Bra Hugh in golden form with own label

In the groove: Larry Willis and Hugh Masekela. (Delwyn Verasamy)

In the groove: Larry Willis and Hugh Masekela. (Delwyn Verasamy)

Hugh Masekela stands on the stage completely dressed in black, his head bowed as he blows on his trumpet. Hunched over the piano is the hulk of American pianist Larry Willis.

The rest of the stage is empty. Willis’s feet are gently massaging the piano pedals as the audience watches the Louis Armstrong riffs visually roll up and down his spine: he is in the groove.

The song they are performing is When It’s Sleepy Time Down South, written in 1931 by Clarence Muse, Leon Rene and Otis Rene but made famous by Armstrong, who recorded the song more than 100 times.

As Masekela sings the nostalgic ­lyrics about the great migration of black Americans from the south to cities in the northern United States, the audience is swept up in this intimate moment.
As the song draws to an end, the sense of release is incredible. The audience roars. Tonight we are being schooled in the Great American Songbook.

Before the next song begins, Masekela tells a funny anecdote about meeting Armstrong in the US. “He said to me: ‘Do you sing, boy?’ When I said that I only played trumpet, he said: ‘You should sing. If I can sing, anyone can sing.’ ” The audience roars with laughter and Masekela introduces the next song.

The next day I sat next to Masekela in the posh foyer of the Intercontinental Hotel in Sandton as he enthused about Willis and the duo’s new four-disc album Friends — a 39-track reworking of American jazz standards that have been released on Bra Hugh’s new record label, House of Masekela. Twenty-seven of the tracks are duets and 12 are with a full band.

I told Masekela that the best part about the launch show the previous night at the Theatre on the Square in Sandton had been the anecdotes about the musicians whose music was being played.

“People don’t realise how much I lived in a golden age of jazz in New York,” said Masekela. About the show, he said it had to be “like watching a live documentary — it teaches people about the history behind songs and their origins. I especially love talking about Louis Armstrong because, if it wasn’t for him, you and me would not be sitting here today.”

Willis and Masekela met in September 1961 at the Manhattan School of Music in New York.

“We became buddies, us two and a couple of other African-Americans,” said Masekela.

“We were the only black kids in some of the classes and those were the days of the civil rights movements and hangings, so we tended to stick together.

“The first time I saw Larry was when he was practising for an opera and he was dressed like George Washington in a blue velvet tunic, with buckled shoes and a white wig. We were sitting on the balcony giggling. We had just finished smoking some grass and when he came off we were like: ‘What you doing, man?’”

The two became firm friends and regularly jammed together. They formed a quartet before they finished music school and started playing live at the Village Gate as the opening act for stars such as Sarah Vaughan, ­Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and Miriam Makeba.

Then in 1965 Masekela’s album, The Americanization of Ooga Booga, took off and he moved to Los Angeles.

Coming together

Over the years Willis and Masekela would reconvene to record together, most notably on 1972’s Home Is Where the Music Is and 2005’s Almost Like Being in Jazz, a response to US jazz critics who used to write “that Masekela can’t play no jazz”, according to Masekela.

Last year the duo were invited to perform Almost Like Being in Jazz at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival and they decamped afterwards to a new studio that Masekela’s nephew, Pius Mokgokong, had built east of Pretoria on his Boschkop farm.

The result from that 10-day recording session and another three that followed is Friends — and what a treat it is.

Herbie Hancock’s Cantaloupe Island, Thelonious Monk’s Ruby, My Dear, Duke Ellington’s Day Dream and Cole Porter’s Everytime We Say Goodbye are just some of the jazz standards recorded for this delightful collection.

So when will this show be returning to South African shores?

Well, Bra Hugh said he would be off shortly to perform with Paul Simon on the Graceland reunion tour, but there had been talk about bringing the duets show back to the Theatre on the Square in November for a week, but nothing is “in stone”.

For now Masekela has plenty to keep him busy: a new studio, a new label and a further two albums to be released before the end of the year.

The first is a recording of new material he did with his band of three years, called Together, and the second is a collaboration between the South African band Complete and Danish band the Baobab Singers on which eight African folk songs and five Scandinavian folk songs were recorded.

“I think the greatest gift here is from my nephew Pius,” said Masekela. “To have a new studio to use for free, wow! Now we want to record outstanding music …”
To see a legend of South African music this energised, 50 years into his career, is truly something to behold.

Lloyd Gedye

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