The famous 1959 Charles Mingus albums

Jazz’s “annus mirabilis”

Mingus recorded four albums in this annus mirabilis of jazz: Mingus in Wonderland, a live album recorded on 16 January at Nonagon Art Gallery in New York City; Blues and Roots recorded on 4 February with Nesuhi Ertegun again doing the producing; and the two Teo Macero-produced albums Mingus Ah Um recorded in May and Mingus Dynasty recorded at the famous 30th Street Studio on 1 and 13 November, with different personnel on each day.

Blues and Roots and Mingus Ah Um stand out as works of art – albums that continue to shine, inspiring jazz musicians and fans 50 years later.

They are albums which show a musician reaching a pinnacle of creativity, and the wonder is that they are not the final words in this particular musician’s career – Mingus went on to make many more superlative albums. Somehow, though, these two are albums that fans and other musicians turn to again and again, they are both treasuries of great music that one can learn from and a great deal of fun to listen to.

Wonderland and blues

Mingus in Wonderland features John Handy on alto, Booker Ervin on tenor, Richard Wyands on piano, and Dannie Richmond on drums. Two of the tracks are songs that Mingus wrote for the John Cassavetes movie Shadows, namely “Nostalgia in Times Square” and “Alice’s Wonderland”. The other tracks are “I Can’t Get Started” and “No Private Income Blues”.

I have not been able to obtain a copy of this album and so cannot write with any certainty about it.

The album Blues and Roots is the subject of my article “Mingus gets down to the roots of the matter” and so I won’t describe it in any detail here. It was the first album on which Mingus’s composition “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” appeared, a number which subsequently became something of a Mingus staple. This composition distilled the experiences Mingus had in the Holiness Church in his days in Watts.

Mingus Ah Um was the subject of my article “Mingus Magnificus Ah Um” and so again I will not describe it in any detail here. It introduced another Mingus staple, “Better Get It in Your Soul”, another feast of gospel and blues sounds. It also featured the song to which Mingus returned more than any other, the famous “Fables of Faubus” written in response to the attempt by Arkansas Governor Orval E. Faubus to prevent the integration of Little Rock High School in 1957. The lyrics, which included the words “Nazi Fascist supremists!” in reference to Faubus, were allegedly regarded as too extreme and not allowed on the album by the Columbia management.

Mingus Dynasty

The final 1959 album, also a Macero production, was Mingus Dynasty, which featured on the first date a line-up of 10 musicians including Mingus: Richard Williams on trumpet; Jimmy Knepper on trombone, John Handy on alto, Booker Ervin and Benny Golson on tenor, Jerome Richardson on baritone, Teddy Charles on vibes, Roland Hanna on piano and Dannie Richmond on drums.

On the first date the band recorded “Diane”, “Song with Orange”, “Gunslinging Bird”, “Far Wells, Mill Valley”, “New Now Know How” and “Strollin'”.

On the second date the musicians were Don Ellis on trumpet with Knepper, Handy, Ervin, Hanna and Richmond. They recorded “Slop”, “Put Me In That Dungeon” Mercer Ellington’s “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be”, and the Duke’s “Mood Indigo”.

For me this last track is the pick of the album. It starts with a really slow introduction by the whole band with Mingus bowing his bass. Then Knepper enters with an incredibly soulful solo over the pizzicato bass. Then comes one of many abrupt tempo changes into double time. Then its abruptly back to a slow blues as Hanna takes over the solo spot to deliver a blues solo that is quite amazing, with another change to double time (punctuated by a “yeah” from Mingus) before he starts a brief solo which quickly moves into triple time – just unbelievably fleet by both Mingus and Hanna, and then it’s a tempo again as Mingus takes up the solo spot for a deep blues exploration with more abrupt tempo changes before Handy comes in to make his wailing solo and some great ensemble backing (with another shout by Mingus: “Early in the morning!”) to the end. Simply superb stuff!

Of the other tracks from the second date “Slop” and “Put Me In That Dungeon”are interesting, among other things, for the addition of two cellists to the line-up.

Apart from “Mood Indigo” the other outstanding tracks for me are “Gunslinging Bird” (Mingus’s tribute to Charlie Parker, originally called “If Charlie Parker were a gunslinger, there would be a whole lot of dead copycats”), “Slop” (a close cousin to “Better Git Hit in Your Soul”), “Song with Orange” (a great vehicle for solos by Handy and Knepper, with strong blues undertones), “Far Wells, Mill Valley” (after an almost atonal introduction, which has some echoes of “Some of My Favourite Things”, it continues interspersing some almost Oriental sounds with some straight-ahead jazz), and the short (too short?) blues “Put Me In That Dungeon” with its unusual voicings. I say “too short?” because it never seems to get going to the extent that it perhaps could if the musicians had a little more time.

The final track is “Strolling” which is in fact “Nostalgia in Times Square” which Mingus wrote for the Cassavetes movie “Shadows” with words added, sung by Honey Gordon.

Mingus created music in this great year that has stood the test of time.

Don Heckma, in the Los Angeles Times of 11 February 2001, wrote the following paragraph which to me sums up why Mingus’s legacy is so enduring, and expecially the music he created in 1959:

“But it was probably his passionate intensity, a drive to transform his visionary ideas into the hard facts of performance reality, that made his music such an extraordinary combination of accessible melody, driving rhythms and insistent social statement. His live performances were often delivered in chaotic settings, but they were never dull. And his recordings could easily serve as the passionately interactive soundtrack for the unfolding civil rights developments of the ’50s and ’60s.”

The beginning of something new – a portrait in jazz

The players on the date

“The beginning of something too new to invite easy description” – that’s how jazz critic Rob Mariani recalls pianist Bill Evans’ debut at New York’s Village Vanguard in the early 1960s. He might have been describing Evans’1959 album, A Portrait in Jazz, recorded almost at the end of jazz’s most amazing year, a year which saw the recording of many albums which have become “classics” of jazz.

Evans went into a studio on 28 December 1959 under the direction of producer Orrin Keepnews, with young bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian to lay down 11 tracks of a new way for a jazz piano trio to play and sound.

Evans himself was an almost painfully shy young man of 30 who was battling some internal demons, partly the result of being the only white musician in the Miles Davis sextet, which in fact he had left to follow his own dreams just more than a year before. Earlier in 1959 Davis had hired Evans to return to the sextet just to record that other classic 1959 album Kind of Blue.

Scott LaFaro, a young musician born in Newark, New Jersey, was only 23 at the time of Portrait in Jazz,and was already making a name for himself, having played with Chet Baker, Buddy De Franco, Sonny Rollins, Harold Land and Hampton Hawes. Earlier in 1959 he also played with Thelonius Monk, and would go on in 1960 to join Ornette Coleman in the ground-breaking double quartet album Free Jazz with Charlie Haden on the other bass.

Paul Motian, then a 28-year-old drummer from Providence, Rhode Island, is a drummer of great sensitivity with a very distinctive style, who nevertheless was capable of providing superb backing to a wide range of musicians besides Evans: he played with Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, with Oscar Pettiford, Lennie Tristano and Zoot Sims, and even recorded with Arlo Guthrie.

Bill Evans himself was also, like LaFaro, a New Jersey native, born in Plainfield in 1929, to a Rusyn mother and an alcoholic father of Welsh extraction. His mother was herself an amateur musician who encouraged young Bill to study the modern classical composers. I wonder to what extent Evans’ sometimes melancholic sound is the result of the influence of these two cultures on him? The
Rusyn people are an eastern Slavic ethnic group who have always been overshadowed by the other people with whom they shared living space, the Poles, the Russians and the Slovaks. The Welsh are Celts with their own history of struggling for identity. Another famous person with a Rusyn background is artist Andy Warhol (Warhola), born just a year before Evans, in Pittsburgh PA.

So it was a highly talented and individual group of musicians who went into that studio. And the music they left on the tapes was similarly individual and new. Davis, in his autobiography, said of Evans’ piano playing, “The way he approached it, the sound he got was like crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall.”

Track 1: Come Rain or Come Shine

The tracks the trio laid down in the studio that day were all standards except for two compositions by Evans, namely “Peri’s Scope” and the song attributed also to Davis, “Blue in Green”, which the Davis sextet had recorded earlier in the year on the album Kind of Blue.

The first track on the album is Harold Arlen tune “Come Rain or Come Shine”, the Johnny Mercer lyrics of which were sung so wonderfully by Billie Holiday. It was written for the show St Louis Woman and was published and recorded several times in 1946, and in the years following. In this trio’s hands it is a beautifully thoughtful ballad in which the playing of LaFaro takes the tune to new heights. The whole track feels indeed “High as a mountain and deep as a river” with delicate harmonies from both the piano and the bass, underscored by the beautiful brushwork of Motian who keeps the whole thing moving gently along.

Tracks 2 & 3: Autumn Leaves

The second (in stereo) and third (mono) tracks feature the ever-green (to coin a phrase!) “Autumn Leaves” written, originally as “Les feuilles mortes” by Joseph Kosma in 1945, to which Johnny Mercer added English lyrics in 1947. The interplay between piano and bass in the opening few bars is delicious beyond words. The trio play the song mid-tempo rather than the more usual slow pace, which helps it avoid the kind of mawkishness it sometimes achieves in certain hands. The way the three members of the trio interchange ideas all through the track is just exquisite. I am never sure who is leading whom, they all come across so strongly and with such conviction. A beautiful number indeed.

Track 4: Witchcraft

Track 4 is the Cy Coleman song taken to great heights by Frank Sinatra in 1957, “Witchcraft”. Listen out for LaFaro’s incredible solo. It’s a virtuoso performance from a young bassist just getting into his stride, and what a stride it is! In fact LaFaro pretty much dominates this track, with some really brilliant playing and thoughtful phrases that just jump out at the listener. He goes with such ease from the bottom register of his instrument to very high flights of melodic invention at the top end of the ergister without for one moment losing the momentum of the piece, in fact propelling it along at a good pace, keeping it swinging all the way. A grand example of the art of the bass.

Track 5: When I Fall In Love

The next track features Victor Young’s “When I Fall in Love” made into a hit in 1952 by Doris Day, with words by Edward Heyman. The song was written for the 1952 movie One Minute to Zero, in which it featured as an instumental. It has since become a very popular standard for jazz musicians from the likes of Miles Davis to Toots Thielemans. This trio takes it very slowly and ruminatively, a seemingly deliberate contrast to the “restless world like this is” of the lyrics.

Track 6: Peri’s Scope

On the next track the trio gets back into swinging mood with Evans’ own song “Peri’s Scope.” with Evans creating a very interesting series of melodic variations in the right hand with strong comping in the left. And as high as Evans takes the melody, LaFaro is right there with him, never losing a beat or getting left behind for one second by the piano’s flights. Motian puts rhythmic emphases in exactly the right spots to keep the whole thing together.

Track 7: What Is This Thing Called Love

The next track is a song of the same vintage an Evans himself, Cole Porter’s 1929 song “What Is This Thing Called Love?” The trio make this into a wonderful up-tempo romp after a slightly quiet start which is quickly blown away by the harmonic inventiveness of Evans and LaFaro and the solid rhythm supplied by Motian. In fact, in my view, this is Motian’s track. A lovely solo by LaFaro is followed by an exciting yet solid drum solo, all too short in my view. But Motian really shines all through the track as he keeps his partners to the rhythm. An interesting note about this tune is that it has been reinterpreted many times by jazz musicians, and sometimes transformed into new pieces. For example, Tadd Dameron based his great tune “Hot House” which Charlie Parker played so wonderfully, on “What is This Thing Called Love,” and John Coltrane based his great tune “Fifth House” on “Hot House.”

Track 8: Spring is Here

The next track opens with a beautiful singing note by Evans which became the subject of a whole page of analysis by Peter Pettinger in his book on Evans, How My Heart Sings. The song in this case is the 1938 Richard Rodgers composition which Alec Wilder called “a shattering ballad”, “Spring is Here.” The song was written for a broadway musical I Married an Angel and was in fact the second song Rodgers and his partner Lorenz Hart had written with that title. The first was an upbeat song written in 1929 and quickly forgotten. In the trio’s hands this is a brilliant exposition in notes of the melancholy of the words:

“Spring is here!

Why doesn’t my heart go dancing ?

Spring is here!

Why isn’t the waltz entrancing?”

The song ends with a gently cascading rain of notes from Evans, reflecting a feeling, the irony, of the last line of the song: “Spring is here I hear.”

Track 9: One Day My Prince Will Come

Next up is another popular jazz standard, from the calssic Walt Disney movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarves of 1937. The song was written by Frank E. Churchill with lyrics by Larry Morey. One of the moist famous jazz recordings is the 1961 version by Miles on his eponymously-named album. The Evans trio show their melodic and rhythmic virtuosity in this number, which again features a glorious LaFaro solo.

Tracks 10 & 11: Blue in Green

The last two tracks are of the Davis/Evans tune “Blue in Green“which Evans had recorded with Davis earlier in 1959. This tune has been the subject of speculation about who really wrote it for decades now. According to Ashley Kahn ( Kind of Blue, The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, 2000) Evans told the story: “One day at Miles’s apartment, he wrote on some manuscript paper the symbols for G-minor and A-augmented. And he said, ‘What would you do with that?’ I didn’t really know, but I went home and wrote ‘Blue in Green.'” On Kind of Blue the song is attributed to Davis alone,while on Portrait it is attibuted to Davis/Evans. Is it that important who wrote it? It’s a wonderful tune with great moments for all three of the musicians on this album.


Overall, this is an album worth savouring. It bears repeated listening. Indeed, listening to it over and over again as I have done over the past few days, it reveals new subtleties and nuances every time. There are many critics who dismiss this album, and indeed much of Evans’ playing, as little more than good quality cocktail lounge music. I would strongly disagree with that assessment. There is lyricism and harmony a-plenty, but the rhythmic and harmonic subtleties and the way the tracks are structured lift this album way above cocktail music. The interplay between the musicians is always a delight, and each time I have listened to this album I have found new delights. Jazz piano trios would never sound the same again, and pianists, bass players and drummers all can learn from the playing on this rich and deep album.


Jazz bassist Charles Mingus goes from Massey Hall to Pithecanthropus

Leadership development

The three albums discussed in this article represent bassist Charles Mingus growing in stature as bass player, composer and band leader. On the first album he becomes leader almost by default as the two who were meant to lead the outfit which has come to be known as “The Quintet”, Charlie Parker and Bud Powell, were not able to function properly as leaders due to various personal issues. Mingus took over the role and did his best to protect the interests of all the musicians involved.

The next two albums show Mingus taking over leadership and really getting, so to say, into the swing of it. The Bohemia albums are live dates originally released, as was Jazz at Massey Hall , on the label that Mingus and Max Roach formed, called Debut.

Pithecanthropus was an Atlantic album and was the start of Mingus’s productive relationship with producer Nesuhi Ertegun.

Cover of the original 10 inch LP

Cover of the original 10 inch LP

Cover of the 12 inch LP also used on later CD releases

Cover of the 12 inch LP also used on later CD releases

Cover of the double CD re-release by French label Carrere - this is the version I now have

Cover of the double CD re-release by French label Carrere - this is the version I now have

Jazz at Massey Hall

This great album was one of my earliest exposures to this wonderful music usually called jazz. My brother Chris brought home from university a copy of a 10-inch LP of the concert (I imagine it was the original Debut release) which had been put on by the Toronto, Canada, New Jazz Society on 15 May 1953. Being about 12 at the time what got me fired up at the time was Max Roach’s amazing solo in the Dizzy Gillespie number “Salt Peanuts.” It was just a blast for me and I couldn’t get enough of it.

Besides Roach and Gillespie the other musicians are, of course, Mingus, who completes the rock-solid rhythm section with Bud Powell on piano and the incomparable Charlie Parker (who, for contractual reasons, was credited on the album as “Charlie Chan”) on alto. A veritable feast of bop super-stars!

By this time, as C. Michael Bailey has written on the internet jazz magazine AllAboutJazz, bop “had fully matured and was settling in as the established mainstream rather than the cutting edge movement it had been in the early 1940s.” But on this night of jazz, bop, “in all of its brilliant invention was alive, well, and in charge.”

Over the years my appreciation for this album has grown, and I think around in particular two of the pieces on it (not that the others aren’t great – just these are my particular favourites), namely Ellington’s “Perdido” and Jerome Kern’s wonderful 1939 song “All the Things You Are.”

“Perdido” gets off to flying start which doesn’t let up, the only slight tentativeness is at the beginning of Parker’s solo which is not surprising seeing he was playing an unfamiliar borrowed instrument, and a plastic one at that! Gillespie’s solo is just stratospheric, both in register and virtuosity.

“All the Things You Are” is a lovely tune to start with and these musicians give it a wonderful feel, as is to be expected. What appeals to me the most is what Powell does behind the other musicians – just gorgeous comping with the occasional melodic comment on what a soloist is doing. Mingus is also so solid there. Altogether entrancing music from a group of masters – almost eight minutes of pure heaven!

The other tracks on the album are Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia” and “Salt Peanuts”; and Tadd Dameron’s “Wee” and “Hot House”.

To quote Bailey again, this album is a “testament”, “The elder statesmen of Be Bop stood on the bandstand and gave the next generation of jazz musicians a lesson in performing Modern Jazz and from that performance came everything else we hear today.”

The Charles Mingus Quintet Plus Max Roach

This 1955 album has Mingus in the leader’s role and how firmly he does it! Other musicians on this live date at New York City’s Café Bohemia are Eddie Bert on trombone, George Barrow on tenor, Mal Waldron on piano and Willie Jones on drums ( Max Roach joins the group only on the tracks “Drums”, a Mingus composition, and “I’ll Remember April”).

Of the six tracks on this album I will write about only three here.

The first is Mingus’s “Haitian Fight Song” which he opens with an eight-bar bass solo which sets the swinging mood of the whole number, before George Barrow’s tenor comes in. He takes a couple of choruses and then lets Mal Waldron on piano take over with the horns giving support in the background over Mingus’s driving, walking bass line. Then its the turn of Eddie Bert on trombone before Mingus comes back with a solo mostly in the lower register of his instrument with a few flights up to the higher end, then the ensemble led by Barrow takes it out.

The next track is that lovely ballad by Gene De Paul, Pat Johnston and Don Raye, “I’ll Remember April” which Mingus introduces with some interesting bass sounds before Barrow takes over. The ensemble plays it somewhat up-tempo and very swinging. The bridge has some intriguing contrapuntal exchanges between Barrow and Bert. Halfway through the track there is some interesting trading of fours between Roach, Barrow and Bert before Roach gets his turn to solo, and its a very eloquent solo too, very typical of the man’s style!

Waldron sets up Mingus’s “Love Chant” with some rolling chords which he keeps going as Bert takes over with Barrow coming in to join the three in some intricate interplay. Again the contrapuntal figures from Barrow and Bert set up some dissonant chords before they set off again playing catch up with each other. Thereafter Barrow gets down to some serious swinging soloing with bass and drums giving strong support. Bert gets another chance before the whole swinging affair comes to a glorious end. Willie Jones’s contributions are particularly interesting as the song ends.

The other tracks on the album are Gershwin’s “A Foggy Day” and Tadd Dameron’s “Lady Bird.”

Pithecanthropus Erectus

This four-track album was recorded in 1956 at the Atlantic Studios in New York City and produced by Nesuhi Ertegun. The band supporting Mingus consisted of Jackie McLean on alto, J.R. Monterose on tenor, Mal Waldron on piano and Willie Jones on drums.

The tracks on the album were three Mingus numbers and Gershwin’s “A Foggy Day”. The Mingus compositions were “Pithecanthropus Erectus”, “Profile of Jackie” and “Love Chant”.

Mingus described the title track as a “tone poem” about the rise of humanity, from the earliest hominids until the eventual demise of humankind. The name of the track can be seen as a play on Mingus’s instrument, the upright bass, as the Latin means “Upright Ape-man”.

Most critics rate Pithecanthropus Erectus as one of Mingus’s greatest albums.

Introducing a Charles Mingus decade – the flowering of a jazz genius

The truth of what I am

“I’m going to keep on getting through and finding out the kind of man I am through my music. That’s the one place I can be free.” – Mingus in conversation with Nat Hentoff (A Musician Beyond Category – From Gadfly April 1999)“In my music, I’m trying to play the truth of what I am. The reason it’s difficult is because I’m changing all the time.” -Charles Mingus

Charles Mingus playing at the Bi Centenial, Lower Manhattan July 4, 1976. Photo by Tom Marcello via Wikipedia

This is the first in a series of articles which will explore some of the music Charles Mingus recorded in the astonishing decade in which he emerged from being a sideman of note and great virtuosity to being a composer and leader of imposing stature. Of course this decade includes that incredible year for jazz, 1959, during which Mingus was involved with four major releases as leader.

The decade in question is from the incredible Jazz at Massey Hall of May 1953 to the Jazz Workshop recording Right Now of June 1964, a period in which he was involved in some 30 releases. OK, so it’s a year more than a decade but you get the idea – it’s a convenient period starting and ending with very different and very great live recordings (there will be a couple more live recording thrown into the mix as we go along). I will concentrate to some extent on numbers that recur throughout these recording to give an idea of the growth and change that Mingus insisted on throughout his life.

First just a little about Mr Charles Mingus, a towering genius of jazz.

He was born 22 April 1922 at a US Army base in Nogales, Arizona and grew up in Watts, Los Angeles, where his mother fed him a diet of church music and his grandmother took him to a Holiness church in Watts where he was exposed to the crying, moaning and singing of the church people.

He told Nat Hentoff about this musical background: “All the music I heard when I was a very young child was church music. My family went to the Methodist church; in addition, my stepmother would take me to the Holiness church and other such churches.

“The blues was in the churches—moaning and riffs and that sort of thing between the audience and the preacher.”

In his genes he carried a wide cultural mix of Chinese, English, Swedish and African American, but the blues seem to have been central to his music over the years. It comes out in almost everything he recorded in one form or another.

From a relatively early age he became interested in jazz, most especially the musician who for most of his life was his idol, Duke Ellington. In 1943 he toured with Louis Armstrong and later played in Lionel Hampton’s band, in a trio with Red Norvo and Tal Farlow before joining, for a brief and shining moment, the orchestra of his idol, Ellington. Here his tempestuous temper led to his being allegedly the only musician (although Sidney Bechet might also have been) to be fired by the Duke.

Mingus increasingly demanded respect for his music, becoming intolerant of audiences who did not pay sufficient attention to the music. He once said to a nightclub audience when the clinking of ice in glasses was distracting him: “Isaac Stern (the great classical violinist) doesn’t have to put up with this shit!”

His famous temper led him into many difficulties with club owners, fans and even fellow-musicians. He once famously hit trombonist Jimmy Knepper in the mouth, causing damage to Knepper’s embouchure and leading to a court case.

Mingus was a larger-than-life personality who could inspire both awe and fear. He also struggled all his life with a weight problem, shedding and re-gaining weight regularly.

He contracted amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) which is caused by the degeneration of the motor neurons, those nerve cells in the central nervous system which control voluntary muscle movement. The loss of muscle activity leads to atrophy of all the muscles and the loss of the ability to initiate and control voluntary movement. The body wastes away, while the mind is still unimpaired, so patients can literally watch themselves slowly die.

Even after he was unable to play, Mingus continued to compose and supervise recording, but was unable to complete a project with Joni Mitchell.

He died in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in 1979, where he had gone with his wife Sue in search of a cure or at least a palliative for the disease that was so cruelly taking away everything he had lived for as a musician.

A look at some important albums

Nat Hentoff, in the same article quoted at the start of this post, said of Mingus: “The reason Mingus reached so many people around the world was the depth—sometimes the explosive depth—of his expressions, his emotions.”

In the posts that follow I will try to look into those depths and see in them what it is that stirs me, and I hope will stir you, to the depth of my being. As Mingus said, “Music is, or was, a language of the emotions.”

In the articles which follow I will look in a bit more detail at some of the more important recordings of this most creative and growthful decade in Mingus’s life. Of course, this is my personal selection and is based on the recordings that I have access to and knowledge of. Others might argue for a different selection, and that’s jazz for you – always something different and new.

The albums I am going to examine (not necessarily in separate posts) in this series are:

Jazz at Massey Hall (1953)

The Charles Mingus Quintet with Max Roach (1955)

Pithecanthropus Erectus (1956)

Mingus in Wonderland (1959)

Blues and Roots (1959)

Mingus Ah Um (1959)

Mingus Dynasty (1959)

Mingus at Antibes (1960)

Charles Mingus presents Charles Mingus (1960)

Tijuana Moods (1962)

The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963)

Right Now (1964)

The first article in the series will look at the first three albums and will be called “Massey Hall to Pithecanthropus.”

The second article will look at the famous 1959 albums, delving in a bit more detail into Mingus Dynasty..

The third article will take the two important 1960 albums.

The fourth article will look at Tijuana Moods, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and Right Now, taking us up to 1964.

© Text copyright Tony McGregor 2011

South African jazz – a historical introduction to the beautiful music of a beautiful country


Herbie Tsoaeli playing at the old Bassline club with the Zim Ngqawana Quartet

South African jazz started not long after the great explosion of the music in New Orleans more than 100 years ago – or it started long before then, depending on how you look at it.

“Almost as soon as jazz went on record in America, in the early decades of the twentieth century, those wax impressions arrived in South Africa. They landed on fertile ground, for South Africans had a rich and dynamic musical culture of their own, into which they had already drawn aspects of earlier and parallel African-American musics.” – from Gwen Ansell’s lovely book Soweto Blues (Continuum, 2004).

The rhythms and sounds of African traditional music are of course the well-spring of jazz, taken to the “New World” in the cruel holds of slave ships. The music of Africa, far from being “primitive” or simple, is in fact a highly complex music, with sophisticated harmonic and rhythmic structures which, when combined with elements from western composed and folk musics, grew into the music which, for all its variety and rich diversity, we tend to lump together under the not-so-elegant term “jazz.”

In South Africa, of course, these African sources and influences are far more directly audible. The music of Africa which we encounter in South Africa comes from many different ethnic sources, Khoisan, Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho, Tswana, Venda and many others. Each has given a particular flavour to the music of South Africa.

The Xhosa contribution

Lulu Gontsana who played in the band “Xhosa Nostra” (among many others). Here he is with the Zim Ngqawana Quartet


To take just one example of the richness of roots of African music, musicologist Dave Dargie in his outstanding book Xhosa Music (David Philip, 1988) speaks of the complexity of rhythmic structure of Xhosa songs: “It is the combination or multiplication of rhythms which brings the body to life in the song.” Of the harmonic richness of the songs he writes: “Some songs are particularly rich in vocal parts, with over thirty or even more parts being sung at the same time if there are enough singers.” He points out that “it is highly unlikely that any song will be sung in exactly the same way twice.” Sounds like jazz to me!

Dave Dargie’s transcription of “uGqongqothwane”

A Xhosa song which achieved world-wide fame is the so-called “Click Song” popularised by Miriam Makeba. The traditional (or accepted canon) song on which this is based is the song “uGqongqothwane”, the name the amaXhosa call the dung beetle. The name is onomatopoeic, mimicking the knocking sound the beetle makes on hard surfaces, the “q” being pronounced as a “click” produced by creating a vacuum behind the tongue against the palate and then releasing the tongue with a sudden jerk to produce that click, much as people would make the sound of horse’s hooves on a hard road surface. The “g” in front of the”q” serves to accentuate the click, making it harder.

The transcription shown here is by Dave Dargie of “uGqongqothwane” as played on the uhadi bow by the late Nofinishi Dywali, a traditional musician who collaborated with Dargie in his research.

Considering the sophistication and complexity of Xhosa music it might be no surprise to discover that a great number of South African jazz musicians came from that ethnic group. Indeed there was in the 1980s a group of Xhosa jazzmen who called themselves the “Xhosa Nostra”!

Cape jazz – what is it?

A Sunday afternoon jam session at the home of the late Vincent Kolbe

But jazzmen in South Africa have come from all ethnic groups in the country. Jazz is a music that doesn’t know boundaries of race, even though it grew out of the black experience.

The rich cultural heritage of the indigenous people was added to by the influx of slaves into the Cape Colony, which, like the slaves which were taken to the Americas, brought their own musical traditions with them, traditions which soon were part of the great cultural melting pot of South African music. So in the music of the Cape, which is often called “Cape Jazz”, can be heard the influences of Khoi-khoi and San music intertwined with the melismatic styles which came from Malaysia and Indonesia and the rhythms and harmonies of the amaXhosa who came to the Cape in search of work in the 19th Century.

The rich diversity of jazz in the Cape is emphasised by Cape Town musician the late Vincent Kolbe in an interview with jazz expert Colin Miller, who, in his article “What is Cape Jazz,” quotes Kolbe at length:

“Now naturally you hear a lot of music. You learn to dance, you listen tentatively to the music; you listen to the rhythm, and you listen to things that encourage you to move. So you become sensitive to music. You also go to church. And there’s the organ grinding away and the hymns of all the ages and chants. And then Christmas! But on your way home from school, there’s a Malay choir practising ‘Roosa’ next door and there is even African migrants living in a kraal nearby singing Xhosa songs or hymns or something and you could have the Eoan Group practising opera at the church. Then there’s the radio and the movies. And you see this man conducting and his hair flowing in his face so naturally you go and fetch your granny’s knitting needles and you let your hair fall over the face and you conduct. So that’s the whole thing, movement and dance and imitation and living it.”

The marabi foundation

“I’ve always loved trains. And marabi music for me always seemed to have that same quality as the sound of a train: it just goes on and on, but as it goes on it always changes and you know it’s going somewhere.” Trombonist Jasper Cook who played with the African Jazz Pioneers, as quoted in Ansell, Soweto Blues.

Jasper Cook

In his indispensable introduction to the history of jazz in South Africa, Marabi Nights (Ravan Press, 1993), Professor Chris Ballantine notes: “If there is one concept which is fundamental to any understanding of urban black popular music in South Africa, it is that this music is a fusion – vital, creative, ever-changing – of traditional styles with imported ones, wrought by people of colour out of the long, bitter experience of colonisation and exploitation.”

The “marabi” of Ballantine’s title is an important concept to understand in order to get an full appreciation of South African jazz and its history. Marabi was a “style forged principally by unschooled keyboard players who were notoriously part of the culture and economy of the illegal slumyard liquor dens” which were part of every black township in the early part of the 20th Century. One can hear some echoes of the birth of jazz in New Orleans here, perhaps?

Peter Rezant in the early 1990s. Photo by Denis Martin

Ballantine continues his exposition on marabi and its importance to South African jazz:

“A rhythmically propulsive dance music, marabi drew its melodic inspiration eclectically from a wide variety of sources, while harmonically it rested – as did the blues – upon an endlessly repeating chord sequence. The comparison is apt: though not directly related to the blues, marabi was as seminal to South African popular music as the blues was to American. (The cyclical nature of each, incidentally, betrays roots deep in indigenous African musics.)”

In the late 1920s and early 1930s black musicians started to incorporate the sounds of the big bands from the US swing era into their marabi-based music, and the dance craze took off in the townships – marabi music played in swing style. A number of early African jazz bands started to flourish, building sizeable followings in the townships and even beyond. Their names have become iconic in the story of South African jazz – the Jazz Maniacs, the Merry Blackbirds, the Rhythm Kings, the Jazz Revellers, and the Harlem (yes, indeed!) Swingsters.

The leader of the Merry Blackbirds was Peter Rezant, and his name is still revered by musicians. His band had the edge over many of the others because all of his players were schooled, and could read music. The Merry Blackbirds even played to white audiences in Johannesburg before apartheid made this impossible.

Now and into the future

Reedman McCoy Mrubata

While Johannesburg on the Witwatersrand had the edge in terms of the number of people there looking for entertainment that could be provided by jazz musicians, a little town in the Eastern Cape also achieved renown as the “Little Jazz City” because of the thriving jazz scene there and the number of influential and famous musicians who came from there. This was Queenstown, at one time the centre of the wool trade in the Eastern Cape and a thriving centre from which wool was transported to the ports for export. Jazz fans in Queenstown had a reputation for being highly critical and knowledgeable about the music.

Jazz was, and still is, played and enjoyed in all the major centres in South Africa, though it has two centres of gravity, as it were: Cape Town and Johannesburg. But players and fans can be found in every corner of this great land.

Andile Yenana

There were a number of jazz musicians who left South Africa during the apartheid era because the tension between the freedom demanded by the music and the oppression of the regime was too great to bear. Many of these great musicians died in exile, and South Africa is considerably the poorer for having lost these great souls. Some did return to further enrich the great mix that is South African jazz today.

Master guitarist Themba Mokoena

And many brave ones managed to keep the faith and the music alive in South Africa through those dark and turbulent years.

There is now a new generation of jazz musicians building on the deep heritage of the music in South Africa.  There is Paul Hanmer who brings a new, almost cross-national flair to the music, with strong classical ties. There is Carlo Mombelli with deep roots in the avant garde European jazz scene and equally deep roots in South African music. There are the young musicians like Marcus Wyatt delving into the roots and coming up with fresh ideas and sounds.

So jazz is unlikely to die anytime soon. Though of course it is a living music and so is always changing, always finding new sounds and ways of doing things.

And that’s great by me – I love it all.

© Text and photos copyright Tony McGregor

Winston Mankunku Ngozi – South African jazz’s bellowing bull

Back in those unenlightened, un-wired days of 1967, I and my then girl-friend used to attend art classes at the old Cape Town Art Centre on Greenpoint Common. And every Sunday evening there was a jam session there which we also often attended.

Mankunku at the Cape Town Art Centre. In the background Monty Weber on drums

One of the players at these sessions was one Winston Mankunku Ngozi. He was dynamite  in a cloth cap indeed.

Those sessions, usually with Midge Pike on bass and Monty Weber on drums, were incredibly good. There was a pianist also but I can’t remember who he was.

Of course Mankunku was the one who released into the South African soul that instantly-recognisable anthem which electrified the townships much better than Escom ever could, “Yakhal’ inKomo”!  And he is best known for that wonderful song.

The album on which it appeared, also called Yakhal’ inKomo, has been re-released many times and is still one of the top selling South African jazz albums of all time. One only has to listen to the album to understand why – those sounds are just dripping in soul and emotion, gripping and beautiful.

Having heard Mankunku play the song live, however, just makes the recording sound rather flat. No recording could ever capture the soul of the man in full-throated roar. It was simply awe-inspiring to hear.

Which is not to say the recording doesn’t merit serious listening – of course it does. It is an amazing album with some pretty amazing musicians on it.

The story of the album and its title is sometimes disputed, but in essence I think the reason it found such resonance in the townships (and, of course, elsewhere) is that it touched on a particularly raw edge at the time, the raw edge of the pain of apartheid, the pain of life in the townships, in a way that had never before (and not since either) been touched.

Mankunku at the Cape Town Art Centre. Midge Pike in the background and Monty Weber partially obscured

As soon as those opening notes from Agrippa Magwaza’s bass come from the speakers one knows one is in the presence of a very special musical experience. The soulful funky groove laid down by Magwaza and pianist Lionel Pillay in the title track makes a fine foundation for the entrance of Mankunku’s declamatory horn. It is a moment of jazz magic, one that is unique among South African jazz albums.

By the time Mankunku died in October 2009 he was a true legend of South African music, a tenorman without peer in the land.

At a time when many of his contemporaries were leaving South Africa to escape the strictures of apartheid Mankunku refused to go. He stayed on in the country in spite of all the hassles of trying to stay alive in a society that was not just oblivious to his greatness, but actually in many ways sought to deny it.

As a result Mankunku had to suffer many indignities and try to fend off the deleterious effects of them on his physical health. In one famous incident, to circumvent the law against mixed bands, he played his tenor behind a curtain while a white musician mimed his moves in front of the curtain. I don’t think many listeners were fooled, but it kept the authorities at bay.

Mankunku on stage at the Carling Circle of Jazz gig on Greenmarket Square, 1987

To survive such things takes enormous ego strength and self-belief. And yet Mankunku was almost self-effacing, not pushing himself into the limelight at all. Hence for many he was more of an absence than a presence, and yet when one experienced him in the context of a group playing he was powerful and energetic.

Mankunku was born in 1943 in Retreat on the Cape peninsula outside Cape Town. He was born into a musical family and as a teenager he began to tenor and alto saxes. John Coltrane and Horace Silver were major influences, as were famed Cape Town reedman “Cup and Saucers” Kanuka and bassist Midge Pike.

It was in Midge Pike’s band that Mankunku began his career as a professional musician. It was a career that would include working with many of the greatest names in South African jazz: Dudu Pukwana, Chris McGregor, Barney Rachabane and Victor Ntoni.

The last time I heard Mankunku live was at the Carling Circle of Jazz gig on Greenmarket Square, Cape Town. On that occasion Mankunku gigged with the Victor Ntoni big band and guest artist Chris McGregor. It was a beautiful moment.

On that occasion old friends played with him: Barney Rachabane, Duke Ngcukana, Ezra Ngcukana and Johnny Mekoa, among others. There was also a strong contingent of the younger generation of players like Rashid Lanie, Vusi Khumalo and Bakhiti Khumalo.

However great his other accomplishments, however, the song that remained linked with Mankunku in the minds of jazz lovers in South Africa was “Yakhal’ inKomo.” It was such an important song – in much the same way as Abdullah Ibrahim’s “Mannenberg” would become – in social terms too.

As Mongane Serote wrote about Mankunku: “He just went deep, right down to the floor of despair, and reached the rim of fear and hatred. He just spread and spread out and out in meditation, with his horn, Mankunku, Ngozi, that guy from the shores of South Africa, and he said: ‘That was it.’ For that is what he was doing with his horn, Yakhal’ inKomo…” (Quoted in Michael Titlestad’s Making the Changes, Unisa Press, 2004).

Partial discography

At the time I was listening to Mankunku in Cape Town his seminal and most famous album, Yakhal’ inKomo, had not yet been released and he was not the famous tenorman he became. This album was released in 1968, and has since sold well over 50000 copies – an astounding achievement for a South African jazz which album. The title track is one of those songs that is almost instantly recognised by music fans – they only have to hear the first bar or two and they are already excited! The personnel on this album included, as mentioned, Agrippa Magwaza on bass, Lionel Pillay on piano, with Early Mabuza laying down the beat at the drumkit. The story behind this album seems to depend on who tells it. My own friend Ernest Mothle shared with me his version. Whatever the truth, it remains a superb, exciting, moving album from a musician who was only 24 when he made this recording.

The next album featuring Mankunku is a strange one, though also beautiful. It is called The Lion and the Bull and pairs Mankunku with fellow-tenorman Mike Makhalelemele in front of, of all things, a white pop group called “Rabbit” which comprised wizard guitarist Trevor Rabin (who later joined Rick Wakeman and Jon Anderson in “Yes“), bass guitarist Ronnie Robot and drummer Neil Cloud.  This album (plus a large number of other South African classic albums) can be downloaded free at Electricjive. As journalist and later record producer Patric van Blerk wrote about this album at the time: “This album brings the magnificent Mankunku together with another very special person – a new and very bright star – Mike Makhalemele. Mike as the Lion could not be more gentle – Winston as the Bull is strong yet alone.The Bull and the Lion will make you feel sexy – and your wash will be whiter.”

In 1986 Mankunku was involved in the recording of yet another classic of South African jazz, Jika, recorded in both Cape Town and London, which featured pianist/arranger Mike Perry and some other great South African musicians living in the United Kingdom like guitarist Lucky Ranku, pianist Bheki Mseleku, trumpetter Claude Deppa and percussionist Russell Herman. As Perry notes, “Jika was composed and recorded during the period here known as ‘the bad years’,  ie. when the system of racial oppression called apartheid was at its height under P.W . Botha ‘s ‘Imperial Presidency'”.  The word “Jika” mean to turn around, to change. Clearly what was on the minds of those who played the music and produced the album. This album is available for download (though not free!) at Rhythm Music Store.

In 1996 Mankunku recorded another album in collaboration with Mike Perry. This was a much more laid-back sort of album, on which bassist Spencer Mbadu particularly shone. The album, called Dudula, meaning “Forward”, is notable especially for the tracks “Khawuleza (Hurry Up)” which features a great solo by Mbadu, and the great song “Shirley” on which Mankunku really shines. This album was recorded in Cape Town. Other tracks on this album are “Amanzi Obomi” (Water of Life); the mbaqanga “Masihambe” (Let’s Go); and “Green and Gold”. Other musicians on this album are Richard Pickett, Errol Dyers, Charles Lazar, Buddy Wells, Marcus Wyatt, Graham Beyer,  and the Merton Barrow String Quintet.

Mankunku’s next album was the SAMA award-winning Molo Africa of 1999 (released in 1998). Writing about this album on the All About Jazz site Nils Jacobsen said: “If you listen carefully to what Mankunku has to say, he lingers on melody in the same way Albert Ayler used to, deeply aware and celebrating each note.” A great list of artists appears on this album, including Feya Faku, Tete Mbambisa, Spencer Mbadu, Vince Pavitt, Vusi Khumalo, Graham Beyer, Sylvia Mdunyelwa, Jack Van Poll, Lucien Lewin, Errol Dyers, Basil Moses, Bongiwe Gcabe, George Werner, Octavia Tengeni, Themba Fassie, Boytjie Philiso, Lionel Beukes, Soi-Soi Gqeza, Blackie Thempi, Denver Furness, Sipho Yhintsa, Nopinkie Ngxengane, Mzwandile Ngxengane.

In 2003 Mankunku released his final album (though no-one was to know that) called Abantwana be Afrika (Children of Africa). This album is a “return to roots” type of venture, with a relatively small group backing and Mankunku himself in quiet mood. The musicians around the master on this album are all of the younger generation of jazz musos in South Africa, but no less interesting for that. Apart from Mankunku on both tenor and soprano saxes the group consists of Prince Lengoasa – flugelhorn, Andile Yenana – piano, Herbie Tsoaeli bass, Lulu Gontsana – drums. All the musicians also share in performing the vocal chores. This is a stunningly beautiful album showcasing Mankunku at his best in terms of warmth of tone and emotional expressiveness. The track listing is “Give Peace a Chance (Een Liedtjie vir Saldanha Bay)”, “Ndizakuxhela Kwamajola”, “Bantwana Be Afrika (Children of Africa)”, “George & I”, Makaya Davashe’s incredibly beautiful “Lakutshon’ Ilanga”, “Dedication (to Daddy Trane & Brother Shorter)” which Mankunku debuted on the Yakhal’ inKomo album, “Inhlupeko”, “Tshawe”, “Ekuseni”, “Thula Mama”. A treat indeed.

© Text and photos copyright Tony McGregor






Zimology – a different voice in South African jazz

On 10 May 2011 a musician described by the Johannesburg newspaper The Star as “The most visible, hardest working younger man in jazz” died of a stroke at the age of 52. A bitter loss to serious music lovers in South Africa.

Zim playing soprano saxophone at the former Bassline jazz club in Melville, Johannesburg

Born on 25 December 1959 Zim Ngqawana was the youngest of five children. He was born in the Eastern Cape city of Port Elizabeth. He began playing flute at the age of 21 and his ability was such that he was able to gain entrance to Rhodes University in Grahamstown in spite of having dropped out of school before passing matric.

Zim on flute at the Bassline

He went on to study with Darius Brubeck at the University of Natal’s Centre for Jazz and Popular Music in Durban, kwaZulu-Natal, where he played in the Centre’s group the Jazzanians.

While still associated with the Centre he attended the International Association of Jazz Educators Convention in the United States. Here he was offered scholarships to study with the Max Roach and Wynton Marsalis Jazz Workshop and later with Archie Shepp and Yusuf Lateef at the University of Massachusetts.

Pianist Andile Yenana with the Zim Ngqawana Quartet at the Bassline

After returning to South Africa in the early 1990s Zim began to work extensively with local musicians while maintaining his international links and touring Europe and the United States from time to time.

His recording reveal the intensity of his commitment to the music as well as his constant exploration around the limits, his chafing at restraints on creativity.


His earliest appearance on  an album as featured artist was on the Norwegian-South African collaboration San Song, and album recorded in 1996 with the Norwegian group of Bjorn Ole Solberg called “San” – Bjorn Ole and Zim had met in 1994 and shared many musical ideas.

This album also featured the pianist who would be Zim’s favourite for many years, Andile Yenana.

The next album was the 1998 Zimology which continued the Norwegian collaboration by including Ingebrigt Håker Flaten on bass and Paal Nilssen-Love on drums. Andile Yenana again held down the piano stool.

On this album Zim introduced a number that would feature quite a few times on later albums, the wonderful “Qula Kwedini”.

In 1999 came the wonderful Ingoma (Song), again featuring the Norwegians Flaten and Nilssen-Love, adding trumpeter Dumakude Msuthwane and poet/artist Lefifi Tladi into the mix. And it is a rather heady mix. As the cover notes state, “Ingoma traverses ethnic cubicles – Lefifi blends Setswana and Sepedi and fuses them into a beyond 2000 language…” The music aims to complement the poetry (or does the poetry complement the music?) by reaching for nothing less than “The sound of the universe.”

In 2001 came Zimphonic Suites, an ambitious project which sought to further incarnate the Zimology philosophy which Zim was propounding: “Artists are not only artisans, they are primarily creative thinkers.” (From the liner notes). The music sprang from ideas as diverse as the place of music in the lives of world leaders, the duality of life, relations between men and women, and globalisation – to name a few! As Zim wrote:”The seen and the unseen; the known and the unknown; the possible and impossible; the duality of life, the balance, equilibrium.”

This album also introduced bassist Herbie Tsoaeli and drummer Kevin Gibson in the context of Zim’s quartet. (On a more personal note, my daughter Sarah was assistant sound engineer to Peter Pearlman who was in charge of the sound engineering for this album).

Zimphonic Suites was followed by the amazing Vadzimu in 2003. Packed with more cross-cultural references and emotional intensity this is a wonderful album and an important one in the South African jazz discography. It features a larger outfit than the earlier albums but still features Yenana and Tsoaeli. The drum kits are managed by Kesivan Naidoo and Lulu Gontsana (now also sadly departed). The brass section features Marcus Wyatt on trumpet and Bheki Mbatha on trombone. Guesting on the session were unusual instrumentalists Merle Thomson on harp and Elizabeth Rennie on viola. There is also a drum choir with congas and four djembes.

In keeping with the broader canvass offered by the bigger group this album goes all the way from sangoma-like chants to passages which could have been played by Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. Quite fascinating indeed.

The next two albums are from 2007 and 2008, although the latter was actually recorded in 2003.

Live at the Bird’s Eye is as far as I know the last recording by the Zimology Quartet featuring Tsoaeli on bass and newcomers (to Zimology, at least) Ayanda Sikade on drums and Nduduza Makhathini on piano. It is an exciting and moving live concert recorded at Basel’s Bird’s Eye Jazz Club in April 2007. Perhaps the pick of the 10 great tracks is the first, Makhathini’s arrangement of Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue”.

In 2003 Zim was invited to be “artist in residence” for the Africa semester of the University of Tennessee. While there he worked with keyboardist Donald Brown, guitarist Mark Boling, drummer Keith Brown and bassist Rusty Holloway.

This album, Zimology in Concert (USA) is a stunning reflection of the richness of cultural exchange done honestly and authentically. Although released in 2008 the concert was actually recorded in 2003 during Zim’s artist in residency. As Zim wrote in the liner notes, “I have always believed that the spirituals – gospel, blues, jazz, stride, maskanda, marabi, funk, mbaqanga, salsa, latin – have the same roots and one day all will meet. They finally met at this concert!” All the compositions, bar one (Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood”) are by Zim and yet the USA musicians get right into his music, bringing their own takes and enlivening the performances with their own “colourful biographies” (to use Zim’s words about them). This is a double disc album of great interest and listening pleasure.

In 2009 another live double CD was released, called Anthology of Zimology Volume One. Recorded live in Heidelberg, Germany, during a tour in 2008 by the Zimology Quartet. It is a hard-hitting album with some really serious music, including some old Zim favourites like “Qula Kwedini” and “Amagoduka”, with some wonderful new songs (on record anyway) like “Spiritual Suite” and “Bureaucracy”.  The personnel on this album is made up of Ayanda Sikade making sure the rhythms are heard from the drumkit; Nduduzo Makhathini laying down some amazing grooves from the keyboard; and Shane Cooper adding a deep melodic bass line to emphasise the harmonies. Sadly Volume Two will never be heard, at least on earth.



In the sometimes difficult environment of South African jazz where egos and pride often cause tension, amplified by the struggle for a living, Zim always to me stood as a strong and individual person relatively untouched by such things.

He was one who very consciously pushed boundaries of music and made music of great integrity and emotional power, yet always strongly tied to African roots of rhythm and harmony. He did not play “outside” just for the sake of appearing avant garde, but for the sake of the music.

Zim was convinced of the spiritual aspect of music which he saw as much more than entertainment, and yet he wanted to entertain too.

I feel privileged indeed to have known him and to have shared in the experience of his music as a listener. It was always an uplifting experience. I think these recordings, for all the inadquacy of recordings, give an insight into a brilliant mind and a wonderful musician.

In her brilliant book Soweto Blues (Continuum, 2004) jazz journalist and educator Gwen Ansell quoted these words from Zim which crystallize his understanding and show the depth of his thought:

“Music isn’t just notes. Every note has a social meaning. I’m singing my mother’s knowledge of the plants that grew around her; my father’s religion; the African transformation that we need.”

The last time I saw Zim was at his Zimology Institute south of Johannesburg. It had just been vandalised for the second time in a few years – the piano’s legs were missing, windows broken, mess everywhere. And Zim, broad and strong, showing me around the place, told me how he had hopes for that place, to grow food organically, to provide a space for musicians and other artists to come and in peace exercise and grow their talents. In his music and in his intellect he was the transformation we need. I just hope we can live up to his greatness.

© Text and photos copyright Tony McGregor 2011

Top 10 Jazz CDs â?? Tony’s Picks

A list of ten top jazz albums chosen by Tony McGregor

One Man’s take on the Jazz Audience Discussion

The contributor of this piece is jazz activist Ron Washington.  Besides being a stalwart jazz diehard and tireless observer of the scene, he is proprietor of Ron “Slim” Washington Productions, which provides jazz and other music for festivals, clubs and restaurants.

How Can a “Music of the Spirit” Die?

Jazz is dead! Here we go again; i.e. the recent Wall Street Journal article by Terry Teachout declaring that no one is listening to jazz and featuring a prominent cartoon of a “black Jazz musician” being wheeled out on a cart speaks volumes to a continued bourgeois, arrogant Eurocentric lack of understanding of jazz.

Mr. Treachout’s methodology is the classic case of someone going out to investigate the flowers, but never getting off the horse to “smell the flowers.” Hence the article is so “lightweight” I had to keep a paper-weight on it to keep it from elevating and floating away on its own. Put another way, as Amiri Baraka in his latest book “Digging” would say, “The lack of knowledge about America’s richest contribution to world culture is a reflection as well of the deadly ignorance which stalks this country from the New York City Hall to the halls of Congress to the corporate offices to academic classrooms, like a ubiquitous serial killer…”

Treachout uses a number of useless (without context!) numbers from a National Endowment of the Arts survey to conclude that only those with their head in the sand cannot see a larger picture of “lack of mass support for jazz” leading to its demise. There were fewer people attending a jazz concert; the audience is (graying) growing older; older people are less likely to attend jazz performances today than yesterday; and the audience among college educated adults is also shrinking. On the surface, this kind of approach can scare or misinform a great many people into following the ever present “jazz is dead” attacks upon the music. This kind of approach is not the approach of someone who wants to help jazz survive, but one that serves to drive people away from exploring and learning about jazz.

How about we come at the non arguable “less than healthy’ state of jazz another way? Once again we call on America’s foremost jazz critic for guidance. Why not investigate and raise the question as to the “domination of US popular culture by an outrageously reactionary commercial culture of mindlessness, mediocrity, violence and pornography means that it is increasingly more difficult for the innovative, serious, genuinely expressive, or authentically popular artist to get the same kind of production and the anti-creative garbage that the corporations thrive on.” (Digging, Amiri Baraka). I suggest that this is the inquiry that the Wall Street Journal should be making into the subject matter, the health state of jazz. But when you’re part of the problem, it’s difficult. From the standpoint of the WSJ, jazz’s mystery can/cannot be solved by market forces. “Look here are the numbers!”

From the great work “Blues People,” to his other book, “Black Music,” and the latest contribution from the peoples’ critic, “Digging,” there is one thing that stands out. Amiri Baraka insists that the music, from blues to jazz, is a creation and reflection of the struggles of the Afro-American people. The music is an expression of a people’s culture and cannot be separated from such. Jazz, Afro-American in origin, universal in content and expression, is nonetheless tied to a people, expressing their greatest fears and joys, hopes for the future and repository of the past, that it can said, “the music is the people.” Hence the music can never die, because the people live. Bill Cosby is quoted in Digging as saying, “There’s a wonderful story I like to tell. It’s the end of the world…gray, blowing, turbulent… and there is this tombstone that says, ‘Jazz: It Broke Even!’ The music has its high and lows, but it can never die.”

Art is a reflection of a people’s culture. As Baraka says, “Whether African Song, Work Song, Spiritual, Hollers, Blues, Jazz, Gospel, etc., no matter the genre, the ideas contained in Afro-American art, in the main, oppose slavery and desire freedom.” (Digging). For jazz to die, the entire history and Afro-American people would have to die. This is the content that an interloper like Treachout cannot understand.

But since jazz is what the great trumpet player Ahmed Abdullah calls, “the music of the spirit,” it can never die. While the WSJ declares jazz dead, refuses to get off the horse and smell the flowers, the music continues to thrive and fight for its life, for its expression. In New Jersey , new small clubs are opening up all over the place, anchored by Cecil’s in West Orange . You have the work of Newark’s own Stan Myers, who has run a successful Tuesday night Jam session at Crossroads for years;  Papillion, Skipper’s, the Priory, Trumpets, John Lee’s annual concerts in South Orange, and countless other venues all testify to the fact that the “spirit” is alive.

Jazz is not popular culture. To compare and demand that Jazz be equated with the lowest common denominator cultural expression, packaged for the most extreme exploitation by monopoly capitalism is to have no understanding of the music. By its very nature it is “rebel” music. Treachout complains that it is not the music of the masses, of the youth, as determined by corporate measuring sticks. Well of course. I like hip-hop but I’m not going to any concerts. That’s youth music. Not particularly challenging.

When we say jazz is “a music of the spirit,” sitting in on a jazz program has the possibility of elevating the listener to heights never experienced by a poplar culture event. For many it is a shared communal experience, as witnessed by the common clapping in appreciation of a musical interlude, or the strictly individual experience of the music. Some can appreciate the full recipe of musical virtuosity on display, some may connect deeply in an emotional way with the music, some relate to the democratic display of the skills of the musicians, and some may not have liked the particular performance.


Ron Washington, September 10, 2009