Jazz Unity (286524)
Credit: Ron Scott photo

The recent 22nd annual Joy of Jazz Festival held in Johannesburg, South Africa was an extended industrious program that began in New York City at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall “South African Songbook Celebrating 25 Years of Democracy” (Sept. 12-14) which was the beginning bridge construction between South African music and American jazz. It brought together a host of exceptional South African musicians playing with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

A welcoming celebration kicked off the festival at the South African Embassy Consulate General Michael A. McCarthy’s residence. During the gala Marsalis noted, “The struggle for civil rights is not over; JALC coming here means we have a ground that we must nurture coming together with other people with love and intensity.” A host of JALCO members were present along with many South African musicians, jazz enthusiasts and the like. The surprise of the evening was a sneak preview of the festival’s upcoming performances by the all-female band Jazz Unity featuring South African musicians, pianist/vocalist Nomfundo Xaluva, bassist/vocalist Tebugo Sedumedi, guitarist/vocalist Zoe Masuku, saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin and drummer LeFrae Sci. Their rendition of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” was outstanding. “I had to come here to experience and learn some of the culture I lost,” said Benjamin.

In Johannesburg (Sept. 26-28) the festival’s theme was based more on the culmination of South African and American jazz musicians coming together as one growing root with different branches. “We speak a common language but the timbre is different,” noted Marsalis. “We must come together with power and create the change we want to see.” The opening public discussion at the historic Market Theatre included such panelists as SA vocalist Gloria Bosman, JALCO saxophonist Camille Thurman, Artistic Director of JALC Marsalis, JALC Education Director Seton Hawkins, and SA pianist Nduduzo Makhathini. “The earlier years were a beacon for South Africa as performing artists—American show business inspired us,” said Bosman. “We took it and built up our own style of African jazz like Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba and Abdullah Ibrahim.”

Opening night was a historical evening in jazz as the festival was packed in anticipation of Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra sharing the festival’s largest stage (Dinaledi) with Marcus Wyatt ZAR Jazz Orchestra.

The audience was much more verbal, shouting, clapping and swinging than their New York City counterparts, who witnessed a few of the same South African composition arrangements by members of JALCO. This audience was familiar with every tune. These were standards written by their jazz heroes like “Lulu in Adderley Street” by Feya Faku (arranged by Sherman Irby), “Ithemba” by Nduduzo Makhathini (arranged by Victor Goines), and “Send Me” by Hugh Masekela (arranged by Marcus Printup). “The audience knew the music and responded by dancing,” said JALCO saxophonist Camille Thurman. “They loved our interpretation of their music and they are not afraid to be a part of the music.” Their most blistering composition was a tribute to their road manager Raymond “Boss” Murphy.

On the other side of the stage trumpeter Marcus Wyatt and ZAR were slamming. They didn’t have the precision comparable to JALCO but they had the art of swinging in a Cape Town progressive way that kept participants on their feet. It was young band members like pianist Bokani Dyer, saxophonist, pianist and vocalist Mark Fransman (performing all three with effortless precision), and lead vocalist Mihi Matshingana was the orchestra’s captivating charm. Wyatt, like Marsalis, had double duty as leader and trumpeter but he pulled it off although he says he was rather nervous playing in front of Marsalis and the New York cats but that quickly wore off and throwing became his prerequisite .

JALCO went on to perform each night at the late hour of 11:30 p.m. to a packed house. This audience unlike New York wasn’t accustomed to seeing the orchestra play the traditional swing music of Duke Ellington. Like an intuitive locomotive they enjoyed every minute and inhaled it like fresh air. There were such tunes as Duke’s “Black, Brown and Beige,” “Braggin’ in Brass,” and “Blue Indigo.”

Highlights included the Standard Bank Young Artist All-Star Jazz Band; if you are wondering about the direction of jazz in South Africa pay attention to these young musicians, who include Mark Fransman, pianist Dyer (who recently performed at Dizzy’s during the South African celebration), drummer Kesivan Naidoo (also played at Dizzy’s), pianist Nduduzo Makhathini (who recently signed a recording contract with Blue Note Records), bassist Victor Masondo, and trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni (an in-depth artist from straight-ahead to avant garde and beyond), the long list of all-stars performed in various configurations.

The all-female band Jazz Unity were outstanding, performing two consecutive days. “We are a force, not victims; the music is a celebration of what it is to be a female in a music dominated by men,” stated pianist Xaluva to the audience. Their interpretation of Nina Simone’s “4 Women” was exceptional, followed by a Horace Silver tune encompassing loads of funk with saxophonist Benjamin throwing some James Brown soul in the mix as the audience howled on every note with drums, guitar and piano combustion. Despite very little rehearsal time the band road effortlessly through jazz, African rhythms and funk.

The most impressive trio Zachusa Warriors featured the collaborative team of pianist Malcolm Braff (Switzerland), bassist Reggie Washington (USA), and drummer Kesivan Naidoo (SA). “Until age 18 I played classical then I heard jazz and fell in love instantly,” said Braff. “Paul Bley greatly influenced me.” He was an avant garde component, who shaped piano trio playing from the 1950s to 2000. Braff shares an aggressive percussive sound similar to Bley. “I didn’t hear Monk until I was 20 years old, he opened my ears and gave me an example of freedom,” said Braff. Zachusa Warriors was one of the rare festival groups that dared to play on the edge of the subway platform. “We entertain, challenge and provoke,” noted drummer Naidoo. “This is an organic process.” The guys compare their group to Trio3, the collaborative that features Reggie Workman, Oliver Lake and Andrew Cyrille. They all play in and lead their own groups but enjoy playing together especially since they are all now based in Switzerland. Washington, formerly a Harlem resident, was part of the St. Nick’s Pub house band with

bassist Andy McCloud and saxophonist Patience Higgins. The Warriors went into Prince’s tune “Sexy MF” from a completely different perspective that made you want to say well MF, damn. Their original composition “Empathy for the Devil” was a melodic sprint with deep, dark raging piano chords to charging drum hits amidst a soothing electric bass eventually moving into a

gospel of sorts.

Another favorite trio that loves to play in deep water is the trumpeter, arranger and composer Mandla Mlangeni. For this performance he was with his two mentors, pianist Andile Yenana, who joined Zim Ngqawana’s quartet and worked on all five of his albums, and drummer Louis Moholo, who was a member of the legendary South African bands The Blue Notes and the Brotherhood of Breath led by the great Mongezi Feza.

I have had the pleasure of watching Mlangeni progress. Over the past three years he has recorded four albums and from a performance perspective he plays everything from Cape Town swing to SA jazz straight-ahead to avant garde and rock. He likes to experience the music from every aspect. His trio was a cross pollination of traditional SA jazz with his usual sense of beyond the edge urgency. “Being on stage is a spiritual thing but also it is a job,” said Mlangeni. “People pay good money to see you and you must deliver.”

Sankofa is a collective led by multi-reed man Salim Washington. He draws the name from the Sankofa bird, a Ghanaian symbol of the return of diasporic Africans to the motherland. Washington moved from the U.S. (a regular musician at St. Nick’s Pub) to South Africa and formulated this all SA band, a perfect example of the Sankofa bird. “Ultimately, the music comes from Africa and I utilize aspects of it in our ensemble,” said Washington.” The lead vocalist Zoe Masuku was most impressive; her voice ranged from storytelling inflections similar to Abbey Lincoln to gospel soul. The ensemble encompassed jazz idioms, African rhythms and just straight-up Black music, rhythms from Washington’s Harlem days, no doubt.

The festival’s last evening featured the erupting Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca, who despite performing at 12:30 a.m. had many young people sitting in the aisles and eventually dancing as he raised the temperature of his synthesizer and piano. Crazy Latin beats rule in his domain. It is evident he has gone deep into the electric sound of Latin rhythms since seeing him last. However, we never expect musicians to stay in the same realm too long. His extended version of “Besame Mucho” was a real burner—dancing room only. Fonseca is very proud of his African name Jubol that he shared with the audience.

Being in South Africa is much more than attending the jazz festival. It’s enjoying the food, visiting the Historical Market Theater for a play, discussing politics with members of the ANC, discussing gender-based violence, discussing socio-economic issues and the topic of jazz and musicians getting more gigs. The more we discuss, the more we realize we are brothers and sisters with many of the same issues and coming together is a matter of immediate obligation.