Hugh Masakela: A South African Original
On the Transformative Power of Black Jazz
Growing Up in Mantzi I have been Fortunate enough to come from a Township of Soweto that in the early sixties and all the way to the rule of the ANC had electricity and telephones in our community. Why is this important? I grew up with uncles who were playing 78 rpm dicks on a gramophone, and we gradually upgraded to what was called Pilot FM radio (big and huge like caskets which contained a turntable and a FM radio. Eventually we came to be exposed to Hi Fi systems in the late 1960’s and 70’s and graduated to more sophisticated name brands like Marantz and the like.
Music was the driving force in the evolution and American Jazz was one of the most powerful influences that we were exposed to. Our elders, uncles and big brothers collected all of the great artist such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and all the seminal figures Playthell Benjamin cites in his essay “Wynton Marsalis and the Great American Art, as the produced this music. And we sought to get in their favor by our recognition and approval of the importance of their treasure troves of LP vinyl Jazz albums.
Furthermore, we were living amongst musicians who played Jazz and formed big bands here in Mzantsi; we were also imbibing a lot of South African Jazz that embodied all the diversity characteristic of South Africa in its sound. As we grew older we extended our listening and appreciation of the music by forming Jazz Clubs in the late Sixties whilst still in high school.
Our weekends were spent getting together bring new vinyl recordings we might have bought on Friday, and sample it with other members. If they could not identify the record one was made Jazz Appreciation King for the day and it lasted the entire week until we met again. Exposure to American Jazz was very important for us and it affirmed and solidified our beliefs that we were not mere “Kaffirs” (niggers) who were backward in all we did or were – African American Jazz told us, that those who looked like us, that those who looked like us, were the best in the world in this art form.
The Great Edward Kennedy “Duke Ellington”
Composer, Pianist, Bandleader, Paragon of Male Elegance
South African Pianist, Composer
This told us too, that we are the better people in the world, just from the Jazz perspective. We imbibed art forms and so forth from our African American brothers, but Jazz was paramount in entrenching and embedding beliefs about ourselves. Some of us went as far as to walk, talk, and dress like our Afro-American brothers. Others named themselves accordingly.
As we became more mature and refined in our understanding of the wide world of Jazz, we began to travel overseas to Jazz concerts all over the states, Canada and Europe. This expanded our horizons beyond the brutal apartheid world of South Africa. We became well marinated in the Jazz Milieu, which knew no national boundaries because of the recording industry. What has all this to do with Wynton Marsalis, the subject of Playthell’s recent essay? Everything!
Playthell’s analysis of the heroic role of Wynton in the advancement of Jazz as a vibrant art form supports the fledgling arguments of those among us here in South Africa, who have been insisting that Wynton has advanced Jazz beyond what the hard core Jazz classist here in Mzantsi think of a real Jazz, in fact they insisted that Wynton was not playing Jazz at all.
The Most Versatile Trumpeter in the World
I think the fact that he came from the Baroque side of classical music was lost to these detractors here for they knew nothing about the fact that Wynton had become the Master Jazz/Trumpeter /Composer/Innovator of the art and literally lifted and elevated Jazz into the 21st century. They just couldn’t wrap their minds around that fact.
I also suspect that they have lost touch with what Wynton was doing and saying, and hung on to the old ways of understanding Jazz. Wynton blew some of us away when he merged modern Jazz with African drummers on the same stage. We were amazed and fascinated as we watched his rehearsal sessions with these Africans, especially the way that he was able to show the similarities and the origins of Jazz as an African art form.
Conducting the performance of Congo Square
The Lincoln Center never witnessed anything like it!
Soul to Soul
The Rhythmic circle remains unbroken
The drum choir blended perfectly with the band
This edified us and lifted our long held beliefs that the music we were listening to called Jazz had melodic signatures which can be found in our own traditional songs and Jazz music here in Mantzsti. Playthell’s essay “Wynton Marsalis and the Great American Art,” is for me and Jazz Aficionados of kindred spirit, is so filled with erudite analysis about the art of Jazz and Wynton’s role in preserving and advancing the best of the tradition, that I feel compelled to post it on all the African sites I have access to.
There are some pretentious self- proclaimed Jazz gurus and avid fans who cannot accept anything new in Jazz. Not since Babatunde Olatunji took his “Drums of Passion” orchestra to Carnegie Hall – industrialist Andrew Carnegie’s gift to New York City and the art of music –has anyone achieved that. Wynton, however, took it a step further; many levels higher in fact, by merging both ensembles – African American musicians and a choir of African master drummers – on the same stage as part of one group. To me it was one of the things Wynton did that silenced the howling jazz dinosaurs in the Appreciators here in Mzantsi.
Greatest of All Times!
I concur with all that Playthell wrote about Wynton Marsalis….and then some. I have learned so much from reading this article that I immediately went over to my collection of Wynton’s records and have been following on some nuggets he doled/dropped in the essay. This kind of study will upgrade one’s understanding, appreciation and listening skills; enabling you to better grasp the techniques Wynton is employing to make such marvelous music. I am happy to have found Playthell’s article, for it confirmed what we had long believed. Jazz is an African art form and it resonates loudly with us here in Mzantsi and wherever it is played.
Double Click to see Dollar Brand
Double click to see Dollar Brand in a clearer video
Click to see Hugh Masakela perform tribute to Mandela
Double Click to see Wynton conduct Congo Square with Orchestra and African drums
Double Click to hear the Winston “Mankunzu” Ngozi Quartet
Skhokho Sa Tlou
Mzantsi, South Africa
August 19, 2013
** All Photos of Wynton and Congo Square Concert
by: Frank Stewart, official photographer for JALC