Joy of Jazz

Caiphus Semenya

The City of Johannesburg played host to award-winning jazz musicians thanks to the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz. The annual event, which is in its thirteenth year, takes place in the last week of August in the Newtown precinct and preludes the International Arts Alive Festival in September. The event normally runs for three days but this year an extra show was created on Sunday afternoon after the all the show tickets were sold out.

Over fifty artists were invited to the festival; fifteen of which were international acts while thirty-nine were local artists. They were split across five venues – Dinaledi, Mbira, Conga, the Bassline and the Market Theatre. For those who could not afford tickets to the main stages, there were free shows at Sophiatown, Nikkis Oasis and Shikisha restaurants located within the precinct.

August 23 was the opening night and musicians such as Grammy award-winning guitarist Earl Klugh and French drummer Manu Katche’ were among the two of the four acts that performed at Dinaledi Stage. On August 24, all the five stages featured different artists leaving music lovers spoilt for choice as to which shows to watch. Although most shows started late, at the end of it all most said, “it was worth every cent”.

Dinaledi which means “the stars” in Sesotho, proved to be the most popular with artists such as trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, jazz male vocalist Kurt Elling, the Duke Ellington Orchestra featuring local South African artist Sathima Bea, trumpeter Marcus Wyatt, award-winning guitarists Jimmy Dludlu and Earl Klugh performing.   

Thadiswa Mazwai

Mbira stage named after one of the ancient musical instruments of South and Central Africa, housed artists such as South African solo artist Thandiswa Mazwai, steel pan/drum  player Ken “Professor Philmore from Trinidad and Tobago, vocalist Maysa Leak, Grammy award winner Clarence Carter also known as “Dr CC”, singer and actress Ledisi, Swazi Dlamini and Jane Monheit. Both Dinaledi and Mbira were close to each other and music lovers had to undergo a security screen perhaps because the Deputy President Kgalema Monhlante attended.

Conga stage named after the conga drum – an instrument popularized by African slaves in Cuba, played host to African artists such as Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango, Mory Kante from Guinea famous for his 1987 song “Ye ke ye ke”, South African favorite  musician Caiphus Semenya, French trumpeter Erik Turfazz, Botswana singer Shanti Lo and French drummer Manu Katche.

At the Market Theatre – formerly a real produce market turned an independently owned non-racial theater, saw acts like Gloria Bosman, Cecile Verny, Ochestre national De Jazz, Quattro Fusion, Jonny Mekoa and Lizz Wright performing there.

Africa Mhize, Bakithi Kumalo, Monty Alexander, and Muza Manzini performed at the Bassline.

The soft-spoken award-winning guitarist Earl Klugh who enjoys a great fan base in South Africa, was the main act of the jazz festival. He grew up in Detroit Michigan a place he says was “great to grow up in as a musician since Motown was there”. He performed at nightclubs where he met most of the great musicians such as George Benson and by the age of twenty-four, he was already making his own recording. 

Chicago born artist Kurt Elling had a similar experience. The lyricist, composer, arranger, performer, and Grammy award winner was on his first visit to the continent.

There is an enormous appreciation for his music the world over though he considers himself as “the young in music and the least experienced”.

Kurt Elling

 “It comes from being the youngest in my family because you don’t know as much as everybody else. I came into jazz relatively late.” His father was a church musician and at a tender age, Elling started making up harmonies and singing. “I learned the sense of the joy of music, the way the spirit can be lifted up by music, the way people can be healed by music, and that’s the kind of sense that I hope to continue to bring and share with audiences wherever we go”.

Late saxophone player Von Freeman, Eddie Johnson, Ed Peterson who teaches at the University of New Orléans, drew Elling to jazz. He would go to the jam sessions where these musicians were performing and ‘wait to be called up’ to play with them.

“Before I sang I was anonymous. Then I would sing and all these musicians would put their arms around me and say ‘that sounds great, you need to come back again, you are one of us’ ”. This happened repeatedly, in so many situations and he firmly believes that the musicians gave him his vocation and life. He honors the gift they gave to him by “being true to the music and by being like them”.

Elling is one of the very few vocalise artists. vocalise is an art form in which one takes a recording of a solo jazz instrumentalist, memorizes the recording and transcribes into a lyric to fit the contours of that solo. The contours have echoes in certain places and rhythmic movement in certain that are the signature to that solo or player. He together with Eddy Jefferson, John Hendricks, Ed Ross are among the few that have written like this. This means there is a huge amount of content that is yet to be written about. The art of vocalise is an opportunity for him to “contribute something to a very short lineage of this art form”. He thinks it is very important within jazz and since its only exists in jazz. Elling uses vocalise to introduce audiences to more difficult jazz music without giving them the sense that they should be intimidated by jazz music or they are not part of “the club”.  

 Unlike most musicians, Elling did not attend any conservatory for music but is self-taught. He admits that he understands what he does not know and he misses what he does not know. “I try to catch up with people who went to music school and understand all the ins and outs of what is possible”. Elling, who describes Africa as the ‘cradle of civilization, was on his first visit to Africa and he performed in South Africa for the first time. 

While jazz purists could describe some performances as “pure jazz”, some were fusions of R&B, reggae and neo-soul. One of the challenges the festival organizers have to face is to produce an ‘all jazz festival” in these harsh economic times. Promoters and sponsors have to balance the business side of the festival and at the same time cater for musicians and music lovers of all ages and social class.

According to the Johannesburg Executive Mayor, Mpho Parks Tau, the joy of jazz makes a “valuable and lasting contribution” to the growth of South Africa’s music industry since the musicians get to work with international artist and achieve international exposure.

The first joy of jazz festival was staged in 1997 at the State Theatre in Pretoria, which proved inadequate and hence moved to Newtown Johannesburg. It is produced and organized by Peter Tladi  of T-Musicman.

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