Death is not the end. Not for Zim Ngqawana. For him, space is the place.
This week saw the expiration of the physical existence on the earthly plane of an unorthodox South African jazz giant of galactic consciousness.
Yet his spirit continues to infuse the work of the younger jazz musicians he mentored. His many brilliant recordings remain—still captivating listeners and gaining new admirers.
Ngqawana, internationally renowned composer, arranger and multi-instrumentalist, died this week at the age of 51, reportedly after he had a stroke at home in Troyeville, Johannesburg, while practicing for an upcoming show. He is survived by his wife, Sarah, and five children.
Besides a treasure trove of recorded music, Ngqawana leaves an intellectual and spiritual legacy as jazz philosopher, musical visionary and mentor. He coined the encapsulating term “Zimology” for his ideas and teachings on the interface between music, spirituality and cosmology. He advocated mindful authenticity and improvisational artistry in African, global and cosmic terms.
His solo albums, bursting with adventurous creativity, received many awards and were all released on the Sheer Sound label, home to many of South Africa’s leading jazz artists. There were four studio albums (Zimology, Ingoma, Zimphonic Suites and Vadzimu) as well as a “Best of” album and—the most recent release—a live album recorded in the United States.
The studio albums tended to be concept albums divided into suites each consisting of a few tracks thematically and musically linked, sometimes paradoxically so. In this manner the sixteen tracks on Vadzimu form four suites: Satire, Diaspora, Liberation Suite and Nocturnes (the latter, surprisingly, consisting of three tracks of Zim on unaccompanied solo piano). His albums and suites are unpredictable and breathtakingly versatile.
Apart from various types of saxophone (soprano, alto, tenor and baritone) and the piano, he played concert flute, piccolo, double-head flute, harmonica, melodica and percussion. He also sung, in a slightly gruff but melodious voice and mostly in isiXhosa.
When on stage, it was dazzling to see him switch from one instrument to another in a flash, never missing a beat. I saw him live for the first time in July 2000 at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival. That night Ngqawana stole the show as the most dynamic member of the Eastern Cape All Stars, a big-band ensemble conducted by Hotep Galeta.
International jazz publications Jazz Times and Downbeat praised Ngqawana’s work as musician, arranger and composer. In the US he held of the Max Roach scholarship at the University of Massachusetts, where he studied jazz under Archie Shepp and Yusef Lateef. Later Ngqawana, too, lectured musicology—at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the University of Tennessee.
Like Lateef and Abdullah Ibrahim, jazz legends who influenced his music and vision, Ngqawana converted to Islam.
Musical marginalisation of the Eastern Cape
He grew up in New Brighton in Port Elizabeth, a historic township (one of the oldest in the country) that has produced not only luminaries like actor/playwright John Kani and painter George Pemba but also numerous jazz greats like Feya Faku, Lulu Gontsana, Duke Makasi, “Big T” Ntsele and The Soul Jazzmen.
The haunting Inhlupeko by The Soul Jazzmen from 1969 is a South African jazz standard of the lineage and quality of Ibrahim’s Mannenberg, although lesser known, perhaps due to the musical marginalisation of the Eastern Cape. (Forty years after its release on vinyl LP, Inhlupeko was recently made available for the first time on CD internationally by the British label Strut Records on the compilation Next Stop Soweto Vol 3: Giants, Ministers and Makers: Jazz in South Africa 1963-1978.)
As a young man in the late seventies, Ngqawana experienced the New Brighton jazz scene that revolved around The Soul Jazzmen and jam sessions at venues like the St Stephens church hall. When he heard John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme on vinyl, it awoke a thirst in him for creative explorations beyond (yet incorporating) traditional township jazz.
Three decades after first encountering A Love Supreme, and after receiving many standing ovations overseas as well as five Sama awards at home, he was due to return to Port Elizabeth and New Brighton on May 20 for a concert celebrating the 70th birthday of Dudley Tito, saxophonist of The Soul Jazzmen. Ngqawana passed away ten days before the event.
Played by the music
His very first recordings were done only a few kilometres from his New Brighton home turf—in the eighties in Duck Chowles’ studio in Strand Street in downtown Port Elizabeth, in the shade of flyovers that cut off the sea from the old colonial city centre. These recordings, done in his early twenties, were not under his own name but as flautist for bubblegum township pop artists: light years removed from the sophisticated synthesis of traditional African music and American jazz in the Coltrane tradition which would later earn him fame.
In an interview with Nils Jacobson of allaboutjazz.com, he said that post-bop Coltrane brought jazz back to Africa and made it more accessible to African listeners and practitioners. “I was a teenager when I first heard that music, and I was involved in other genres. When I heard that, it turned me around ... He [Coltrane] was out of control, and that’s the point that we all should reach when we play the music: to get to the point where you are played by the music.”
Ngqawana added that pentatonic scales are the basis of both African and Asian music. “You hear pentatonic all over. ‘Trane was about that, and the continent is about that. And also, the universe is about that, if you look at the philosophy of the elements. So I work from that premise.”
In recent years he founded the Zimology Institute in Johannesburg to provide mentorship to upcoming jazz artists. He was the mentor of the young Cape Town jazz pianist and composer Kyle Shepherd, a rising star of the South African jazz scene.
The first track on Shepherd’s SAMA-nominated, 2008 debut album, fineART, is an ode to Ngqawana entitled Zimology. This week, shortly after Ngqawana’s death, a distraught Shepherd made a Facebook posting that ends with an echo of another free thinker of jazz, Sun Ra: “Zim, our friend, master, mentor and a leader in the movement of improvisation to which we are all committed. Losing you hurts but your spirit and your message lives on, forever! I miss you bra Z! See you soon, space is the place!”