Shattering the jazz ceiling

The first thing to do with the Joy of Jazz festival that starts this weekend is to ignore what, for some, would be the purist’s understanding of what jazz is.

The genre that his royal highness, Duke Edward Kennedy Ellington, once dramatically called “this music” has come to mean different things to different people.

In South Africa it tends to mean any music, especially that without lyrics or based on instrumentation, that cannot fit neatly into exact sciences such as kwaito or rock. You have to accept that jazz is a state of mind.

Once you have ignored the dictionary meaning of what jazz is, you are then best placed to appreciate what is probably an insight into what the future holds for local female vocalists.

This year’s festival could very well introduce you to the talents of Wanda Baloyi, Nombulelo Maqe­thuka, Thembisile and the African Soul Sisters. The latter features Corlea Botha, whose name, like that of Dutchwoman Trintjie Oosterhuis (who trades under the name and style of Tranchia), debunks the myth that certain names and members of communities are not cut out for the soul-based jazz sounds.

These young women are by no stretch of the imagination incarnates of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn or Billie Holiday. They are not what the jazz purist would call jazz vocalists, but they sure can sing.

Which brings us to the Duke’s memorable line: “There are only two types of music: good and bad.”

Yes, Maqethuka’s gospel background comes through — her father and brother are pastors.

That Thembisile won the South African Music Award for best African pop album bears testimony to her abilities and her non-jazz inclinations.

Baloyi, too, in the lineage of Judith Sephuma and Gloria Bosman, is not a quintessential jazzebel. But if you are inclined to see things the Duke Ellington way, then you would have to conclude that theirs is the kind that would fit under the label “good”.

This is by no means a sign of disrespect to, or jingoism against the likes of Branford Marsalis, Jonathan Butler, Ramsey Lewis, Brenda Russell and that irrepressible Israeli bassist Avishai Cohen, all of whom are names deserving of respect.

Marsalis comes from the first family of jazz, led by his father Ellis and most ably represented by his brother, Wynton — he was the first jazz artist to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his contribution to American culture for Blood on the Fields.

Marsalis is, however, his own man. He is probably better known to the peripheral jazzer for his Buckshot Lefonque project — the song I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings received generous airplay on South African radio.

Butler almost needs no introduction. As with another jazz guitarist, George Benson, he has straddled the lanes — much to the annoyance of the keepers of the jazz faith — by playing a tune that would have made Wes Montgomery take note and then switch on to something that would be in keeping with those inclined to get down on the dance floor.

Grammy award-winning pianist Lewis is well liked and respected here, and has had a following since the late 1960s and early 1970s. Even at his most popular with his trio, Lewis was always accepted as a “light” jazz brand.

Enter Jamie Cullum, some of the freshest blood in the ever-expanding jazz idiom. As the sponsors of Joy of Jazz put it: “Cullum continues to redefine where the parameters of pop and jazz — indeed, all musical genres — are drawn.”

Pianist Themba Mkhize represents the local front. Having played with Sakhile, described as Afro-jazz masters of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and, coupled with his flirtation with maskandi rhythms, there are those who may ask whether Mkhize is worthy of a place in a jazz setting.

But it should not really matter. Jazz, at least in South Africa, has proven itself to be in the ear of the listener. That does not mean that all that is called jazz should be accepted without question. Even Ellington, liberal as he was in accepting that music was either good or bad, did more than most to give jazz the distinct sound that separates it from the riff-raff.

So the organisers, guilty as they may be of not meeting the standards set by purists, can at least be happy that no one will question the choice of the word “joy” for their gigs. It may or may not be jazz as you have come to know it, but it is probably joy, as you have always understood it.

The Standard Bank Joy of Jazz festival takes place at venues in Newtown, Johannesburg, from August 24 to 26. Go to for more information

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