Always following the music

I can’t imagine the world without music,” says Hugh Masekela.

‘I’ve been obsessed with music since I could think. It was my only obsession.” At 71, the iconic South African trumpeter is reflecting on his jazz journey. ‘I embraced music from when I was three.
I couldn’t stay away from the gramophone. Everybody had one, and they all played different music. I knew cowboy songs, songs of the Andrews Sisters, mbube choirs… I never saw them, but I heard them every night. Church music, school music, wedding music, traditional ethnic music. When there was music I was happy. So I followed the music.”

Back in the 1950s, following this music meant tuning into the revolutionary bebop sounds of saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. In 1960, Masekela helped shape the sound of South African jazz to come in the Jazz Epistles alongside saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi, pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, drummer Makhaya Ntsoko and bassist Johnny Gertze. South Africa’s first jazz supergroup, they recorded the country’s first jazz LP, Verse 1, which was inspired by American jazz innovations.

Young jazz cat

Masekela’s love for the Great American Songbook soared when he went into exile in the United States to study at the Manhattan School of Music in 1961. ‘We spent most of our nights listening to Miles Davis’s performances at New York’s Village Vanguard and followed the jazz greats all over the Big Apple nightspots,” he says. ‘We inhaled all their works through giant-sized straws.”

A self-proclaimed jazz junkie, Masekela had his heart set on joining Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers or sitting in with pianist Horace Silver’s quintet. But the drummer and pianist both suggested he form his own group. Damn, what was a young jazz cat wanting to play trumpet like Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong supposed to do to get a gig?

‘Why don’t you play music from your home?” advised Calypso folk crooner Harry Belafonte. ‘Look at what it’s done for Miriam [Makeba].” That just bummed Hugh out further. But he took Belafonte’s advice. He also took heed of Davis and Gillespie’s caveat about the danger of becoming just another young jazz trumpeter trying to get a break.

So he serenaded songbirds Makeba and Letta Mbulu with his African township tones at the landmark Sound of Africa concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1965. And he started playing ‘some of that shit from South Africa” into which Miriam had tuned American audiences.

Fiercely original sonic brew
For the rest of the decade Masekela funneled all his influences—from traditional township marabi jive and mbube to African-American R&B, Brazilian samba and, yes, even jazz—into a fiercely original sonic brew, unlike anything America had heard. World music, maybe? ‘I don’t care what you call it if it feels good,” says Masekela. How about African jazz then? ‘I was just given a gift to impart. I don’t think it comes from me. I think it’s sent through me. It’s not my music. I just found it here.”

Maybe so, but it was thanks to Masekela that ‘world music” or ‘Afro-jazz” meant anything to the global masses. In 1967 he scored his first Billboard Top 30 pop hit with a breezy, brassy cover of Jimmy Webb’s pop ballad, Up Up and Away. 1968’s airy but rootsier township jive anthem, Grazing in the Grass (from The Promise of a Future), did even better, kicking no less than the Rolling Stones’ Jumping Jack Flash off the number-one spot on the Billboard pop charts.

But the times they were a’ changing. Martin Luther King had been murdered. Apartheid oppression was in overdrive back home. On his next album, simply titled Masekela, he shelved the ‘pop”, went political and penned protest anthems such as Mace and Grenades. ‘Career suicide,” his record company called it. He didn’t care.

‘There are albums that I’ve made from time to time where I call attention to society about injustice,” says Masekela. ‘I learned that from Belafonte, Paul Robeson, Makeba, Dylan, Joan Baez and Marvin Gaye. Did you know he and I were born in the same week? Marvin always used to say to me: ‘Man I wish I could sing the kind of songs you sing, but at Motown they just want us to sing love songs.’ I said: ‘You don’t have to if you don’t want to.’ And he said: ‘I never thought about that, you know?’ And then three years later he came out with What’s Going On. And he called me and said: ‘Hugh-ski! I’m still gonna sing the sex shit, but I had a lot to get off my mind, thank you man.”

Creative cul-de-sac
By 1973 Masekela had a lot on his mind. The US had become a creative cul-de-sac. After a decade in exile he was seriously homesick. He knew he couldn’t go back to apartheid’s madness, but ex-wife Makeba had gone to Guinea and there was this Nigerian saxophone preacher, Fela Kuti, who was starting his own African musical revolution. Touring for a month with the Afrobeat firebrand paid dividends. He found a way to combine his musical medium and his message in pan-African musical power. ‘Fela said: ‘Hugh, the truth haunts me. I don’t sleep at night,” says Masekela. ‘He reinforced my dedication to be against injustice.”

Unapologetically roots driven, South African jazz parables about migratory labour like Stimela (Coal Train) became the first of many successful party-starters with a purpose. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Jazz policemen

Not quite. Hugh Masekela may well have managed to sidestep the creative and commercial cul-de-sac of any ‘pure” jazz canon without alienating his fans over the past four decades. But he remained haunted by a pair of conservative American ‘jazz policemen” who’d dismissed his music early on in his career.

‘When I first began recording and performing in America, self-anointed ‘jazz experts’ Leonard Feather and Stanley Crouch were extremely offended by the music I was playing and vehemently declared: This is not jazz!” says Masekela in the liner notes to his 2005 album, Almost like Being in Jazz. ‘I had never claimed that it was jazz, but the two gentleman and their ‘purist’ disciples did everything in their power to denounce my musical efforts, subsequently causing me to keep a safe distance from their hallowed, private hallways of music,” he says, explaining the genesis of his atypical recording.

Unusual? Sure. Gone were the fiery, funky homebrewed African jazz anthems he’d built his career on. Instead, Almost like Being in Jazz consists exclusively of jazz standards taken from the Great American Songbook—intimate, straight-ahead renditions of Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weil’s My Ship, Gene DePaul and Don Raye’s You Don’t Know What Love Is and Lionel Hampton’s Midnight Sun.

‘The experience vindicated our belief in our capability to interpret these classics with humble honesty and respect,” says Masekela. ‘It was joy to record these songs. It certainly felt almost like being in jazz.”

Hugh Masekela and long-time pianist Larry Willis revisit the jazz standards repertoire that inspired them to record Almost like Being in Jazz with Victor Masondo (bass) and Lee-Roy Sauls (drums) at Rosies on Saturday night at 10.30pm

Click here for more from the Cape Town International Jazz Festival

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