Rise of the baby-faced badass

Wave-maker: Justin Bellairs has made a huge impression in a very short time. (David Harrison, M&G)

Wave-maker: Justin Bellairs has made a huge impression in a very short time. (David Harrison, M&G)

If you’ve ever seen drummer Kesivan Naidoo solo, you’ll know the look he gave when he delivered the news: “We’re playing Carnegie Hall, man!”

It’s the look he gets the second before the climax of a piece of music; his eyes roll back, and a demonic smile creeps between his cheeks. His body is clearly behind the kit, his right arm gleefully teasing a Zildjian Ride cymbal – but it is easily apparent that, ladies and gentlemen, Kesivan Naidoo has left the building.

It’s a look of sheer, unadulterated joy.

It’s in the wake of one of these solos that Naidoo turns to me, slightly manic, like he can’t get the words out fast enough. “Carnegie Hall.” Playing at this New York City venue is the apex of every musician’s career.

All the greats have played there: Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Count Basie, Fats Waller, Miriam Makeba, Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
Neil Young once told Rolling Stone magazine he’d been “dying to get into this place all my life”.

Naidoo rattles off the names of the players he is taking along in October to play with his band, Kesivan and the Lights. The Lights are a quintet of young, Cape Town-based players, the new guard of South African improvised music: Shane Cooper on double bass, Reza Khota on guitar, Kyle Shepherd on piano and a relatively unknown young alto saxophone player named Justin Bellairs.

Naidoo invited Bellairs to play with the band in 2012, when the fresh-faced sax player was still an undergraduate student at the University of Cape Town. Clearly, Naidoo is a fan.

“You’ve got to hear this cat play, man. He’s so young but he’s so badass! He’s so, so badass!” Naidoo tells me excitedly.

Visions of a pretentious brat come to mind: a prodigy rising to the top too quickly; hung over, late for some rehearsal, popping a half a cap of acid while stroking a mid-afternoon shadow and lighting a joint. The stereotypical kid’s face surely nurses a nonplussed expression, which precedes the words: “Oh, shit. Stained my favourite Ramones shirt with Jägermeister last night.”

But the expected caricature is the antithesis of this musician. Bellairs is blue-eyed, crisp, clean-cut, short-haired and baby-faced. He’s unassuming and completely unselfconscious, yet thoughtful and open.

“I hope I’m doing OK. This is my first interview,” he says shyly.

The 24-year-old Master’s student is slowly coming to terms with the fact that he is playing, well, “Carnegie Hall, man”.

“I’m so excited, but nervous. Mostly, I’m nervous. Worst-case scenario is that I go blank on stage, but I’ve never done that before, so I’m sure it won’t happen. Best-case scenario is that people like the gig and I make some good contacts,” he says.

Naidoo and the other Lights have toured 100 countries among them, but this is the first overseas music tour for Bellairs.

The Cape Town-born player studied under Mike Rossi and others at the University of Cape Town, and is now a regular feature of the Shane Cooper Quintet. Cooper, a phenomenal bassist and composer, won the 2013 Standard Bank Young Artist award for jazz (Naidoo is also a former winner; Shepherd is the 2014 recipient). Bellairs played on Cooper’s acclaimed 2013 album Oscillations, produced by pre-eminent bassist and University of the Witwatersrand music lecturer Carlo Mombelli.

It was the first recording gig for the sax player. The album is all the proof needed for Naidoo’s hypothesis: Bellairs is badass.

There’s something pure about his masterful phrasing and mature tone. He has technique all right, which is evident in his intelligent solos, but his playing remains raw and so “badass” that it’s filthy. It’s why he’s quickly becoming the sax player of choice for the best jazz players in the country.

His first performance as one of the Lights in 2012 was “nerve-wracking”, but “musically, we just connected. After that, Kesivan just kind of kept me in the band,” says Bellairs.

It was at just such a gig in May 2013, at what is now called Straight No Chaser (previously known as the Mahogany Room, the Cape Town club Naidoo owns with trumpeter Lee Thompson), where Carnegie Hall’s directors spotted the band.

They were looking for artists to perform for a series of shows featuring South African artists, in celebration of 20 years of democracy, called Ubuntu. Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim, Vusi Mahlasela and Ladysmith Black Mambazo were also booked. The Lights are on at 8.30pm on October 30.

“It’s so huge, we’re still getting over the ‘wow’ factor. All the greats have played there,” Bellairs says.

For Bellairs, October 30 will be about playing on the same stage as John Coltrane – one of the masters of jazz improvisation – once did. As a teenager, Bellairs didn’t think he was particularly good at improvising. He believes Cooper and Naidoo have played a huge part in changing that.

Similarly, the Lights have each been given a hand-up by the greats of South African jazz. The likes of pianist Bheki Mseleku and drummer Lulu Gontsana were among their respective teachers.

“I’ve come a long way just from playing with the Lights. Besides being musical, they have great technique. If I get lost while we’re playing or hit a blank, I can kind of just stop and listen, and let them lead me,” says Bellairs.

“Improvisation is a language, really. You just have to learn the tools to speak it.”

So what’s after Carnegie Hall? Is it like getting a birthday present too soon in life, and the future is just sort of dull after that?

“Ideally, I’d just like to make a living off playing improvised music. I do some pop gigs and some teaching, which can also be inspiring. Playing different kinds of music is good for you. But ultimately I’m a purist; I really just want to play jazz.”

Being a jack of all trades in the South African music industry is necessary because, as Bellairs says, “there just isn’t enough support for improvised music”.

“To most people it just sounds like noise, although you can make a career out of it in America or Europe. In the rest of the world it just happens in pockets.”

Could Carnegie Hall elevate the status of local jazz?

“Yeah, hopefully. It’s good to let them know what Cape Town and South African artists are capable of. I mean, the exposure is huge and really scary at the same time. You never know who’s going to be in the audience. New York is the seat of jazz right now.”

Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans interned at the Diamond Fields Advertiser in Kimberley for three years before completing an internship at the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane). She went on to work as a Mail & Guardian news reporter with areas of interest including crime, law, governance and the nexus between business and politics.  Read more from Sarah Evans

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