Legends in our midst, but Sandton sucks the joy out of jazz

The audience at Jonas Gwangwa’s Joy of Jazz performance rise to their feet and belt out a chorus of approval as the once émigré trombonist plays the first few notes of Morwa, one of his most well-known tunes.

The senior South African Jazz stalwart manages a stiff jig for a few bars of the song before parking on his seat and leading the audience on a scenic tour of his expansive catalogue.

You wouldn’t be completely off the mark to imagine the Joy of Jazz festival – and others of its kind – as nostalgic trips for those who lived through the darkest eras of apartheid and the most prolific eras of South African jazz. Gwangwa was joined on the 2014 Joy of Jazz festival bill by other “in my time” acts such as vocalists Sibongile Khumalo and Gloria Bosman, bassists Herbie Tsoaeli, Carlo Mombelli, and trumpeter Feya Faku.

Inadvertently or not, the promoters of the Joy of Jazz festival helped some of their South African drawcard acts become tarot cards for divining the look and sound of the next generation of South African jazz legends. They did this by pairing the old with the new for a feast of music much more tasteful than the festival’s new venue, the Sandton Convention Centre.

The pairing of old hands with young blood produced moments in the festival when even obviously well-rehearsed bands sounded at once experienced but also dynamic. One such moment of divination came during the Carlo Mombelli and the Storytellers set on the second night of the festival.

Music boxes and magic
Using high-pitched bells and instruments reminiscent of children’s musical toys, pianist Kyle Shepherd and drummer Kesivan Naidoo held a melody, built it to crescendo, and then let it ebb creating an eerie musical box feel which left jaws on the ground. Their eyes locked and smiles cracked between them.

Similarly, pianist Nduduzo Makhatini and drummer Ayanda Sikade used their appearances as part of the Herbie Tsoaeli Quartet to lay bare their conversation as peers. Sikade teased out rhythmic nuances even with Makhatini sometimes heavy-handed on the keys.

Tsoaeli, a legend popular with many who came to watch his set, graciously made room for the pair to shine during ample solos. Together, Makhatini and Sikade brought dynamism and playfulness to a performance that otherwise might have been too high-brow for some.

The synergy was not as strong when double bassist Romy Brauteseth and Naidoo appeared as part of the Feya Faku Quintet (FFQ). Naidoo often left his engine roommate cowering in a corner after his archetypal bold flurries.

For her part, Brauteseth did well to smooth out the often one-sided conversation between the engine room and the rest of the band.

Makhatini also appeared with FFQ, and thankfully found some finesse for that performance.

Loss of hospitality and atmosphere
South African jazz faces the dual challenge of an ageing audience who grew up during the South African jazz belle époque, and a younger audience who need to be lugged into the jazz fold for the music to survive.

One formula for drawing younger audiences is to bill international “not-strictly-jazz” acts that are already popular with the youth – it’s a formula that can work, and has worked.

But it does not bode well for the popularity of the Joy of Jazz festival with younger audiences when United States-based neo-soul crooner Dwele is hardly audible during either of his performances and uses Casanova gimmicks to elicit audience responses.

The Joy of Jazz festival promoters, T-Musicman, argued fervently in support of their decision to move the venue of the festival from Newtown to the Sandton Convention Centre.

In Newtown, the festival’s various stages had been located at different venues in the artsy precinct. In Sandton, four stages were hosted on different floors of one venue. But for what T-Musicman gained in convenience they lost in hospitality and atmosphere.

One foot in the door
The festival had a clinical feel in its new home, partly because it looked like it was a rent-paying tenant with one foot in the door. The spaces between stages did little to give one the feeling of one experiencing something unique and unparalleled.

Music festivals in South Africa are popping up like spaza shops in township garages. With that, competition between promoters is becoming tighter and the game of one-upmanship is introducing younger audiences to ever more sophisticated levels of event hosting.

While young South African jazz artists are grabbing the baton being passed to them by their elders, institutions like the Joy of Jazz festival need to remain current and dynamic in order to grow audiences for the next generation of audiences.

Rune stones and bones can be thrown and read to predict if the Sandton Convention Centre will usher in a new era for the Joy of Jazz festival; or if it will be the graveyard where the festival will fossilise.

Should the festival not survive, one of the important opportunities for young jazz musicians to showcase their work would have been needlessly lost.

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