a building further up the road here called the Korberg building. It is just opposite the Caltex garrage on the corner. It is just above the retaining wall.
I believe there is opportunity in adversity. Is it possible to have more jazz workshops arounfd the city?
Sure. It is harder to organise. you will have to find people to run the different ones, you will have to find teachers. This has always been a mom and pop type of business and the intimacy of that is what has drawn people. If we had to turn this thing into a franchise it might become a bit cold.
I am looking more at the education perspective. Now there are a number of schools around the peninsula that educate people in modern music. Bo Salay and there is the jazz school at UCT, there is the Woodstock Academy of music. There are a few more schools now. And also a couple of high shoolshave taken up the baton and started teaching kids at high schools as well and how to play things other than classical music. I did some adjudicating at Bishops last year and certainly Westerford has a music programme. And I think they have always had a music programme at Wynberg as well. So there is not as much of a need to have Jazz Workshops all over the city as there was. It would be nice to have a jazz workshop on the flats. And maybe one down False Bay side, so people don;t have to come from all corners of the peninsula to come to class. Maybe one in Stellenosch. It would be a lot harder.