Home to the Story of South African Jazz
Interview Vince Kolbe
Vince Kolbe was a young musician and concert organiser during the golden era of SA jazz, the 1950's. Vince Kolbe said:
The port was where they would meet and play their chords, because the ships would bring in things, maybe a visiting musician, maybe some dance band musicians would try their hand at jazz. Or maybe a visiting British band elected to play at a grand hotel. There were the latest skills in town. Jazz got introduced in very similar ways all over the world because the world became a global village especially during and after the war.
America was a big volatile country, the engine room of it all. In a place like Cape Town which has been here for a couple of hundred years, we have ballroom dancing, jive, military and the carnival.
When the Cuban ships came here, my parents collected South American records, Tango's and samba's. They also collected ballroom dancing as they used to dance. And then there was the street music of the carnival and the choirs. And of course you put on your radio and listened to Elvis Presly. There was the symphony orchestra. You were bombarded by all these sounds. This is like a young Louis Armstrong growing up in New Orleans - which was once French, once Spanish.
Can you imagine this little Creole boy from New Orleans hearing all this in the park and he picks up the trumpet and what does he play? Dara da rum tada! (Which is from an Italian opera). Because he is an unsophisticated guy he plays the trumpet in an unsophisticated way. People in most parts of the world, pick up an instrument and play it the way they speak, they breathe, they sing. You can find this with high African music too. People who have taught themselves have got their own tone, their own intonation. They get their own punctuation. The moment it arouses something in other people it becomes marketable. And then you give it labels. Louis Armstrong used to be labeled as this primitive. They used to put leopard skins over him to market him.
Go to any of these townships there is not a single music shop or window a kid can look into and see a saxophone. There is not a single music school. They don't even have it on the school syllabus. The apartheid system was not designed to produce black musicians but black laborers. So, how come there is music there? Of course people have weddings, people have funerals. People have parties; they've got their things their ancestors taught them. Things they picked up on the radio. Things they picked up in the movies. They do fashion a kind of a musical culture. When this becomes marketable it is called township jazz, and marabi because there was this magical place, the fountain of it all.
And that is the trouble when things become commercialized. Ownership becomes a big thing. The first words a young musician learns is 'I am being ripped off.' The word jazz gets thrown around very loosely. When we were teenagers and I started meeting people who had jazz records of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, we used to wait for the drum solos for instance. It was exciting stuff. With it came the dance. We used to learn to do boogie and all those dances that were fashionable and went with the popular jazz tradition.
Then we started buying downbeat and tuning into voice of America. At midnight we would be sitting and this voice would come over the radio 'this is Willis Carnover this is Jazz USA.' And then Duke Ellington would play take the A train. That was one way in learning an art form. We used to get records from ships that travelled the world. And sometimes an American battleship would come in and there was a band on the ship. And those guys played jazz. And if we went down to this place at night, we were going to hear them.
All over the country, people tuned into Voice of America to hear what was hip. For a while, it was the big band sounds of Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. But when bebop came, Charlie 'Bird' Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were all over the radio, everywhere. The white musicians who'd been to America spread the sound, magazines talked about it, and you could buy it from the avant-garde record stores or American sailors who often docked on our shores. City life was very impressed by bebop and its hip style and happening jazzmen. Twotone shoes, Stetsons, Buicks, Chevys and suits were the image, and the gents were impeccably dressed and smoothly mannered, for the chicks, the bebop and the fun of it.
The industry was in the big cities like New York. Musicologists would start tracing roots and go back to the days of slavery. They would say people would clap hands and stamp their feet and have call and response whilst they were laying the railway line. That's one route and then they would say the slaves sang the blues because they were enslaved. All these things feed into a culture, which is a universal experience. Improvising, to make the day go by with non-written music (was another route). Can you imagine when someone picks up a harmonica or concertina or makes a flute out of bamboo. He's going to start putting sounds onto an instrument. Ownership is always the argument especially when there is money to be made. When money is to be spent nobody owns it. You got to give everybody their due because everybody would contribute whether it was language, food or music. This is how I see the development of anything. Of course when you go to the big factory towns where motorcars are made or where there are railway junctions and forestry's, you have motor town ‘Motown' music. Philadelphia. And it would have a certain rhythm. And if you go to Port Elizabeth where they also make motorcars, you go to Johannesburg where there are mines. It resonates. This is why it becomes a global kind of culture and it is not about language. It is about sound.
The whole European tradition of music which had become pretty formalized, pretty exclusive, pretty much controlled by a European elite of royalty what what what, very often lost the common touch. And you find the working class of Germany and France finds a resonance with working class America.
Take a period like the nineteen fifties. It was a post war phenomenon. A new generation was borne. When people like Dave Brubeck played on the campuses, this whole jazz goes to college, jazz becomes academic, jazz becomes intellectual, jazz becomes intelligent, you started to find people who were divided by a distinctly classical tradition finding some kind of meeting with people who have come from the untutored school. A lot of white musicians who were educated in reading music had fallen in love with this jazz form. Especially on the West coast and they could write it down and also orchestrate it. Before that you would find a black revolt in the ghettoes in the working class like Harlem. The Second World War produced people like Charlie Parker, like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. They were articulate city folk. They started expressing themselves in an intellectual way but not on the college campus. That's why styles like bebop came into existence because people were done with what they inherited. When the Second World War breaks out all the men must go into the army. There is a whole social evolution. The whole pecking order is gone. Leadership had gone. Those who couldn't enlist in the war would maybe play in the band, but they were too young, or take drugs. And in their drugged states they would fantasize: the anger of war, the bombs dropping, the unpredictability of life, would put people into a frenzy…What those years did to people's minds.
We must remember there were things like unions and record industry's. You must tie up the technology with the whole development. Technology is global. We switched from gramophone, which is vinyl to electricity with long playing, which means you could take a thirty-minute solo. Electrification and microphone techniques all developed during the war. And all this would influence the way art develops, the way it is imitated, the way it travels. Universities all over the world particularly in the British Empire which we are part of tried to get with it.
In 1954 / 1955 the UCT rag decided to have a jazz concert. Because they had problems with mutual venues they got the Wiseman hall in Sea Point which is a private hall where they could have mixed audiences. The jazz fraternity in Cape Town got so excited, the place was packed. The tragedy of that night is only white musicians played.
And the guys who weren't white suddenly became politicized. It is very difficult for people to become politicized. Don't talk politics, don't talk religion. I am here for the art.
What we did is get the Holy Cross in District Six. We said father please give us this hall we want to have a jazz concert. And all the guys who didn't get a chance played in the holy cross jazz concert and the place was full. And that's how the jazz concert tradition started. Suddenly we were advertising Woodstock Town hall jazz concert. That was a time when Abdullah Ibrahim was still playing in a local dance band.
Parallel to all of this was the black rights. Chris Columbus played with the District Six guys. Jazz brought people together who just loved the music. This is why apartheid hated jazz. It brought people together and that is why laws starting banning mixed performances. And that's why the jazz culture was broken. Amongst the black guys there was an imitation of Harlem: the big hats, the big suits, the saxophone, the dancing, the shuffling. There was a similar kind of social segregation. So as the whites would take their cue from Europe, the blacks would take their cue from America.
The moment the song got difficult they would leave out the middle difficult parts. This marabi thing is very cyclical. They would go over those three chords or four chords and people would dance to this or shuffle. If you get out a record that Fats Waller made in the 30's called the London Suite, you would think it is Sophiatown. Our history parallels so much with American history. A lot of black guys even speak with an American accent because you could be mistaken for an American Negro and the cops weren't so hard on you.
If you look at Drum magazine it could be a Harlem magazine. This is where the jazz working class culture would take route. Abdullah Ibrahim who is a Cape Tonian moved a lot around the country. He grew up in a place that was next door to a black settlement so from an early age he picked up the black rhythms. District Six is a convenient label but Abdullah didn't develop his art in District Six he grew up in the Northern suburbs and his mother played the organ in the church. He heard marabi as well as carnival music. That was why his imagination was so rich. But we would never produce another Abdullah Ibrahim after that because people were segregated.
As a teenager I used to go to Langa with a trombone to go and sit in with the guys. They had song and dance 3PM every Saturday but then the permit system came in and you couldn't get into Langa anymore. Politics started controlling life and that is where the ethnic thing started becoming emphasized. Zulu, Sotho, Cape Coloured, Indian you must develop your own culture.
Now in the post-apartheid era we are trying to find each other again. It is difficult but at least you can see that jazz is bringing musicians together. There are no places like District Six anymore and this is what we need if we want jazz culture to take off again. The talent is here. There got to be talent in a town like this and a country like this with all the stimulus and variety. Tuition is slowly coming right. We now have a jazz school at UCT. Accessibility to instruments, accessibility to tuition is what is needed if this thing is going to flourish and grow. You find guys who are long in the teeth still billed as superstars on the waterfront. There is a whole competition between those who are affluent and those who are poor. Unfortunately the divide is often white and black. This bedevils the whole art form regards people just loving the music and getting together.
They start creating artificial names like Namaqua and Xhosa and Khoisan. There are certain attempts to get indigenous sounds going.
We are not there yet because this needs the chance for growth. There is going to be some kind of direction that makes us confident in being ourselves. And that ties up with our history; our identity and we express our music. The Brazilians have had a longer chance to establish an identity.
The fifties was a very promising period, the time of the Blue Notes and the Jazz. There is talent here and there is freedom now. The word jazz is the magic word. Thank God there are places where you can play jazz. But it is an audience of thugs. That doesn't' encourage the growth of sensitive music. Take me to place where they don't sell liquor. This is the kind of honesty I am talking about because I love the art form. When Chris Mcgregor or Abdullah Ibrahim were here we used to go to the Ambassadors Club and buy coffee and sandwiches and listen and you could see these people were saying things with their emotions. It is with the soul that music becomes art. The traditions of jazz are varied. It is the dance floor, it is the church, it is the cotton fields. For me there is that kind of inferiority complex that is the psyche of the nation. For me it is more than just music. For me it is your history, geography, politics, sociology, the totality with which art flourishes. All this has got to be examined holistically. I would like to see as part of this reconstruction and development a little house in every township where children learn or a local brass band. We used to watch Sunday afternoon; a brass band. Now it is gangsters and fast cars. It is pretty sick, it is all about how these jail birds talk. Swear words and things like that. For me it is far more honest. Everybody in Cape Town is an immigrant. This is a port.