Friday 31 August 2012

1959: a miracle year in jazz

The winds of change

Revolution was in the air and the world seemed ripe for change. In Africa, as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Harold MacMillan, would tell the South African Parliament in Cape Town in February 1960, the winds of change were blowing, and would soon reach gale force. Fidel Castro took over Cuba and in that bastion of conservatism, the Vatican, saintly Pope John XX111 announced the calling of the Second Vatican Council, which would open the windows of the Vatican to let some fresh air into its stuffy confines. Archbishop Makarios returned to Cyprus after the island state obtained independence from the UK, the Marx Brothers made their last TV appearance and the first US servicemen were killed in Viet Nam. Bob Dylan had not yet found the answer blowing in the wind, but the wind was freshening all over the world.
In the world of jazz the wind was also being felt. It blew away some of the greatest names in the history of the music: Billie Holiday and her soulmate Lester "Prez" Young; the great master of the soprano sax, Sidney Bechet; pianist Baby Dodds.
It also blew an amazing creativity into the practitioners of the music, who produced a succession of albums of groundbreaking quality. Among the most outstanding of these were the two Charles Mingus albums, Blues and Roots and Mingus Ah Um; the Dave Brubeck album Time Out; the two Miles Davis albums Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain; John Coltrane’s Giant Steps; Ornette Coleman's prophetically titled The Shape of Jazz to Come; Bill Evans's Portrait in Jazz; Duke Ellington's soundtrack album Anatomy of a Murder; and Art Pepper's Art Pepper + 11. As jazz writer Gary Alexander has noted, "You can make a case that all forms of jazz existed side by side, in relative peace, in that one year - everything from Dixieland to avant-garde was on the record shelves under one category, Jazz."

On the cusp of something new

Jazz is a music of the moment, a music with which its practitioners react to what is happening around them, and what was happening in 1959 was the proclamation of change, the introduction to the turbulent 1960s, the decade of revolution and the "summer of love." The year represented the cusp, the change moment from the relative quietism and conformity of the 1950s to the clamour of the 1960s, the decade of Carnaby Street, the Beatles and Woodstock, the anti-war movement and the uprisings of May and June 1968, not to mention the Moon landing of July 1969.
At the same time the Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum in the United States. The people of the US had been made aware of a new phenomenon in their midst, the Nation of Islam, through the documentary “The Hate that Hate Produced” and the emergence of Malcolm X. This fostered as renewed interest and pride in African American culture, combined with a heightened awareness of the disadvantaged status of African Americans within predominantly white US society. Jazz musicians are, like most artists, extremely sensitive to issues of acceptance and rejection, and were certainly not immune to the currents and eddies blowing around them.
At about the same time the jazz style that had dominated since the 1940s, namely bebop, was being felt by many musicians to be restricting and limited in scope. The decline of bebop was in a sense signalled by the death of Charlie Parker in 1955. There was a feeling that bebop had come to the end of its tenure as a valid mode of expression, and musicians were becoming restless, looking for something new. The researches of musicians like George Russell into modal music was one direction taken, and Miles Davis's album Kind of Blue, is a prime example of where this exploration might go. The other response to the decline of bebop was the more free expression favoured and pioneered by Ornette Coleman, who used the springboard of the blues to find a new way of playing.
Somewhere in between these two was Charles Mingus, always different, both as person and as musician.
In 1959: The Year Everything Changed (Wiley) author Fred Kaplan writes "There was a sense that we were on the verge of change, a sense of both hope and dread, and a critical mass of pretty radical changes in almost every walk of life." And the musicians were expressing their responses to the change, to the sense of hope and dread.

The producers

Another aspect of the creativity of jazz, its special time signature in 1959, was the readiness of two great producers to give the musicians relatively free rein in the studio, supporting new directions, new sounds and rhythms. These two were Teo Macero, himself a musician (both a composer and a sax player), and Nesuhi Ertegun.
Macero was responsible for singing Charles Mingus to Columbia records and his greatest achievement, according to the obituary written by John Fordham in The Guardian of 28 February 2008, "but his close association with the notoriously difficult Davis - in a period in which the trumpeter changed styles at least three times in moving from acoustic jazz to electric fusion - was the supreme achievement of his time at the company."
Macero's contribution to jazz, especially jazz recording, and to the creative outpourings of 1959, came from the fact that he "thought as a creative musician, not a record company technician." according to Fordham's Guardian piece.
In the magic year of 1959 Macero produced the stand-out albums by Brubeck (Time Out), Mingus (Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty), and Davis (Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain). All of these in addition to the other albums that he produced that year.
In 1959 Nesuhi Ertegun produced Mingus's Blues and Roots, Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come and John Coltrane's Giant Steps. Clearly he had an ear for the future of the music.

The "Miracle year"

Another factor in the creative explosion that was 1959 was that in 1948 Columbia Records had introduced the long playing record (LP), which gave musicians more scope than the previous 78 rpm records had allowed. The exploitation of the new format by musicians and producers made it possible to regard the album as a work of art in itself, and few were more attuned to this than Macero.
Of course, these were not the only jazz albums recorded in 1959. Many other jazz musicians made superb albums, Ellington in particular with the Queen's Suite for Queen Elizabeth and the soundtrack music for the courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder. The Queen's Suite, which was recorded at Ellington's own expense and of which only a single copy was made and sent to the Queen, included the wonderful number "Single Petal of a Rose." The recording was not publicly released until after the Duke's death in 1974.
Cannonball Adderley, Shorty Rogers, Ben Webster, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday (just before her death), Quincy Jones and Thelonius Monk were among other artists who recorded in 1959, though their albums were not quite as essential as the core repertoire of Time Out, Giant Steps, Kind of Blue, Mingus Ah Um and The Shape of Jazz to Come, which are outstanding documents of the new directions jazz was exploring in that wonderful year described by Gary Alexander as "The miracle year 1959" which, he wrote, "was not only the year the music was reborn, but the year that jazz creativity reached its zenith."

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2012

Four Boys and a Dash – the story of Mary Thobei

“The dash was me!”

“When I first came to Troubador (a South African record label) with my group, the Swingtime Trotters, under the leadership of Edwill Lenyene, we were just four boys and a dash – and the dash was me!” That’s Mary Thobei talking about the start of her career as a singer.
Mary who? She has sung with the top musicians in South Africa but her name isn’t exactly a household word. Nor, despite having played a significant part in countless recordings as composer and performer, is Mary the prosperously retired ex-recording artist one might expect. She has been for some years a domestic worker in a northern Johannesburg suburban home.
Mary started working at Troubador recording studios in 1952. She stayed there until 1963.
In that time she worked with probably hundreds of musicians, including some whose names are still well-remembered by music fans – Gideon Nxumalo, Dolly Rathebe, Dorothy Masuka and, of course, Miriam Makeba.
Mary Thobei in 1993. Photo Denis Martin
Mary Thobei in 1993. Photo Denis Martin

“That was news in the records”

“In my days, you know, to be a singer was wonderful. You felt proud about it because whenever you walked in the street people would say, ‘You know such-and-such a song, there’s Mary Thobei who sings it.’ It was nice. I enjoyed it.”
“I like to sing music that I can feel and that’s what people like to hear – songs from the heart,” says Mary. “When I feel hurt, when something worries me, I will sing it. Music is my life.”
Mary reminisces about the start of her career when she was still a schoolgirl – singing in a concert at the Odin cinema in Sophiatown. With her in the show were such greats as Dolly Rathebe, Emily Kunene, Gideon Nxumalo, Willard Zuluboy Cele, “and me, the youngest.”
“I sang ‘Stormy Weather’ and when the people started applauding I was in shock and I started crying on the stage. After that Dolly came to me and said, ‘Keep it up, don’t be shy – sing! – you’ve got a nice voice.’”
Of her time at Troubador Mary says she and other musicians were paid very low fees “but we didn’t see anything wrong, because I could buy a few groceries for my mum nd get a skirt and a top for myself and still get some change.”
“I can say I was the mind of Troubador because at the end of the day, just when everyone wanted to go home some artist would come up with an idea for a song. I would say, ‘OK let’s sing it twice,’ and we would go home. Then the next day Cuthbert (Matumba – a producer at Troubador) would come to me and say, ‘Hey, Bamsanda, what is that tune you sang yesterday?’ and I would say, ‘it went like this and this.’”
“Then I would sing the tune and we would start putting some words to it and tell the recording manager we were ready. We used to do sometimes six side a day like that.”
Mary tells how she and Cuthbert would scan the newspapers and listen to the radio news broadcasts for stories they could write songs about. “Cuthbert would say he had heard over the radio that something was going to happen and ‘I want everybody now because by tonight 5 o’clock it must be out and I’m going to advertise it on the radio stations.”
“By the next morning, after the directors had listened to it, it was in the record stores. By the time the other studios woke up we were already on the shelves. That was news in the records.”
Mary attributes the great success of Troubador Records to this factor, that the songs they put out were often about contemporary issues that concerned the communities.
In an interview for Gwen Ansell’s wonderful book on South African jazz, Soweto Blues (Continuum, 2004), Mary identified some of the incidents that had given rise to best-selling sides: “Take, for instance, the big Azikhwelwa bus boycott in Alexandra Township and the death of ANC leader and Nobel prizewinner Chief Albert Luthuli. We cut best-selling records based on these incidents.”
Mary has a new role in the music world now – she provides invaluable information on the hundreds of recordings made by Troubador to Gallo Music Publisher‘s producer and archivist Rob Allingham, to help him in his research into recorded South African music of the 50s and 60s.
Mary has one great regret – she would have loved to play the tenor sax.

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2012

Tuesday 21 August 2012

The bellowing horn is stilled – farewell Mankunku

An article I posted elsewhere on the Web on the day Mankunku died. I have moved it here as I think it more appropriate.

A colossus on the South African jazz scene is no more

The mighty bellowing horn is stilled, and we shall not hear its like again. Winston “Mankunku” Ngozi died in the early hours of this morning, 13 October 2009, and one of the greatest of South African jazzmen is no more.
Mankunku, as he was known to generations of jazz fans, was a colossus on the jazz scene, a relatively small, unassuming, even shy, man. But when he picked up and blew that tenor he was enormous!
He was born in 1943 in Retreat, Cape Town, the first born of a musical family, he started to play the piano at age seven, later taking up trumpet and clarinet.
Mankunku took up the tenor in his teens, under the influence of a renowned older generation Cape Town tenorman, “Bra Cups” (or “Cup-and-Saucers”) Nkanuka.
He went on to play with almost all the greats of South African jazz, along the way making some splendid albums, though none achieved the success of his deservedly famous Yakhal' inKomo, recorded in 1968. This album has remained one of the top-selling jazz albums in South Africa ever since.

The band of stalwarts

Mankunku was one of the band of stalwart musicians who did not go into exile during the lean apartheid years. He preferred to stay with his people and make music as best as he could, which sometimes meant performing behind a curtain with an assumed name so as to circumvent the apartheid laws which prohibited blacks from sharing the stage with white performers.
A major, and acknowledged, influence on Mankunku was John Coltrane. One of his songs is called “Dedication – to Daddy Trane and Brother Silver” - a beautiful tribute to the musical influences.
Mankunku told, in an interview with Gwen Ansell, how important the spiritual aspect of the Coltrane influence was (this is recounted in Gwen Ansell's great book Soweto Blues, Continuum, 2004): “I know you think I'm a naughty old man, but most of the time, when I'm playing, I'm really praying. I used to dream of Coltrane. And one time in the '60s he came to me, did I tell you that? I was practicing, and I felt something funny in the room. My senses were prickling. I knew he was there. I got scared and put the instrument away. Maybe I shouldn't have told other people – they were nervous around me for some time after that! But he never came again.”
I think that passage has several important aspects. Firstly the spiritual nature of African music generally, though this is being threatened by commercialisation. All African musicians see music as a deeply spiritual activity and experience. And secondly the aspect of respect for the forefathers. For Mankunku Coltrane was an ancestor, a forefather, and was therefore in a position to guide Mankunku, and also was deserving of the deepest respect As Mankunku said in the same interview, acknowledging Coltrane's position as spiritual guide, “Even today, when I want to play, I take him (Trane) and I put him inside of me.”
My earliest recollection of Mankunku is in the late '60s in Cape Town, when the Cape Town Art Centre, at which I was studying painting part time, had a regular Sunday evening jazz gig. My then girl-friend and I used to go every Sunday to listen to the great jazz being played there, and Mankunku, in his trademark cloth cap, was a regular. He was backed by other great musicians like Midge Pike on bass and Monty Weber on drums.
Mankunku at the Cape Town Art Centre. Photo by Tony McGregor
The 1970s were hard times for jazz musicians in South Africa, what with music styles changing and the heavy hand of apartheid hanging over all. The music scene was not conducive to musicians who were serious about their art, especially black jazz musicians. Mankunku, like the others, had it tough in those years. “If you had just got through the day and nothing too terrible had happened, that was the time to joke, to celebrate, and that was what the music was for...But we never stopped playing. Never! Never went far away from the music. We'd be at home. Some work, practising, listening. It's just that we weren't seen.”
The next time I saw Mankunku was a gig at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg in the 1980s. That was when I heard him play "Yakhal' inKomo", and it nearly brought the house down with its energy and emotional power. Hearing that song live was just incredible – no recording I have heard, not even Mankunku's own, has managed to capture the raw power of that song adequately. The recording is just a pale reflection.
Mankunku at the Greenmarket Square gig. Photo by Tony McGregor
Mankunku recorded outside of South Africa for the first time in 1986, an album called Crossroads, after the informal settlement outside Cape Town. This album was made in London with a number of exiled South African musicians in the studio, like the late multi-instrumentalist Bheki Mseleku, percussionist Russell Herman, guitarist Lucky Ranku and trumpeter Claude Deppa.
I saw him again in 1987 when he played with Chris McGregor in the Carling Circle of Jazz concert on Greenmarket Square in Cape Town.
An album made with old South African jazz stalwart Tete Mbambisa was laid down in 1997 and 1998 called Molo Africa. One of the tracks is entitled “A Song For Bra Des Tutu” which, of course I love!
I never saw Mankunku again. So I was greatly saddened when I got the phone call from my musician friend Ernest Mothle this morning telling me that “Winston has left us.”
In isiXhosa we say, when someone has left us, “Hamba Kahle (Go well)” and so that is my wish for Mankunku - “Hamba kahle, mfo' wethu (my brother)”, your bellowing horn will be sorely missed back home.

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2009

Monday 20 August 2012

Love you madly – serendipitous beauty from tenorman Bob Rigter

Jazz from Holland

While doing some Internet research for my Hub on Jazz: “What is Jazz? Ain't no other music like it!” I came across an article by one Bob Rigter entitled “The etymology of the word JAZZ” and I discovered from the site that Bob was a retired Professor of English at the University of Leiden in Holland, a novelist, and, most intriguingly to me, a jazz musician.
I contacted him to learn more and he, very kindly, offered to send me a copy of his latest CD, called “Love You Madly” from the tune by Duke Ellington. This I have now received and am enjoying greatly.
The CD features, besides Bob on tenor, Simon Planting on bass, Han van der Rhee on piano and Rob Engels on drums.

Straight from the heart

All the numbers on the CD are standards, fitting the description of the CD as “in an intimate, after-hours mood,” recalling, in Bob's words, “the atmosphere of those nights when we played on into the late, late hours,” after the more formal part of the gig was over, when “drinks were handed round, the lights were dimmed and … we started to play tunes that were special, mostly ballads.”
So all 10 tracks of the CD feature Bob's singing, mellow and breathy tenor backed by sensitive and lyrical playing that gently swings, no haranguing, no wailing, just lovely, atmospheric and melodic improvisation on well-remembered tunes.
It is a programme of tunes played, in Bob's words, “straight from the heart,” with no gimmicks: “no cutting, no splicing, no dubbing.” In other words, a totally honest offering of heartfelt music.
“This is the kind of music the musicians in my quartet believe in, and it is the kind of jazz that our audiences believe in,” Bob writes.
The CD kicks off with the title track which starts with a great little piano and bass intro and then Bob picks up the melody, which after he has laid it down most elegantly, he starts to play with gently, with great swing. And there follow some great interpolations by the other musicians, notable Planting on bass.
Han van der Rhee introduces the next number which Bob plays with great feeling – that very British ballad “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”. Bob explains the importance of lyrics in his style of music making with reference to this song: “I knew the lyrics before I had ever heard this beautiful (British) ballad, for I had read Nevil Shute's novel Pastoral, in which a war-pilot hums this song on his way home in a bullet-riddled plane after a raid on Germany. He has lost radio-contact and he has little chance of making it back. His girlfriend is the radio-operator at the airfield. He cannot hear her, but she can hear him! And, while his bomber is slowly going down, she hears hears him humming: 'The streets of town were paved with stars. It was such a romantic affair. And as we kissed and said goodnight, a nightingale sang in Berkeley Square.'” I confess I will never hear this song again the way I did before. For that I thank you, Bob.
The whole programme of the CD has a smooth, mellow, rich tone somewhat how I would imagine a good whiskey (though not being a whiskey drinker this is pure conjecture on my part!), and it could have a similarly relaxing effect on the listener. The numbers which are the most up-tempo on the CD are Tad Dameron's “On a Misty Night”, Dexter Gordon's “The Rainbow People,” and Ruth Lowe's “I'll Never Smile Again, Until I Smile At You”, the other numbers all being very laid back

Ben Webster's ghost?

Photo of Ben Webster at his last gig. Photo taken by Bob's wife Jasperina
Listening to Bob's breathy tenor on this album one could almost see a ghostly Ben Webster playing, the
sound is so similar. And this is perhaps no accident, for on Bob's website is an account of Webster's last concert, which I'm sure Bob will not mind my copying here:
Towards the end of Ben Webster’s very last concert in 1973, Ben asked Bob Rigter to play the blues on his instrument. This happened in jazz cafĂ© De Twee Spieghels , Nieuwstraat, Leiden, on 6 September. It appears that Ben felt his end approaching, and he wanted some time out. Irv Rochlin was the pianist, Henk Haverhoek played the bass and Peter Ypma the drums. With this rhythm section, Bob played the blues on Webster’s ‘Betsy’, a Selmer Balanced Action with a rather wide Otto Link mouthpiece and what felt like a 3 or 3½ reed. After his instrument was handed back to him, Ben played one more piece. Then he got to his feet and made a little speech. He wanted to pass on what an old man had said to him when he was young: ‘You are young and growing, and I am old and going. So have your fun while you can.’ He repeated this: ‘Son, you are young and growing, and I am old and going. So have your fun while you can.’ The next day Ben was taken to the St Lucas Hospital in Amsterdam, where he died on 20 September 1973.
Fittingly, the last number on the CD is Billie Holiday's beautiful ballad, “Don't Explain”, and maybe we shouldn't. We should just accept that beauty comes in sometimes strange, sometimes unexpected, always serendipitous ways, and be grateful.

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2009