Nelson Mandela was in the audience the night the smooth sounds of jazz first wafted through apartheid South Africa, flowing over a fallen hero, caressing a much-divided audience and descending upon a night that would go down in the musical history of our country.
That night was February 2 1959. The setting was the Wits Great Hall in Johannesburg. And the history being made was the first all-Black South African musical.
King Kong, the jazz-influenced musical featuring a 70-strong cast that included Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Gwigwi Mrwebi and Phyllis Mqoma, was an overnight hit.
The true-life story of the champion boxer who fell from grace and committed suicide went on to become an international success.
But out of this tragic tale came a catharsis for the oppressed - the moody blues was a soothing salve to the wounds of apartheid just as it was on the cotton fields of New Orleans as Black Americans battled slavery in the late 19th century.
Black South Africans sang and danced to jazz during the forced removals from District Six in Cape Town to Sophiatown in Johannesburg. They swayed their bodies and tapped their feet moments after the police left, following yet another raid. Jazz was everywhere. It was found at birthday parties and the “after-tears” wakes that followed funerals.
King Kong, which was seen by about 250 000 South Africans, played a pivotal role as a form of social commentary for the black community as it subtly challenged the apartheid regime by highlighting cultural differences and showcasing black talent.
Explaining the social impact of jazz at a tumultuous time in SA history, Nduduzo Makhathini, arguably the country’s most prominent jazz artists, said: “Jazz is a genre that relies on the surrounding conversations or the surrounding energy fields.
“Jazz was used in a colonial sense in the ’80s and early ’90s as a voice to fight oppression, whether physical or mental.”
King Kong featured music from some of South Africa’s most prominent jazz artists, most notably bebop group Jazz Epistles’ trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi and trumpeter Hugh Masekela.
Although the content was often profound and touched on strong messages of defiance, the music was bouncy and cheerful.
The late Masekela, who wrote several renowned anti-apartheid songs, was among the first breed of internationally acclaimed South African jazz artists.
Berita, a young afro-soul singer who worked with Masekela in his latter years, shared some insight on the uniqueness of his sound.
“What was special about his blend of jazz music was that it was home,” she said. “It had a touch of Africa. It reminded us of what home feels like and what home should be. He always wanted to make us aware of our African heritage and our African culture through our music. His music was colourful, joyful and distinctly African.”
Several other jazz musicians emerged during the apartheid era: Allan Kwela, Jonas Gwangwa and Masekela’s Jazz Epistle collaborator, Abdullah Ibrahim.
And although many left the country to seek asylum abroad in the early to mid-20th century, jazz still thrived in many black communities.
In 1994, following the fall of apartheid, jazz aficionado Brad Holmes returned home from London and founded what would become known as Bassline Jazz Club in Johannesburg.
Bassline began as a small live music venue in the bohemian suburb of Melville and gradually grew to become the premier live music venue for South Africa’s finest jazz talents. Among the careers that were launched and enhanced there were those of Vusi Mahlasela, Moses Taiwa Molelekwa, Zim Ngqawana, Paul Hanmer and Jimmy Dludlu.
Holmes, who abandoned the army to go and work in London during apartheid, recalled how he was first drawn to South African jazz when he encountered South African Jazz Pioneers at Jamesons around 1985.
“My brother used to take us to Jamesons,” he said. “We used to also go to the Free People’s Concerts at Wits University with my older brothers and sisters. We were exposed to everything from Johnny Clegg to Elemental, and a whole bunch of different music. We really got into Struggle music There were a lot of really major musos that came through during the apartheid era, I could go on forever and give you a list of at least a hundred musos.”
Tlale Makhene, the Soweto-born Swaziland-raised jazz artist whose debut album Ascension of the Enlightened won the 2014 South African Music Award (SAMA) for Best Contemporary Jazz, recalled his first encounter with jazz and some of the artists he listened to as a young boy.
“Edladleni (at home) there’s always been jazz playing around and when I was young there was always this one album playing at home - I loved it. Later I realised it was Lou Donaldson. For me that was one of my first encounters with jazz. I think the biggest encounter was Mankunku (Winston Monwabisi ‘Mankunku’ Ngozi). Mankunku and Lou Donaldson, that was my entry level.”
Mankunku, a famous South African tenor saxophone player, was best known for his blockbuster album, Yakhal’ Inkomo, which won him the Castle Lager “Jazz Musician of the Year” award for 1968.
South African jazz has since evolved.
The subsequent remakes and versions of Yakhal’ Inkomo by the likes of Makhene and Sibongile Khumalo reflect this evolution.
Makhene bemoans the fact that there are still “jazz police” who insist that the American way of jazz is the only way to do the genre justice.
“What they forget is that jazz is a tradition. It’s their tradition and it comes from their struggles, it comes from the plantation. So with us, we have our own blues, our own struggles and jazz is a mixture of your own struggle as an indigenous person from your respective place mixed with that western harmony.
“Jazz doesn’t have to sound American, it has to sound like you and where you come from.”