Benjamin passed away on Tuesday, August 20. Perhaps her last public appearance was on August 10, a Saturday night, at the SABC's Johannesburg studios where she was honoured with a Standard Bank Joy of Jazz lifetime achievement award, alongside Abigail Kubeka, Dorothy Masuku, Thandi Klaasen and Sylvia Mdunyelwa.
The jazz legend was born in October 1936 in Claremont, Cape Town, to which she returned in 2011, after 45 years based in New York. In her career she worked as a vocalist, record-label owner and band manager for her husband, pianist Abdullah Ibrahim. In that period she built a remarkable oeuvre that includes albums such as Sathima Sings Ellington, Windsong, Memories and Dreams, Dedications, Lovelight, Southern Touch, Cape Town Love, and Musical Echoes. Even though she lived in the shadow of her more illustrious husband, she was an accomplished musician.
She left South Africa in 1960 together with Ibrahim to initially settle in Zurich, Switzerland. From their Swiss base, they toured Germany, Denmark and other Scandinavian countries. It was in Switzerland that they got to meet and work with some of the most exciting jazz musicians playing at the time: John Coltrane,Thelonius Monk, Dexter Gordon and, most significantly, Duke Ellington. American historian and photographer John Edwin Mason memorably recorded Benjamin recounting the night her and Ibrahim were "discovered" by Ellington.
"I don't know how I got backstage … there were all these women with their furs. You know, Duke Ellington loved the ladies, and the ladies loved him. So there were a whole lot of rich, elegant Swiss ladies, with their furs and jewels, waiting to get in his dressing room … and I'm standing there with my little Salvation Army clothes … But every time the door would open, he would catch my eye. Then at one point he said, 'Let her in'. And there I was in the room. It was a miracle," she told Mason.
She related to Mason that she begged Ellington to come "and listen to the Dollar Brand trio, I think you would be very interested. He didn't even ask me at that point what do I do. He said, 'Ok'." The trio featured Ibrahim, drummer Makaya Ntshoko and bassist Johnny Gertze.
'Her legacy will never be forgotten'
Ellington then signed them to Frank Sinatra's Reprise label, helping to launch them onto the world stage. The rest, as they used to say, is history. Even though Ellington wanted Benjamin to join her band, she declined so that she could be close to Ibrahim, who she has two children with: son Tsakwe and daughter Tsidi (a hip-hop artist who goes by the name of Jean Grae).
Peter Tladi, head of T-Musicman and the brains behind the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz, said: "We gave Sathima Bea Benjamin a lifetime achievement award as a way of honouring her contribution to the heritage of music in this country. Her legacy will never be forgotten. She made an enormous impact in the development of music in SouthAfrica and internationally."
Writer and filmmaker Peter Makurube, probably the last journalist to interview Benjamin on August 11, expressed "shock" at the death. He and photographer Victor Dlamini spent three hours with Benjamin talking about her career, Ibrahim and other South African musicians. "We planned on going to Cape Town to continue talking with her. It's sad."
In addition to the Standard Bank Lifetime Achievement Award, Benjamin was also awarded the Order of Ikhamanga (Silver) in 2004 by Thabo Mbeki.