The postwar era was a time of tremendous growth and innovation for Africans in all the arts. Living conditions remained sub-standard for many, but before the draconian structures of the new apartheid system were implemented, residents indulged themselves with a certain optimism and an illusion of permanency and belonging.
Jazz crystallized sophisticated urban and political aspirations. Middle-class urban Africans before apartheid were developing a strong social and economic base. Residential segregation placed them with their much poorer neighbours. Out of this mix came the jazz society of the 1940s and 1950s, associated with suburbs like Cape Town’s District Six and Johannesburg’s Sophiatown.
In the cities and ports, US jazz on record was available, collected by black fans and players. The cities of Cape Province were particularly jazz-oriented, perhaps because of their Xhosa populations: traditional Xhosa music may have fostered an intuitive understanding of jazz harmony and improvisation.
In Johannesburg musicians found the greatest number of bands and the biggest audience. Solomon “Zulu Boy” Cele’s Jazz Maniacs were the archetypal African jazz band of the late 1930s. After World War II, the Harlem Swingsters were active for several years. Alto saxophonist-composer Isaac “Zacks” Nkosi together with tenor man Ellison Temba and trumpeter Elijah Nkwanyane, helped make up the front line of the African Swingsters. Tenor saxophonist Wilson “King Force” Silgee, led the Jazz Forces. Ntemi Piliso left the Harlem Swingsters to form the Alexandra All Stars. Players had long applied an indigenous approach to their swing music. A main source was marabi, the earliest urban style of the 1930s, based on a I-IV-V chord progression. Cele is credited with applying the swing band line-up. By the late 1940s, nationalist players developed a more original style dubbed African jazz, or mbaqanga, which frequently included extended solos. By the late 1950s, players experimented and improvised, most famously, clarinettist/altoist Kippie Moeketsi.
The 1940s and 50s was also the great era of female African jazz vocalists. Dolly Rathebe was the first to come to prominence as the leading actress-singer in the first African feature film, Jim Comes To Jo’burg (1948). Zimbabwean Dorothy Masuka began her career as a vocalist and recording artist in Johannesburg in 1951. Like Dolly Rathebe, Masuka was also a famous cover girl in the black picture press.
Male jazz singers were less common, but there were a number of male vocal quartets, notably the Manhattan Brothers led by Nathan “Dambuza” Mdledle. Philemon Mokgotsi’s African Inkspots were stiff competition until the mid-1950s, when the Woody Woodpeckers led by Victor Ndlazilwane eclipsed both groups with their mixture of Xhosa-traditional and American jazz-influenced melodies and harmonies. Miriam Makeba came to public attention as a featured vocalist with the Manhattan Brothers in 1954, then leaving to record with her all-female Skylarks vocal group while touring the country with African Jazz & Variety. In 1959, Makeba took on the female lead in King Kong, the South African-Broadway musical crossover billed as a ‘jazz opera’ with a fine score by pianist-composer Todd Matshikiza.
In the 1960s, South African jazz divided into two distinct strains. On the one hand, the marabi-style dance bands still commanded a large following and a new African Jazz band, the Elite Swingsters, began a distinguished career by recording Phalafala, probably South Africa’s biggest selling jazz disc ever. On the other, a new type of jazz was evolving that emulated the American avant-garde led which strove for a more self-conscious artistry. Trumpeter Hugh Masekela, trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, pianist Dollar Brand (aka Abdullah Ibrahim) and Kippie Moeketsi constituted the progressive first wave. Masekela and Gwangwa had played in the Father Huddleston Band before graduating to the Jazz Dazzlers, a band that provided the instrumental accompaniment to King Kong. In 1959, John Mehegan, a visiting American pianist, organized a famous Jazz In Africa recording session, featuring Masekela, Gwangwa and Moeketsi, which produced the first two LPs by African jazzmen. The Jazz Epistles then recorded another album, garnering critical acclaim for its performance at the first Cold Castle National Jazz Festival in 1960.
The 1962 Cold Castle Jazz Festival demonstrated that a new generation had been inspired by their example. Pianist-composer Chris McGregor and tenor saxophonist Dudu Pukwana were probably the most famous and influential musicians in this new wave. Gideon Nxumalo, an older pianist-composer, blossomed into a particularly original talent. The best players from bands which had performed at the 1963 Cold Castle Festival were gathered together under the direction of Chris McGregor, and produced a classic LP, Jazz: The African Sound, perhaps the finest single product of a brilliant era. Sadly, a wave of oppression had followed the Sharpville massacre of 1960 and many of South Africa’s best talents fled into exile. In the face of this dispiriting onslaught, McGregor, Pukwana and their entire band, The Blue Notes, including Louis Moholo, left the country for good in 1964. The Blue Notes, and their later manifestation the Brotherhood of Breath, added a distinctive touch to a rather stale UK jazz scene but, as was the case with other exiles, their influence on musical development in South Africa ceased at this point.
Repression and censorship scarred the jazz scene the exiles had left. With broadcasting fragmented after 1960, record companies colluded with the authorities to eliminate politically suspect musics. Open-air jazz festivals were sponsored by liquor companies when prohibition for blacks was lifted, extending the public visibility of the music. Guitarist Phillip Tabane created a sound blending indigenous Venda and Pedi spirit music with jazz chords and improvisation. Both old-style marabi-based bands and modern jazz outfits continued to seek what space they could. The former introduced electric rhythm sections and continued to score hits with extended dance tracks, such as the Elite Swingsters’ “Now Or Never”. The latter felt more pressure. Bands such as Tete Mbambisa’s Soul Jazzmen and Shakes Mgudlwa’s Soul Giants featuring saxophonists Winston Mankunku Ngozi or Duke Makasi, and trumpeter Dennis Mpale played improvised modern jazz with a message. The soulful mood of US hard bop found its equivalent in bands like Henry Sithole’s Heshoo Beshoo Band, inspired by its wheelchair-bound guitarist Cyril Magubane. These players were also responding to the new vibe of the townships, where Soweto Soul – funky pop music accompanied by assertive styles of dress and Black Power salutes – was on the rise, in bands like Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse’s Harari.
By the 1970s, independent record labels like Rashid Vally’s Kohinoor were releasing this new music. Traditional sounds and marabi-based African jazz still ruled the rural areas but jazz players could cross the divide, as pianist Lionel Pillay did with his hit “Plum and Cherry” and Heshoo Beshoo – now The Drive – with “Way Back Fifties”. An avant-garde was developing too, in bands like Gilbert Matthews’ Spirits Rejoice. However, after the Soweto Uprising of 1976, censorship tightened and spaces for performance closed up further. Times were tough, jobs were few; those who kept jazz alive did so at immense personal cost. The world’s response to apartheid repression was the consolidation of the cultural boycott. Jazz players disliked the isolation, but concede that it forced them to look at indigenous sources of inspiration. Despite limited performance and broadcasting opportunities, bands like The Drive and Sakhile drew on both African roots and developments in the international jazz world.
Formed in 1981 by graduates of Spirits Rejoice, Harari and Malombo, Sakhile (We Have Built) was probably the most musically sophisticated of the groups trying to craft a modern indigenous sound, but others included Sankomota, Bayete and the racially mixed Tananas as well as avant garde outfits like Carlo Mombelli’s Abstractions and Cape saxophonist Robbie Jansen’s Estudio. While jazz fought for space with the pop music industry, there was a high degree of audience crossover: people were likely to groove to both Brenda Fassie and Bayete. Music schools taught jazz skills alongside black culture and history. When the United Democratic Front was formed in 1982, the band playing at its launch was the marabi revivalist African Jazz Pioneers, seen as embodying the cultural spirit of the nation.
The transition to democracy opened South Africa to a tsunami of international pop music which the industry was ill equipped to deal with. Nevertheless, a fresh crop of indie labels, notably Sheer Sound and MELT, were quick to record music reflecting the new mood. The two pioneering albums were piano-led: Finding Oneself by Moses Taiwa Molelekwa and Trains to Taung by Paul Hanmer. Molelekwa fused strains of marabi and the polyrhythms of Pedi indigenous music with improvisation. Capetonian Hanmer drew in a pan-African groove, with guitar and drums from Zimbabweans Louis Mhlanga and Jethro Shasha. With the airwaves freed, independent radio stations offer listeners jazz and well-informed DJs. Jazz schools and the National Youth Jazz Festival, as well as university music departments teach the skills.
The new jazz itself embraces many voices: the country’s top-selling jazz artists stretch from guitarist Jimmy Dludlu and saxophonist Zim Ngqawana, who uses traditional Xhosa sounds alongside free improvisation. Saxophonist McCoy Mrubata fronts a big group in music that echoes Cape tradition while never sacrificing infectious dancing rhythms. Carlo Mombelli’s Prisoners of Strange and Mark Fransman’s Tribe explore the music’s more imaginative outer reaches, while Voice revisits the hard-bop spirit of the 1950s and 60s with a distinctive modern edge. Singers range from Siya Makuzeni and Octavia Rachabane, through cabaret vocalists like multi-award-winners Gloria Bosman and Judith Sephuma to World Music practitioners like Jabu Khanyile, Ringo Madlingozi and Shaluza Max Mntambo. It’s clear today that engagement with international developments is running parallel with a fresh interest in the possibilities of roots. One example is the collaboration between ensemble Amampondo and British saxophonist Alan Skidmore. He was the first British jazzman to visit South Africa after the end of apartheid, and his work with Amampondo has resulted in a European festival tour and two albums, The Call and Ubizo. Yet jazz in South Africa, as worldwide, is now a niche music. The country’s biggest-selling genre by far is gospel; youth pop genres including imported sounds come second. The real renaissance in the music has not yet been matched by a solid financial base, which, sadly, puts South African jazz artists on the same footing as their counterparts elsewhere in the world.