An ode to trailblazing jazz singers

In a dense and soothing voice, akin to her contralto register, Grammy award-winning vocalist Dianne Reeves shares her thoughts on the “importance of the jazz singer” in the genre. It is weeks ahead of her performance at the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz in Sandton when Reeves tells me that, “through their lyrics, vocalists are the conveyor belts of the story in jazz”.

Whether it is Zim Ngqawana crooning about missing his hometown in Ebhofolo, or Anita O’Day’s commanding skat against the beat of Gene Krupa’s drums in Sing, Sing, Sing, vocals can relay literal messages or be the extra layer of sound in a song, or both. 

Jazz singers “have played a great role in the evolution of this music”, Reeves says. “Musicians like Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McCrae and Betty Carter have been such trailblazers in the genre.”

Having taken up singing and piano as a girl in Denver, Colorado, the Vaughan disciple has also been a trailblazer, deconstructing the traditional jazz-singer sound by incorporating a wide range of genres into her music. 

“Jazz-fusion, pop-soul and African- and West Indian-flavoured material vied for pre-eminence in a repertory that was as scattered as it was ambitious,” writes Stephen Holden about Reeves’s sound in a 1992 New York Times article. 

And this mesh of sounds is what audiences can expect when the Detroit-born singer takes to the Joy of Jazz stage this weekend. 

Dianne Reeves.

“We’ll be performing songs off the new record Beautiful Life as well as some old favourites from other albums. There’ll be a lot of good music,” she tells me.

And with its vocalist-heavy line-up — which features musicians such as South Africa’s Melanie Scholtz, Roberta Gambarini of Italy, Gregory Porter from the United States, and more — this year’s Joy of Jazz is something like an ode to jazz vocals: one of the many powerful instruments of the genre. 

In a country where our own singers have shaken up the genre, while collecting awards and singing for our liberation over the decades, jazz vocals have played a role in documenting our country’s musical past and present.

Singers such as the late Sathima Bea Benjamin, who performed songs of freedom in Europe during the struggle were, as the Huffington Post put it, “a beacon of principled objection to apartheid”.

And then there is Atteridgeville-born Tutu Puoane, who now lives in Antwerp, who has gone on to win awards such as the Old Mutual Jazz Encounters award, the Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year award as well as two South African Music Award awards.

Tutu Puoane. 

Puoane, who will be performing alongside other vocalists and Standard Bank Young Artists of the Year winners, such as Scholtz, Sibongile Khumalo and Gloria Bosman, says she has taken cues from singers such as Reeves, and has sonically delved into different sounds on her latest album, iLanga.

Talking to Puoane on Skype, I ask her about the perceived dominance of women jazz vocalists, to which she responds: “We never ask the guys what it’s like being a ‘male jazz singer’. We tend to pay too much attention to female jazz vocalists. There are a big number of male jazz singers, who are just as profound and amazing.”

But with a few male jazz vocalists — such as the Grammy-winning Porter — among a sea of female vocalists on the festival line-up, it’s hard not to overlook the gender imbalance in the genre. 

“Women in jazz? I don’t think we’re where we should be in terms of having that dominance in the genre,” says singer Wanda Baloyi, who will be performing in a tribute show to the late Brenda Fassie at the festival. The performance will celebrate the country’s 20 years of democracy anniversary and the 10-year anniversary of the death of singing sensation Brenda Fassie. 

Asanda Bam and Wanda Baloyi (seated upright). (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

“What makes the tribute so special is that it’s not just me taking a Brenda song and singing it. Rather, this is my interpretation of it. So I like to call it ‘Brenda Fassie meets jazz’.” 

With a new album, Love and Life, set to drop soon, Baloyi — who says her music is not strictly jazz, but incorporates elements from the genre — laments that gender inequalities in jazz are present, but says that “we’ll get there one day”.

Baloyi will take to the stage with singers such as Port Elizabeth-based, award-winning singer Asanda Bam and Brenda Mtambo. 

With her powerful voice that dips and resurfaces as she sings, Bam will perform a jazzed-out rendition of Fassie’s Boipatong — a song about the 1992 massacre in the township.

Recognising the jazz singers’ position as a teller of our stories, the former Joyous Celebration gospel choir member says: “We have very powerful singers in the country. And we should pay attention to them and the powerful stories they relay in the music.”

Joy of Jazz needed ‘new shoes’

The Joy of Jazz festival, which takes place at the Sandton Convention Centre from September 25 to 27, has moved from its previous location in Newtown, Johannesburg, to accommodate the growing number of jazz fans attending the event.

In an interview with journalist Percy Mabandu, festival boss Peter Tladi says the move to Sandton “was not a decision we came to easily. There were logistical problems we encountered [in Newtown] because of the festival’s growth.

“It was not a case of let’s move because we are bigger than our shoes, but rather that we needed new shoes.”

Tladi said the convention centre’s benefits include the fact that rainy weather won’t spoil any shows, the ability to sell a full festival pass for the various concerts and that the sound quality, staging, security and parking will be better.

The festival is expected to draw nearly 30 000 people this year. Last year 24 178 fans attended the event in Newtown, where the festival had been held for the past 14 years. 

More than jazz on the menu

For fans, this year’s Joy of Jazz might happily be an endurance event. For the first time since the establishment of the festival 17 years ago, audiences will be able to use just one ticket to access all four stages (Dinaledi, Conga, Mbira and Diphala) at the Sandton Convention Centre. At previous festivals, held in Newtown, Johannesburg, fans had to buy separate tickets for each stage.

The event is aiming for a bigger crowd and a broader and more diverse audience. Besides the female jazz vocalist line-up, this year’s programme is peppered with great male soul and R&B musicians.

Joy of Jazz producer Peter Tladi says this year’s event aims to appeal to a broad range of musical tastes.

But this begs the question: Why still pretend it’s a jazz festival? But in the spirit of misreading Dave Brubeck, we’ll assume that jazz stands for freedom, even the freedom to include R&B under its mantel.

The festival includes some heavyweight R&B male vocalists, including Grammy award-winning Billy Ocean from Britain, neosoul singer/songwriter Dwele from the United States and local vocalist Brian Temba.

A winning formula for the festival has been to feature an old-school R&B singer, who is not necessarily known for singing jazz. In 2011, it was Alexander O’Neal and, in 2013, it was Dennis Edwards. This year, it’s Ocean, the singer/songwriter known for pop and R&B hits, who will cater for those who like their music with a bit of cheese. His most popular ballad, Suddenly, was released in 1985, and Ocean will take us back in time with that nostalgic 1970s and 1980s sound.

The Joy of Jazz festival seems to have taken a page out of the Cape Town International Jazz Festival book, by including an international contemporary act who’ll appeal to the younger market. Dwele will perform with the Joy of Jazz Ensemble, and the Subject singer will be bringing soul with a hip-hop edge to the festival.

Temba, who is no stranger to the Joy of Jazz (he was one of the local acts in 2010) will perform on the Mbira stage and will be joined by singers Maz-Hoba and Bo Manamela in the Sounds of Democracy set.

For jazz fans, the genre will be represented by vocalists such as Gregory Porter, who performed at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival last year, and local singer Presss (Preston Sihlangu), who rose to fame after being selected to be part of the Coca-Cola Popstar band 101 in 2002.

The Joy of Jazz line-up is diversifying as the years go by, but Tladi reassures fans that there won’t be any drastic changes in the direction of the programme.

“We will keep improving on what we have started. The one genre we will not have at the Joy of Jazz is kwaito, unless it’s accompanied by an orchestra.” — Katlego Mkhwanazi

We make it make sense

If this story helped you navigate your world, subscribe to the M&G today for just R30 for the first three months

Subscribers get access to all our best journalism, subscriber-only newsletters, events and a weekly cryptic crossword.”

stefanie jason
Following studying towards her Film & Media degree at the University of Cape Town and North Carolina State University, Stefanie Jason began work as a copy editor and writer for various South African publications, including Bona, True Love and Sowetan, as well as the Mail & Guardian. For the M&Gs arts & culture supplement Friday, she writes about art, music & lifestyle when she isnt relaxing, traveling or checking out Joburgs many art galleries.

Related stories


Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Latest stories

Cost of funerals in South Africa a grave concern

With the cost of living rising, many families can’t afford to bury their loved ones and assistance is needed

Will the ANC’s bones come together to bring it new...

Analysis of the the resolutions taken at the party’s policy talks show it will take good leadership and bold action to restore the ANC

Domestic workers the thread linking Mary Sibande and Dorothy Kay...

Dreaming Invisible Connections, a exhibition by postmodernist Mary Sibande and classical painter Dorothy Kay, highlights the domestic worker - in different ways

Indulge in the Loading Bay’s ethical food

The restaurant, which encourages regenerative farming, is tucked away in Cape Town’s De Waterkant.

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…