Jazz great and ardent foe of apartheid, Hugh Masekela, dead at 78

Herb Boyd | 1/25/2018, 9:36 a.m.
Hugh Masekela’s trumpet, like his voice, was a relentless cry for freedom and liberation in his native South Africa.
Hugh Masekela Contributed

Hugh Masekela’s trumpet, like his voice, was a relentless cry for freedom and liberation in his native South Africa. For more than 50 years he was an unwavering opponent of oppression, particularly the apartheid that could not stifle his activism. Now that charismatic presence must be heard on record and seen in film. Masekela died Tuesday, Jan. 23, of prostate cancer in Johannesburg, South Africa. He was 78.

Deemed the “Father of South African Jazz,” Masekela not only demonstrated a unique musical prowess but also was uncompromising in his fight for civil and human rights, often wedding his art with his politics.

Tributes for the fallen artist came from the four corners of the globe, none more resounding than that delivered by Jacob Zuma, the South African president. In his estimation, Masekela “kept the torch of freedom alive.” Similar sentiments were echoed by Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa, who viewed Masekela as “one of the great architects of Afro-jazz.” He added, “A baobab tree has fallen.”

A statement from his family summarized Masekela’s importance to his fans, his fellow artists and his relatives. The statement said he was, “a loving father, brother, grandfather and friend.”

The statement continued, “[O]ur hearts beat with a profound loss. Hugh’s global and activist contribution to and participation in the areas of music, theatre and the arts in general is contained in the minds and memories of millions across six continents.”

The global impact of his art and politics, his irresistible buoyancy and his dedicated commitment emerged in the late ’50s when he recorded with the pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand) after his study and membership in the Huddleston Youth Band. He received further exposure after his contribution to the musical “King Kong.”

When the African National Congress, the anti-apartheid organization, was banned in South Africa, Masekela left the country for England, and then came the U.S., where he realized his dream of meeting Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie.

It was at the Jazz Gallery in Downtown Manhattan where Masekela finally met Gillespie. “Between songs he spotted me in the audience and smiled at me from the stage, nodding as if he’d been expecting me,” Masekela recalled in his autobiography “Still Grazing,” written with Michael Cheers. “Right after his set, he walked to our table and greeted me like a long lost brother.” This greeting was Masekela’s official induction into the jazz scene of New York, a process that had been engineered by Miriam Makeba (who by 1964 was married to Masekela) and Harry Belafonte.

Miles from South Africa and Witbank, where he was born April 4, 1939, and where at 14 he had seen the film “Young Man with a Horn,” starring Kirk Douglas that put him on his musical journey, Masekela was soon in the company of such jazz giants as Thelonious Monk, Max Roach, Charlie Mingus, Miles Davis, Reggie Workman and John Coltrane.

“I knew I had to work hard to get to the level of the great talents I had just been with,” Masekela said, “but I was determined to get there.”