Home to the Story of South African Jazz
Interview Valmont Layne and Colin Miller
Colin and Valmont were pioneering Cape jazz music researchers from the turn of the Millennium. In an interview in Cape Town city, they said:
VL: The regional styles of jazz: A lot of work needs to be done to firm up different definitions of jazz from different regions of South Africa. That is one of Colin's questions. How do you describe Cape Jazz in musicological terms?
CM: It is a very difficult question to answer about Cape Jazz. One needs to go back in time because first of all from talking to musicians who are now in their late sixties, seventies is that they refer to Cape Jazz as goema music or some of them call it gummy. They have these names for it. And those names are names they would attach to music they heard for example in District Six. There seems to be a relationship between the music and the identity, the goema music and coloured identity. What I am finding is that when I talk to musicians about Cape Jazz, coloured musicians tend to claim it as their own. Musicians like Jimmy Adams or Basil Moses or Harold Japtha refers to that music as 'our music.'
What musical elements are present in what we term Cape Jazz and what musical elements are present in what we term goema music. What is similar? If you look at Cape Jazz classic tunes. Donald Tshomela goes as far as to say that Dollar Brand was the person who started that sound. He says Dollar Brand is the initiator of that type of music, Cape Jazz. Jimmy Adams denies and says that Dollar does not play that music, Dollar plays African Jazz. What it brings out is that no-one has a clear meaning of what it is. If you take a CD like these collections that come out that are called Cape Jazz you find it is a mish mash of anything. What is defined in that industry as Cape Jazz is actually whoever is a Cape Town jazz musician features on there. Some of them sound like samba, some of them sound like Weather Report and anything else.
VL: To look at the broad picture may be a useful place to start. The development of South African jazz as an idiom really took off from the 1940's onwards. On the one hand there was a big band sound and on the other hand you had these smaller combo sounds, four member and five member groups that started playing serious jazz with a well integrated African urban traditional sound. The Jazz Maniacs and later on the Jazz Epistles and others did it. The point that I am trying to make is that part of the myth about Cape Jazz and by myth I don't mean it is a lie. The myth about Cape Jazz derives from the fact that at some point in South Africa's history Cape Town became one of the last places especially at the end of the 1950's and early sixties Cape Town was one of the last places where this new kind of multi racial nation building jazz idiom could survive. In other words were musician intellectuals like Abdullah Ibrahim, Hugh Masekela and others could practice their music with a relative degree of freedom. Because of that Cape Town was named as a place as one of the birth places of jazz in South Africa which is both true and false because I think there were political reasons why Cape Town had this kind of liberal atmosphere right until the end. What many musicians did after that is they either left the country or they started playing dance music or they did something else.
Abdullah Ibrahim is a very difficult guy to interview so it is very difficult to see how his thinking developed. It is clear that he had a sense of himself as a South African. He was taking elements of African music and taking elements of jazz and producing something different. Abdullah Ibrahim was also in tune with what was happening on the intellectual scene in Cape Town. That group of jazz musicians were also hanging out with writers and poets and journalists so there was a conscious sense that here they were producing something new.
For someone like Jimmy Adams the term jazz is a much broader term and would probably include something he calls straight tempo ballroom dance music or langarm music when it wasn't so clear when he was playing jazz and when he was playing dance music. It was all mixed up. It was popular music.
Whereas Abdullah did not care whether he was playing an obscure version of Thelonious Monk or Duke Ellington and in fact was more interested in that then playing dance music. That is a very important distinction to draw already when you are talking about styles.
Would the coon carnival have an effect on jazz?
CM: A picture that is commonly painted is these young ‘not yet musicians' in District Six over New Year, listening to this goema music and hearing these songs being played on banjo's and watching the troops rehearse and all of these things, for them that seems to be a fundamental part of their music experience which influences them in what they do later as jazz musicians. A factual example is someone like Cliffie Moses who plays with the Four Sounds and who did an LP called 'Jazz in District Six.' One of his songs was called the goema dance. He writes this in 1969, twenty years later from when he first used to hear this music. He remembers clearly this scene of him sitting under the tree watching these coon guys rehearse. When you listen to the music there is no doubt about it that it is a goema tune, but it allows the freedom of improvisation and jazz improvisation so they are using those characteristics that are typically American jazz improve over goema.
Was there an American influence?
VL: There was much more of an American influence particularly after WWII. Musicians like all people have their own fashion and after the Second World War, the banjo went out of fashion and the guitar became fashionable. Django Reinhardt may not have been as popular after the Second World War as Charlie Parker or Miles Davis. In District Six, American jazz and American crooning was very very big. You can see its influence in plays like ‘District Six the Musical'. The British influence also started declining from the end of the Second World War. Even Cliffie as a dance musician became a serious follow of jazz music and that LP has got very strong jazz.
How much has Cape Jazz integrated for instance? How much cross fertilization has there been with Cape Jazz and marabi? There was a lot of integration especially in places like Kimberley on the mines and to some extent in Joburg and in Durban. There were a lot of people coming from Cape Town and bringing all those sounds with them to places like Kimberley, interacting with African musicians, forming new kinds of associations and new styles of music must have emerged and I think marabi is an example of that.
CM: District Six was not about jazz. There were jazz musicians but jazz was a passing thing in District Six. There were very few venues in District Six and they would play jazz on a Sunday or one day during the week and there was an odd restaurant. There were a lot of restaurants patroned by a white Jewish audience where jazz was played and a lot of coloured guys would play.
VL: When District Six was happening as a place it didn't have great symbolic value, it was after it was threatened by the group areas act that District Six becomes a metaphor so that it starts appearing in poetry in novels, and it is associated with the jazz musicians, Jonas Gwangwa and all those people who in exile also become mythologised. Along with District Six this image of a new South Africa renaissance developed. In literal terms District Six had little to do with jazz. There was very little jazz in District Six and very little interest in jazz except if it was in the form of popular music. It was Frank Sinatra or something like that. The mythology of it particularly from the middle sixties and onwards when it became politicised is very interesting. That is when District Six became associated with all the new icons of South Africa.
Did politics affect the music?
CM: It did affect the spaces that people were playing in. Some venues still exist. The Wiseman hall still exist and the one in Sea Point called the Waldorf. Those are two that might still exist.
The audiences wanted something very different in the townships. They wanted the big band dance style or marabi music where they could jive. There was no bebop or anything. Sit down listen jazz was a very middle class thing to do. Working class get up and dance. Another space that was crucial was at people's homes. Guys would have their mega jam sessions in their homes.
VL: The broader political environment would have affected what people listen to. When John Coltrane started going through his free period it got picked up on by quite a few musicians in Cape Town. People like Winston Mankunku became an imitator at first of John Coltrane's more adventurous work in the middle and towards the end of the sixties. That music had its own political symbolism. Max Roach, Archie Shepp and those guys were all doing wild things with free jazz and we know that was very popular among a younger generation of musicians. Chris Mcgregor and the Blue Notes is the most internationally famous example of that. They took African sounds and they blended it with the free movement that was happening in the UK. That became a big hit.
CM: One of the very unique Cape Town sounds is when you listen to the saxophone players. Jimmy Adams who is a saxophone player explained to me that he used to sit with his dad who was a dance band player and used to play vastrap, squares and Jimmy was interested in jazz and would go and learn jazz in the township and at the end of the day his dad would sit him down and teach him to play his kind of music too. His dad would play the violin to him and he would sit with a saxophone. A violin has a very wide vibrato. And when you listen to the saxophone players there is that interpretation of it.
VL : Basil Coetzee is an example of that.
CM: Subconsciously the guys picked it up aurally. This tradition got passed on. It was first string instruments and then in the fifties the banjo's, guitars and violins fell away among the coons and these guys started learning saxophone and started playing the same sound on sax.
VL : You must also hear the story about the fish-horn. There was a guy who used to walk around Cape Town with a horn to blow and make a vibrato sound and some of the saxophone sounds are like that as well.
Was there a separate white scene?
VL : There was even a white musicians union in Cape Town. In the major cities of South Africa, Durban and Joburg had it as well and it was very exclusive and tried very hard to the extent of lobbying parliament to protect white musicians interests.
There was also an alternative scene which people like Chris Mcgregor, Morris Goldberg, Merton Barrow, Midge Pike and others. Merton Barrow was instrumental in creating spaces where musicians could be musicians and not worry about people's racial backgrounds and in fact tried to work with each other and learn from each other. There was a club in Green Point run by people like Midge Pike, Merton Barrow. That was one of the only places in Cape Town where people could mix. It survived for quite a long time but for the most part there was a separate scene for white and black musicians because white musicians had easy access to the establishments so they could get jobs with orchestras or in the nightclubs.
I wonder if you can compare African jazz and European jazz to their philosophies. European being individualistic, African being uBuntu?
VL : How would we differentiate between European jazz and North American jazz? If there is a coherent philosophy behind South African jazz it is African nationalism. After the second world war there was evidence of an African middle class becoming a lot more militant about its role in society. The development of the ANC will parallel all of that as well. This consciousness is also reflected in the way people viewed their musicality. There were African composers who became prominent in the 30's and 40's who for the first time started producing classical pieces, choral pieces and wrote it down with Western notation. There were important milestones and one of them was the development of jazz.
What is interesting about Cape Town was in some parts with Abdullah Ibrahim and others there was success in that they managed to capture in imaginative terms this notion of South African jazz. Perhaps if musicians weren't forced into exile and people were allowed to grow and interact with each other it would be very different.
CM: The type of evolution that jazz took here was very different to the type of evolution it had in the States. Jazz in the States was not about musical elements from Europe, foxtrots and waltz's and all that meeting a rhythmic section that came from Africa and fusing them. There was none of that coming together in New Orleans. I argue that jazz is a black African music because I firmly believe that people were denied freedom of speech and music became a form of expression. Music took on the form of expression of communication. The other things are co-incidental. That is the seed of it. The early New Orleans sound starts sounding like marching bands because that was the environment. You had the civil war going on and then this flood of instruments into New Orleans because the army band got disbanded there and there was a ton of instruments lying around and people started doing these marching band things to what became a New Orleans style and that kind of development is very different to what happened here. Here there was a little bit of the influence of church music.
Was there a spiritual influence like a drummer beating the drum like the heartbeat, bringing rain, causing the crops to grow and for him to be cared for and well fed in society?
VL : It also got undermined by urbanisation as societies that supported those belief systems were undermined badly over a long period of time. In a more contemporary sense I think a lot of jazz musicians grew up on a spiritual plane. Abdullah Ibrahim's mother for example was a church pianist and taught him to play piano, so a lot of what he plays is influenced by the spiritual music of the church.
CM : Jazz is also a very class based music. There is this tendency to talk about jazz as classic music.
VL : Or Jazz as art music. Like classical music, jazz provides a certain disciplinary environment for a musician that you won't get in neo-traditional and other kinds of music. What is powerful about jazz is it can absorb all these other influences as it is such a strong basis for any musician, so whatever other music you go onto play if you have a classical background or a jazz background you are probably going to do pretty well. It has become such a strong background for a musician to have that it is difficult to escape its influence. There are certain things you learn as a jazz musician technically that you wont learn in another environment.
The influence of the Union of South African artists on jazz?
VL : Jimmy is a musician from the Western Cape and has been a pioneer in many ways. He went and played for one of the African Jazz and Variety shows and somebody pulled him a dirty and he got stranded in Joburg and Kippie Moeketsi was involved in the Union at that time and Kippie used to give him a pound everyday to go and buy something to eat. While he was stuck there the Union did play a major role in helping him to survive and find a job to get enough money to come back. It must have been providing quite a good support network for many musicians.
CM: Dorkay house was a cultural meeting place. There would be dance and jazz. That was a place they would get together and jam, make music, play music and rehearse. MAPP music school in Cape Town played that role. It trained musicians and created space for rehearsals. It ran programmes. It was a performance venue too. And that is an important chapter in music training in Cape Town in the 1980's. A generation of musicians like Musa, Bennie and others beginning to make their names now came through that school. It also played a political role it was instrumental in the cultural boycott and in the late eighties in allowing exiles to come back and feed back into the community their musical knowledge. When Abdullah Ibrahim came back his first workshop he did at the music school. When Jonas Gwangwa came back the same thing.
VL: The first international tours, Paul Simon, it was required that they do workshops at MAPP. MAPP used to be Musical Action for Peoples Power and got changed in more modern times to Musical Action to People's Progress. They moved with the times.
In the 70's there was a disco movement that threatened jazz?
VL: The musicians had to do what they had to do to survive. If you listen to Spirits Rejoice and the stuff from that period. All the musicians were jazz musicians. Robbie Jansen, Chris Schilder, Paul Abrahamse are all people that regard themselves as South African jazz musicians. They all made their contribution and they also all dabbled in what was popular in the 70's, soul, R n B and so on and fusion. Fusion was and still is a big influence on Cape Town. For me when I thought I was sophisticated as a teenager I started listening to Spyrogyro and Weather Report and all that stuff. It has been integrated into whatever we call jazz now. We can't escape the influence of that period.
CM: Cliffie Moses and the 4 sounds were a typical jazz band and they backed Percy Sledge who is a soul singer who came to Cape Town in 1975. It was about money. Their Sunday gigs would be jazz gigs but all the other nights they played at the Beverley Lounge was dance. People wanted to dance.
VL: Jazz has probably more institutional support today than it ever had.
VL : For purposes of sanity you need to have some kind of definition for jazz. The question is how do you define it?
Is smooth jazz a contradiction in terms?
CM : It is the same with Cape Jazz. One of those Cd's calls it snoek flavoured jazz!
Where is jazz evolving to?
CM : When I listen to the recording industry I think that it is commercialised. It is about creating recording opportunities for musicians. It is opening a space to black musicians to showcase their music where that wasn't there before. I don't see a jazz movement happening! There are a lot of people trying to step out of that commercialisation. Zim is stepping out like Coltrane did in the 60's. He is going there. Maybe it is a Joburg thing?
VL : There are two trends, one of which is happening and one of which I hope will happen. The one is I think people are much free-er to experiment now. People are looking at roots, at traditions and are quite unashamed about it. I hope that will grow and we get a better understanding of what traditions are evolving into. We are also exposed to the rest of the world in a way that we haven't been for many decades. That is also going to have an impact on what we do as far as jazz is concerned. Jazz has a dynamic relationship with other music, with traditional music or pop. Jazz is strong enough as a music to survive and absorb other influences. I am optimistic as there is enough support and institutional support to do this. If jazz managed to survive the 1960's, it can only flourish now. At the same time it is depressing that there has to be an overload of commercial smooth jazz. I like smooth jazz myself but would like a better balance between smooth jazz and other kinds of stuff.
CM : There is an educational aspect that can play a vital role. There are institutions like Pretoria Technikon and UCT College of Music, Natal University, there is a music programme at Fort Hare where Hotep Galeta is teaching and Abdullah is initiating an academy here. And those are training grounds and you learn to play. You learn the discipline of jazz and that can only strive as far as the music is concerned. There will be a tendency for revivalism of African traditional jazz, Mike Campbell for example is re-arranging the music of King Kong written by Matshikiza. They intend having a national tour of King Kong. That is a huge play to put on and it is backed by government money.