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Folly to call mastery arrogance

I renewed my vows with jazz last night. It’s not that I had fallen out of love with her. We both just thought we could do better — ya know, hang out together more often, start having “date nights” again.

As we looked into each other’s eyes, we remembered how much we loved each other, how we were meant to be together forever, how we met, and all the memories we shared. The butterflies in my stomach came back. I was offered a seat but I couldn’t sit; how do you sit when you’re standing for something?

As I listened, I went into a place I had forgotten, where the world and all its woes disappears, just me and her, no one else, just beauty, searching, probing the endless interplay of harmony and dischord — star-gazing with cakes. Marvelling when there is true synergy, squirming when there isn’t. Watching musical democracy in action, straight note chasing self-importance out of the window.

I stood there reassured that I had, all those years ago, found the human of my dreaming, the woman I couldn’t live without, even if we weren’t together. In good times, in bad times, till death do us part. And then — in the middle of a particularly delicate and evocative flourish on the keyboard, someone leaned over to me and said: “Yeah, yeah, but he’s become arrogant.”

The music was so beautiful that it numbed the sucker punch to my face. I would only later realise how much that comment put my nose out of joint.

“Hang on just a minute. Not only are you insulting my significant other, but you’re also insulting the extremely talented messenger who has spent his whole life fine-tuning his ears and fingers (chops) for your listening pleasure.”

His name, Nduduzo Makhathini; the venue, The Orbit; the band/project, Inner Dimensions.

“But he’s getting arrogant.” I have heard this criticism before. Way back. I heard it said about Abdullah Ibrahim when he stopped playing because people were making too much noise. “Don’t bring your exile snobbery back home,” they would say to him.

I also heard people call Bra Hugh arrogant because he also complained about the same noise problem — Herbie Tsoaeli, Andile Yenana, even Bheki Mseleku, because he preferred not to play in venues where people were drinking (too many crazy ghosts, he used to say).

I’m writing this because no one likes to see a wedding so rudely interrupted by such an abrupt reminder of the pitfalls of inaccurate judgment, and especially by those who aspire to be cool but without knowing what it takes to get the badge; namely the ones who can’t reach the heights of anything, the ones who have had excellence beaten out of them by the seduction of sweet and comfortable stability; or simply put, the ones who don’t know the difference between confident know-how and arrogance.

I guess there comes a time in life when you learn to distinguish between the charlatan and the real deal. The prime indicator is probably hard work; putting in the hours.

Don’t get me wrong. There are indeed arrogant jazz musicians. How could there not be? But when I heard Makhathini being slandered, I knew it was worryingly inaccurate and clumsy. This descriptor for artists is becoming all too common and, the trouble is, words do matter.

What I fear is that, when we say experts are arrogant, and here I’m talking about musical experts, we might be in some way dumbing down or questioning their brilliance and attempting to put the personality before the music. Although it helps to like the musician who plays the music, do we really know them? And does it really matter musically?

Back to the gig. At one point, long after the sucker punch to my face, Makhathini started his second set. The audience, imbued with a shot of something or the other, buzzed in an ambiance that was so loud and passionate that, after he sat down on his stool (or pedestal perhaps?), he played a few bars, stopped, and neatly said “Come on, guys …”

Before there was sound; now there was silence. No? He didn’t show a hint of anger, self-importance or glorious self-entitlement, He wasn’t dressing anyone down. The room clapped, more for his calm approach than the simple fact of the matter, I think.

The definition of arrogance is an attitude of superiority manifested in an overbearing manner or in presumptuous claims or assumptions. Was Makhathini asking the audience to lower their voices evidence that he had become arrogant? I would suggest that to think his behavior was arrogant reveals more about the person who said it.

Being superior is quite different from having an attitude of superiority. I suggest that Makhathini is a superior artist but not with attitude.

Does he have an overbearing manner? Do I feel oppressed in his company? Quite the opposite. He affirms my humanity and lifts me up, and does this in the gentlest of ways.

What claims does Makhathini make? Are they presumptuous? If it’s presumptuous to assume people have paid good money to hear him perform, then he’s guilty. But I would call that a reasoned and acceptable presumption, not the kind described in the definition.

What was he supposed to do? Play through the noise? (It’s something we South Africans have been trying to do for years now.) It’s hard enough negotiating the sound of meals being served. House bands are there for a reason — they absorb the speakeasy appetite of an evening out.

So let me nail my colours to the mast. Too often, people who are good, if not excellent, at what they do (because they have worked hard to become good) are referred to as “arrogant” and that attitude holds us all back, feeds into a “pull him/her down” narrative and mediocrity.

We should revere people who know their stuff, allow them to flourish, and even declare it if they have to.

Or is it that we have become numbed because we’re living in an age (worldwide) in which too many people who we thought were excellent or should have been excellent have let us down so badly. We can’t all raise our potentials and actualise excellence the way we want, but surely we can avoid calling the excellent names.

This name-calling is like musical xenophobia — “You’re coming here to steal our ear”.

I think the root of this name-calling stems from a misunderstanding of what the role of an artist is. You can’t order true artistry like a pizza with your chosen toppings. It can’t, and must never, work like that.

So, when I hear someone calling an excellent artist arrogant, my alarm bells go off and I think what they are really saying is: “Hey, hold on; you’re disrupting the way I like my art served up. How dare you! M-a-a-an, you’re so arrogant to do that.”

Well, if that’s the way it is, keep it up, Makhathini, in the future, I will be proud to call you arrogant myself.

Thulani Grenville–Grey is the former mental health specialist to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, HIV specialist, human-centered design practioner and jazz student

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