PICS: Jazz man on a mission to archive legends

It is immediately clear Wayne Winborne is not just passionate about his job – he lives it.

The executive director of the Institute of Jazz at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, in the US – the largest repository of jazz paraphernalia in the world – has been in the job for two years, and says he was surprised when it was offered to him.

“I’m not an archivist,” he chuckles. “I’m a jazz nerd.”

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Wayne Winborne, the executive director of the Institute of Jazz at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, in the US, was in South Africa for the Cape Town International Jazz Festival.Dizzy GillespieMiles DavisInternationally acclaimed South African pianist Abdullah Ebrahim mesmerises his audience during a performance in Wynberg.Rashid Lombard, surrounded by posters of musicians, says jazz has kept him sane in terrible places. Picture: BRENTON GEACH

Being a jazz man has earned him the respect of his peers in both the education and music spheres.

As the music filters through the quiet café on a brisk autumn afternoon, he picks out a young Charlie Parker playing the saxophone in the piped music.

“It’s so distinctive,” he says breaking from the conversation about music through struggle and fighting struggle through music. “You can hear he’s young. Still unrefined.”

Winborne is in South Africa for a decidedly particular purpose. He’s met local jazz legends and other key figures in the country’s music world – like Rashid Lombard and others – with a view to assisting them set up a similar music archive here.

Rutgers boasts the world’s largest jazz archive and Winborne says it’s quite a task to maintain.

“You have to be sure you know how to take care of these things. Okay, maybe this needs to be stored in an airtight container. This you need to make sure the moths don’t get to it. You need to catalogue each item. These could take up to 18 months to do. And you need to have the people who have the skills to do that.”

The Institute of Jazz houses more than 150 000 recordings on every format in history, more than 6000 books and more than 7 000 images, including rare videos. Miles Davis’ trumpets – each individually engraved with his name – are stored there.

“I’ve got a diamond-encrusted mouth-piece from Roy Eldridge’s trumpet too,” Winborne says with a glint in his eye.

“Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie; that was the lineage. They used to call Roy ‘Little Jazz’ because he would follow Louis Armstrong.”

His laughter is infectious and the cadence of his voice echoes the gentle lilt of the swing jazz of which he is so fond.

“You’re right. Jazz is evergreen. Music genres do all have their time in the sun, but jazz is always there.”

There’s an importance to preserving the history of music and jazz in South Africa, he says, because the country has its own jazz legends and stories that need to be told.

“I was over at Rashid’s and he’s got a picture of a young Abdullah Ebrahim playing on a little upright piano. There’s a picture of Abdullah Ebrahim playing a bucket as a drum,” he laughs. “Why’s that important? Because he didn’t just spring out of nowhere. He came from a community. He came from a set of experiences. Who did he listen to? Sure, he’s listening to Duke Ellington, but he’s living over here. What Xhosa singer is he listening to? What else is shaping his musical influence? This is critical. Moreover, how did the times affect him?

“'Wow, you never wrote love songs in a major key, why?’ Because they were struggling. They needed a minor key. So this becomes important. This music deserves the respect – your people, our people, black people – deserve the respect of scholarly attention, because it’s just as important.

“Why? Because it informs us. It helps us figure out where we are now. It helps us feel... ‘why do I wanna punch that dude in the face?’ Wait, I don’t have to punch this dude in the face.

“I can put this record on and it’s going to simultaneously express my anger and chill me out. And make me understand that other folks have gone through this; I can too. I can build on it.

“That’s power, man. That’s power.”

Jazz is evolving, he says, and will continue to do so.

“Some of these cats my age listen to some of the stuff being produced these days and it’s like this” – he breaks to bebop his way through a few lines of music – “and they’re like ‘I don’t get that. I’m not feeling that,’ and I’m like ‘That’s because, brother, it’s not for you’.”

There’s a jazz for every person, he says, because art, and jazz in particular, has a socio-political impact as well.

“There are some very disturbing things in our past, and yours, and currently in our present.

“And we can’t shy away from that. We need to be open to it, to talking about it. And we’re going to sit and talk about it and an artist is going to create something out of it and we’re gonna be like, ‘That’s exactly how I feel!’ You see? there’s power in that.

“That’s why it’s so great to be welcomed here to your city. I wasn’t prepared for that, but I found myself listening to your music, and going ‘hang on... this is cool!’ And that’s the beauty.

“It relates. It’s the same for us. Our music is absolutely woven into our politics. It helped us make sense of our times. It gave us comfort.

“You can put a song on and it takes you back. Awww, that’s high school, that’s the first time I kissed my love. The first time I had my heart broken.”

Music cannot be captured and taken away from a people. If language and land are tools of the coloniser and oppressor, music is the resistance.

“You can’t capture the artist. You can take the art they put on the wall, but the music that we make, the songs that people sing, that can never be taken away.”

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