The Mother City’s ode to jazz

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There’s a profound and palpable feeling of freedom when you listen to a quality live jazz act. You don’t just hear it, you feel it in your bones, and for a brief moment it swallows you whole, letting you truly live in the moment. The improvisational nature of jazz lends itself to those who don’t follow others, who break traditions and scorn the status quo, instead opting to forge their own paths forward. The free-spirited nature of the music attracts similarly-minded people: creatives, innovators, hipsters, bohemians and all kinds of others who find themselves not just thinking but also living outside the bo

The newest addition to Cape Town’s jazz scene is tucked away in trendy Bree Street, and goes by the name of The Blue Room. It was founded by Chef Patron Matt Manning, known for his top-notch seasonal bistro fare at Grub & Vine, and renowned local jazz artist Buddy Wells. The bar features live music every evening of the week with the exception of Sunday, and provides a platform for both established and up-and-coming artists in the genres of jazz, blues and soul. A cover charge of R100 goes towards the artists, helping them to make a meaningful living from their music. 

Jazz has a powerful history in our country, reflecting its growth in African-American culture alongside their respective struggles. It was introduced to South Africa shortly after the first World War when American tradesmen brought records of the early New Orleans bands to our shores, representing a return home for the art form, which is undeniably rooted in traditional African music. The transatlantic slave trade had displaced millions of Africans, creating a diaspora that stretched throughout the Americas and the Caribbean. The songs they sang while they suffered stemmed from the music they had known before they were forced into slavery. It became more than just a way to withstand hardship but transcended into a means of sharing their lived experiences and creating a community of their own. 

The improvisational nature of these songs, as well as their call-and-response style, were adapted into blues music in the 1860s after slavery was abolished in the United States. The woeful notes and narrative-driven songs captured audiences instantly, leading to the success of artists such as Ma Rainey, known as the “Mother of Blues”, whose deep and powerful voice defined the genre and inspired countless musicians. Then, at the start of the 20th century, New Orleans fostered the next evolution in sound, with jazz bands ultimately creating the foundation for the city’s modern cultural identity. 

Back home, Queenstown in the Eastern Cape was nicknamed “Little Jazz Town” for the number of musicians who lived and played there in the 1920s and 30s, entertaining audiences of all races and pushing the envelope of their sound, experimenting with ways to make jazz their own. Sophiatown in Johannesburg would be the next creative hub through the 30s and until the 50s, when legislated racism crippled the burgeoning community. As a result, many jazz artists of the following decades dedicated themselves to the struggle, using their music as a catalyst, a call to action, and a creative outlet during times of great repression. The music was used as the soundtrack to King Kong, the 1959 “all-African Jazz opera” based on the life of heavyweight boxer Ezekiel Dhlamini that directly challenged the apartheid regime. It played throughout South Africa to multi-racial audiences for two years, reaching as many as 200 000 people before being booked to perform in London. Although it didn’t succeed overseas, it gave a critical opportunity for local musicians and performers to gain a passport to a part of the world where they wouldn’t be brutally oppressed. 

Then in 1960, after the Sharpeville Massacre, things changed drastically. The apartheid regime viewed jazz as an intolerable creative force, and banned its performance and prohibited it from being broadcast over radio. Since the end of apartheid, jazz has remained a cultural staple of South African nightlife, with a yearly festival that regularly attracts international acts, massive audiences, and widespread critical acclaim. 

In the month of December, The Blue Room will be hosting the Alvin Dyers Quartet, Hilton Schilder’s Goema Club, and Herbie Tsoaeli’s In The Meantime Quintet. Alongside the performances, a comprehensive drinks list features signature cocktails with names like Buddy Waters and Ella Fizzgerald, as well as classics like a Negroni or its underrated cousin: the Boulevardier. A selection of small plates is also available, including Chef Manning’s must-try arancini, encouraging sharing and experimentation among larger groups, something almost reflective of that jazz style in and of itself. With its convivial and creative atmosphere, this venue might become one of the most refined but relaxed places in the city to listen to great local artists, all while being served only the best in food and drink. — James Nash

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