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The day the music died at Kippies Jazz Club

Published Jan 24, 2005

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By Jan Hennop

South African jazz giant Hugh Masekela played here. So did piano maestro Abdullah Ibrahim. Former American president Bill Clinton almost did, but declined at the last moment.

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For the past 20 years the cosy arthouse in Johannesburg's inner city has been the pulse of South Africa's once vibrant jazz scene and was named one of the world's 100 Greatest Jazz Clubs by the influential US Downbeat magazine.

But now, "Kippies", with its high ceilings, arched windows and dark corners, where budding artists have gone on to become legends, is taking a bow.

The building is to be demolished in the coming months after being deemed unsafe, said Tshepo Nkosi, spokesperson for the Johannesburg Development Agency.

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The problem lies in the structure of the house, situated in Johannesburg's central Newtown Cultural Precinct, at the spearhead of reviving the inner city, slowly rising from a wave of urban decay and criminality.

Tests have found it was built on a geological fault line and that the continued settling of its foundation caused cracks in the structure, running a real risk of collapse.

Many artists, including current tenant and South African music icon Sipho "Hotstix" Mabuse, fear that Kippies' closure will mean that a large chunk of the country's substantial jazz heritage will be lost forever.

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"It's very sad. This place is the hub of jazz music in Johannesburg," says "Hotstix", who earned his nickname as a 16-year-old drummer in a Soweto township high school band.

"When you walk onto the stage at Kippies for your first set as an aspiring musician, you know you have made it. Now, it seems, there will be nowhere else to go."

Kippies has been graced by dignitaries, artists and stars alike.

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In 1998, then US president Bill Clinton expressed an interest in playing saxophone at the club.

"He was sitting right over there," Mabuse said, pointing to one of the tables. "We thought he might play, but in the end he was just too tired."

Fashioned after an Edwardian-style toilet building - the original of which was built in 1913 around 200 metres to the north - Kippies came to life in the mid-1980s, during the height of white South Africa's "state of emergency".

It became a safe haven for South Africans of all hues to mingle and for a few hours forget about the realities of life under apartheid, bonding people together through their love of jazz and music.

The name "Kippies" was first coined by piano great Abdullah Ibrahim, who named the place after another great South African musician, Kippie Moeketsi.

Described as a musical genius, Moeketsi was the "enfant terrible" of jazz in the 1950s in then Sophiatown just west of the Johannesburg central business district.

It was a hotbed of black liberation politics from where "non-European" residents were later forcibly removed by the apartheid state and a white suburb named Triomf (Triumph) was established.

The musician's legacy lived on at the jazz club bearing his name.

On one wall there is a collage of black and white pictures of Moeketsi and some of his music. Across the room with dark tables and chairs, still lined up since a final show on New Year's Eve, there is a small wooden bar with faded posters of Miles Davis and Masekela.

On stage, a single drum set gathers dust.

Jazz in Johannesburg seems to dying a slow death.

In September 2003, the city's other main jazz venue, the Bassline, in the bustling restaurant suburb of Melville also closed its doors. - Sapa-AFP

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