One of the greatest musical delights this year was hearing for the first time the voice of Nina Mkhize, a third-year music student at Natal Technikon. Each year at the Old Mutual Jazz Encounters the auditions are recorded for sampling purposes and bundled together by region for the ears of the judges, journalists and corporate heads. Every year there’s a bunch of thrilling surprises. Last year it was saxophonist and composer Ivan Mazuze. This year it was Mkhize, growling with the attitude of Busi Mhlongo and the breathy prowess of Miriam Makeba. She also writes beautiful songs.
This is the beauty of the Old Mutual Jazz Encounters competition. Every year we are introduced to extraordinary talent. Every year that extraordinary talent is elevated to new levels. Every year we see our musical canvas expanded, and it’s very exciting.
And every year Old Mutual ums and ahs and evaluates and tentatively goes into a new year of Jazz Encounters. Things look even more tentative for 2003. At the time of writing Old Mutual is evaluating the proceedings of Jazz Encounters 2002. It doesn’t know whether the competition will continue in 2003.
Which seems crazy. After four years the brand is well entrenched, as Helen Casey, Old Mutual brand manager, confirms. “We want to create an experience,” she says, and it has succeeded at that. Over four years it has created an elaborate and rich South African music story with a huge cast of characters.
They’re hip characters. There’s been the superstars, Judith Sephuma and Selaelo Selota. There’s been the quiet genius of composers and pianists Sylvester Mzinyanej, Roland Moses and Mark Fransman, the superbly stylish Cape Town percussionist Syd Voise, the slick Breakfast Included and the beautiful vocalists Nontutuzelo Puane and Melanie Scholtz. There’s been the flair and edge of saxophonist Mazuze and guitarist Gorm Espen Helfjord, and this year Mkhize has been an impeccable leading lady.
The characters are hip, but the aesthetic of the event isn’t. Take the launch of the programme in Cape Town last year. It was staged in a huge, drab hall at the Grand West Casino and Gloria Bosman and Ernie Smith performed. Nobody came. Which is just as well because the performances were badly chosen and boring. Where’s the jazz, I overheard somebody asking? In the toilet, was the sharp reply. Dead right. Inaccessible, unsexy. Money badly spent.
The organisers didn’t make that mistake this year. Instead they scaled down. They stuck to the showcases and the closing gala, which this year will happen only in Jo’burg with only national stars — last year the closing gala starred Al Jarreau and was staged in Jo’burg and Cape Town.
The trick is to make this cast of characters and the journey of the talent search sexy and accessible. Popstars and Idols have been glamorous but vacuous. Jazz Encounters has got the content, but it needs a bit of that glamour and hype. It does, after all, want to make stars. As it proclaimed last year: “Jazz Encounters, where jazz greats are made.”
What Old Mutual really needs to be evaluating is not whether the event should continue, but how to make it even better with more money. And who to give that money to, to ensure that an exceptional cast of characters gets the audience it deserves. Because the problem is that the people running the event are doing exactly that — running an event. To create a truly accessible and desirable experience you need to partner with the people who make their living creating such experiences.
Popstars and Idols might have 101 and Heinz, but Old Mutual is sitting on the real cheese. Mkhize is evidence enough of that.
Watch Nina Mkhize perform on Saturday night at the Old Mutual Jazz Encounters gala concert at Vodaworld, alongside Jimmy Dludlu, Judith Sephuma, Selaelo Selota and all the national Jazz Encounters winners. Tickets are R65. Book at Computicket