Thursday, 9 June 2011

The Blue Notes in London

Note: This is the text of a talk I gave at the launch of the Rhodes University/Mellon Jazz Heritage Project in Grahamstown on Tuesday 7 June 2011.

History has a funny way of turning things around, making us look at things in different ways, if we are at all sensitive to our surroundings and the people in our lives.
In 1860 a young minister of the Scottish Presbyterian Church arrived in South Africa at the invitation of the Dutch Reformed Church. The invitation was made partly in terms of the Anglicisation policy followed with some vigour by the former colonial Governor of the Cape Colony, Lord Charles Somerset, whose influence cast a long shadow over the history of colonialism in South Africa.
The young minister was Andrew McGregor, and he soon started to grow roots into the soil of Africa. He married Elizabeth Robertson, herself the daughter of a Scottish dominee in the DRC, and started a large family.
A little more than a century later, Andrew McGregor's great-grandson landed in London, bringing with him a style, a genre, of music deeply influenced by the music of the indigenous people of the Eastern Cape. The colonisation of the colonisers had begun.
This young man, who had the name of his great-grandfather Andrew, was better known by his second name, Christopher, and was generally and familiarly called Chris.
Chris, of course, was not alone. With him were four young men, three of them from the Eastern Cape and one from Langa in the Western Cape. These five were together the Blue Notes, a band of exceptional musicians who had found each other through their own individual explorations of the music of improvisation, the music of freedom, in a South Africa in which the evil of apartheid was going in the opposite direction, forcing people apart and making the meeting of like-minded people more and more difficult. So in that context the way these five came together was already something notable, something that was not to be expected.
Eric Nomvete with Murray McGregor. October 1987. Photo Tony McGregor
Mongezi Feza, dazzling trumpeter, was born in Queenstown in 1945. He played, while still a teenager, with Eric Nomvete's band which in 1962 won the Moroka-Jabavu Jazz Festival honours with that incredible blues and tradition-based number “Pondo Blues.” (This album is downloadable here). As an interesting aside, Eric Nomvete, with whom Chris also played at the old Bamboo Room in East London, had been a student of our father's at Healdtown, and the two had an emotional and joyful reunion in Johannesburg in 1987 when Chris was out here for the Carling Circle of Jazz gig on Greenmarket Square, Cape Town.
The birth date of Johnny Mbizo Dyani, bassist extraordinaire, is something of a mystery, at least three dates being possible, according to Lars Rasmussen, author of Mbizo – a book about Johnny Dyani (Copenhagen, The Booktrader,2003). When  Johnny left South Africa with the Blue Notes his birthdate was recorded in his passport as 31 December 1947, though Johnny himself always celebrated his birthday on November 30 and claimed his birth year as 1945. Home Affairs has listed his birthdate as 4 June 1947. Rasmussen believes the 4 June 1947 date to be the correct one.
Whatever the case, it seems to me to symbolise the lack of importance accorded the birth of a black person in apartheid South Africa – no matter that this particular black person would come to occupy a position of some prominence on the international music scene.
Mtutuzeli Pukwana, better known as Dudu, was born in Walmer Township, Port Elizabeth in 1938, and after meeting Chris at the same 1962 Jazz Festival the two became firm and life-long friends and collaborators. Although he started out playing piano he soon switched to alto. His searing, soaring solos  on this instrument became hallmarks of the bands he played in, the Blue Notes and the Brotherhood of Breath in particular, but also his own formations Zila and Spear, among many others.
Louis Tebugo Moholo-Moholo the rock-steady drummer who propelled the Blue Notes to some amazing heights of improvisation, was born in Cape Town in 1940. He grew up listening to the swing and dance music popular in the Cape Town townships of the time. Great drummer Early Mabuza was a great influence on Louis, known familiarly as “Bra Tebs”.
Chris himself was born in 1936 in Somerset West (see how long the shadow of the colonialist falls!), not as is sometimes claimed, in Mthatha. He went to school in Mthatha until 1952 when he went to the South African Training Ship General Botha in Gordon's Bay, at first seeing himself following a career in the merchant marine. But music was too powerful a force in his life and a few years later he was enrolled for a B. Mus at the College of Music, UCT.
The Blue Notes had left South Africa to play at the Antibes Jazz Festival in August 1964. Their 20 minute set at the festival attracted some favourable critical notice, including a few paragraphs in Down Beat.
A sixth member of the group, tenor man Nikele Moyake, had gone to France with the Blue Notes but had to return to South Africa before they went to London, due to ill health.
Given the political situation back home, they knew that they could not return to South Africa and started busking around Antibes and the Cote d'Azur. This was fine until the tourist season came to an end and so also the money they were managing to pick up.
Through Dollar Brand the Blue Notes managed to get a gig at the Afrikana, a cafe-bar, in Zurich, Switzerland, where they shivered through the winter, finding life rather difficult.
Maxine LautrĂ©, the band's manager and later Chris’s wife, meanwhile took up a position at Dennis Duerden's Transcription Centre in London to earn some much needed cash. She managed to interest Ronnie Scott and some others in the band and so they decamped to London in the spring of 1965, playing initially at Scott's club in Soho and also by invitation in other venues.
The first gig at Ronnie Scott's got rave reviews and opened the eyes and ears of many British jazz fans, some of whom were to rise to great heights themselves after hearing and playing with Chris, Dudu and the others. One can think of Dave Holland, Keith Tippett, Mike Osborne, John Surman, Evan Parker and more.
But that was in the future. At the time of the Ronnie Scott gig they were still young and, though their music was mature, they were still feeling their ways into another culture, another way of life.
In South Africa they had been stars and had had many fans. In London they were relatively unknown and were finding that experience rather daunting.
The London scene was very different from the South African one. Chris told me once how he and Mongezi were walking somewhere in London after a gig and they saw all these people with purple faces, which almost freaked them out. Mongezi in particular was quite scared by these “apparitions” who turned out to be meths drinkers whose faces were stained by the colouring of the meths they were addicted to.
But when these photos were taken the Blue Notes were still wary, still unsure of anything but the music. They each found different ways of coping with the pressure, not always the most appropriate ways at times.
Within ten years Mongs would be dead, a victim, some said, of racism in the health care sector in the UK. He died of pneumonia, a disease very treatable and curable.
Mongezi's eyes say so much! Photo John Goldblatt
When I look at these photos by John Goldblatt, I see the intensity of the their musical commitment and also the pain of exile, a pain which was not without benefits. They were starting on a journey through experiences which would not have been possible to them if they had stayed at home.
So musically they were in a very positive and exciting place while on a personal level they were lonely and cut off from their roots.
Johnny was the next to die. He died doing what he loved best – making music. It happened in Berlin.
Chris died in late May 1990 and Bra Duds about six weeks later, leaving Bra Tebs as the sole survivor of that intrepid band.
As producer Joe Boyd, who first heard the Blue Notes at the “Old Place” in Gerrard Street, London, said of the deaths of Mongs, Dudu, Johnny and Chris: “Whatever the cause of death on the certificate, homesickness and exile were their true afflictions, and the potential cure of being welcomed by their adopted British homeland was never really on offer.” (White Bicycles, London, Serpent’s Tail, 2006)
Mongezi - total commitment to the music. Photo John Goldblatt
So these photos are a wonderful evocation of a particular moment in the history of jazz in general, and specifically of South African jazz. They seem to capture that moment very poignantly, very beautifully. It is a moment of truth, a moment of the reversal of the abnegation of the indigenous culture of South Africa by the colonial powers, a moment when what the colonial powers had thought of little consequence was brought back to the metropole in all its power and beauty.
Photo John Goldblatt
Sadly, it is a moment few South African jazz fans have had much access to over the years. Perhaps this project will begin to bring the music home again, now enriched by the experience of mixing with great musicians from outside of South Africa, but still infused with the energy and joy that characterise South African jazz.
John Keulder. Photo Tony McGregor, 7 June 2011

A note on the photos: The photographs were taken by John Goldblatt, a photographer working for the Daily Worker newspaper and their negatives lay forgotten in the UK Communist Party archives until Professor Robert van Niekerk recently discovered them on an online website dedicated to ephemera from political struggles between the 1950’s and 1980’s. Thanks to the wizardry of retired RU technician John Keulder who worked in the Geography Department’s photo labs for some 30 years, the ageing negatives have been painstakingly brought to life in a darkroom. These non-digitised photographs are thus one of the most authentic representations of the original 45 year old negatives. The photographs will be placed on permanent exhibition in the Beethoven Room of the Music Department, Rhodes University.. 

51 comments:

Mpumi Bikitsha said...

Tony, what a wonderful and brilliant piece! It saddens me deeply at the same time. I don't know what it is with musicians that renders them to somewhat sad endings. I can't fathom it. There was a famous musician called Cups 'n Saucer in Langa some years back, when I tried to revive them for a function I was doing where I worked he said, "my sister, to try and get these guys together is heartbreaking because as much as thye need the boodle, you find them drunk from as early as 9am. All talented.

Anonymous said...

Great article and fabulous pictures, thank you so much for creating this tribute to those outstanding spirits. -MB

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