Jazz is perceived by many as an “exclusive’’ and intellectual penchant. One of the problems I have with jazz, as both a genre and lifestyle, is the issue of accessibility — not just cerebrally but spatially and financially too. With the closure of Johannesburg venues such as House of Nsako and, more recently, The Bassline, places to enjoy jazz and other live music are becoming increasingly scarce, not to mention expensive.
In addition to the intimate and avant-garde Afrikan Freedom Station in Westdene, and the poorly marketed but historic Nikki’s Oasis in Newtown, The Orbit Jazz Club in Braamfontein is one of the few venues in the city that jazz enthusiasts and music lovers can still go to for musical refuge.
Following the appointment of Sibongakonke Mlonyeni as programme director at The Orbit, palpable changes such as a new menu, a bookstore and free jam sessions suggest that the venue now has accessibility on its agenda too.
Of the many new inclusions on the programme is The Orbit’s vinyl sessions — a party every Friday after the main act.
Not only do the sessions break The Orbit away from the traditional, staunch and straight jazz club culture, they also attract new, younger and “blacker” audiences at a fraction of the usual upwards of R150 ticket.
The collection and celebration of vinyls is as much an archival act as it is a performance: digging in the crate, removing the LP from its sleeve, examining it, cleaning it and nostalgia when the needle hits the record.
Although it could be considered a contemporary culture, the vinyl revival is also about holding on to the past. As the internet makes the world smaller and CD sales plummet because of online streaming, music lovers and collectors are developing an insatiable appetite for music that is tangible and interactive.
In a world of constant technological advancement, young people are looking to the past, not just to find traces of themselves and their parents, but also to almost defy the rapid changes that came with the millennium. It’s as if they are willing the world to stop changing so quickly, willing time to stop for a moment, so we can savour well-crafted items such as vinyls and hardcover books.
The Orbit’s vinyl sessions also challenge the purist nature of most jazz institutions by allowing not only musicians but also collectors and deejays to share their musical influences. This is a special kind of transaction, the kind more concerned with memory than with hipness.
The first session I attended saw architect Mxolisi Makhubo spin his tunes to a room still obviously confined by the respectability of traditional jazz clubs. After watching a groovy and celestial performance by Shane Cooper’s new band Mabuta, I went downstairs where the session was taking place, only to find people slightly swaying in their chairs to the eclectic mix of South African classics served by Makhubo.
I tried to follow suit but Letta Mbulu’s rendition of What Is Wrong with Groovin’ erupted. From then on I spent the rest of the night dancing awkwardly in front of the DJ, resisting the pressure to sit down but also not trying to be the centre of attention.
The typical ssssshhhhh fest and button-up culture of the jazz club has loosened up a bit, with more dancing encouraged. This month is sure to set the floor ablaze, with a line-up for Women’s Month that has been nothing but spectacular so far. And although I missed boss-zonke Mama Zeph’s throwdown, photographer and filmmaker Zara Julius is billed for the next vinyl session and I’m looking forward to more company on the dance floor.