Gwen Ansell maps out South Africa’s jazz standards

Most reference books define a “standard” as a piece of music that is already widely known, performed and recorded by musicians and recognised by listeners. For jazz standards, that shared knowledge is important: it’s what helps listeners appreciate how an improvising musician recasts the tune.

But when harmonica player Adam Glasser convened a bunch of musicians, writers, scholars and music educators at the Sophiatown Heritage and Cultural Centre on July 18 to debate South African jazz standards, it soon became clear there could be as many lists of standards as there were people with opinions. Apartheid had played its usual role in ensuring knowledge of our jazz history was by no means evenly shared.

For Wits scholar Lindelwa Dalamba, the whole project was highly ideological. It might be the case that musicians and audiences democratically create standards: musicians by recognising the potential of a piece to open interesting opportunities for cool playing, invention and improvisation; audiences by enjoying it, remembering it, and wanting to hear it again. But people can select only from what they know. Concert opportunities, broadcasting and recording in South Africa were historically governed by colonial and apartheid stereotypes about what African music “should” sound like. “We’re the slaves of recordings,” argued Dalamba, “which has deep implications for South African jazz, since so little of the music that was made was recorded,” while the SABC discarded or destroyed much of its archival material at the end of apartheid.

And as standards become concretised into a canon – a closed repertoire designed for imitation and repetition – ideology again determines the process. Compilations of historical music are assembled by curators burdened with preferences or prejudices. University libraries contain only that which is deemed worthy by certain experts. The listeners who take South African melodies such as Manenberg or Yakhal’Inkomo to their hearts are not consulted, let alone the musicians who create them. “For music to become normalised,” concluded Dalamba, “we need to normalise the presence of musicians in higher education.”

That might explain the deficiencies of South Africa’s official list of standards. The grades 10-12 Caps music curriculum issued in 2011 a list of 61 approved modern tunes for teaching purposes. It made no attempt to categorise them, gave them no analytical context, and the list is rife with errors. Pat, rather than Todd, Matshikiza is cited as the composer of Back of the MoonManenberg is misspelled Mannenburg; Johnny Clegg becomes Jonny Cleck; Lakutshon’Ilanga is credited to Alan Silinga rather than Mackay Davashe. That’s only a sample of the howlers. Yakhal’Inkomo – along with most other exciting modern jazz compositions of the 1960s and 1970s – doesn’t even get a mention.

The 1970s were one of the concerns of music writer Sam Mathe, who urged that we must not “just dwell on the obvious names”. He cited players such as Reggie Msomi, who made bright, catchy, inventive music as they put together a meagre living commuting from record label to record label during the 1970s, evading punitive contracts by changing the names of their ensembles.

DJ Nicky B pointed out that “one of the strengths of our musical identity is the breadth with which we define jazz here”. While she argued that we should keep the church broad, she also worried that those elsewhere who “force-feed” narrow conceptions of jazz might find this unsatisfactory.

That did not worry the musicians. “It’s not important whether it’s ‘jazz’ or not,” asserted drummer Vusi Khumalo, “but we need to revive that old music and give it fresh treatments so that it’s not forgotten.” Trumpeter Marcus Wyatt felt “one thing the Americans have got right is having this big category – American music – so that what matters is whether they are good songs or not. Are they challenging and stimulating to play?” That, he suggested, is what allowed a pop tune such as Autumn Leaves to become a jazz standard. And because “we have so much more music here than the Americans”, we should expect that to happen a lot, without worrying about how outsiders define genre. Nicky B had a more recent example: hip-hop group Rhythmic Elements’ Lesson No 1, reworked in a jazz treatment by Glasser with veteran vocalist David Serame putting a swinging Manhattan Brothers spin on the lyrics.

Glasser said he’d heard the tune and just been drawn to it. In much the same way, for drummer Jonno Sweetman, a standard is simply “a tune you fall in love with. Later, you can go into it deeper and analyse, but that’s where it starts.” He cited his own affection for goema rhythms, which he had found perplexing when he began working with Kyle Shepherd. Now, he said, those rhythms had insinuated their way into his heart – “and it all happened just because Kyle phoned me for the gig”.

South African history, all agreed, makes it vital – and long overdue – to map historic music. The suggestions panellists offered for a standards list ranged from Kippie Moeketsi and Chris McGregor to Herbie Tsoaeli and Alex van Heerden; and from Dzvinomisha and Angel Nomali to Dusk to Dawn. But weaving any or all of these into a ‘canon’ could be dangerous for the health of jazz, and particularly for the vibrancy of jazz education. There is an equal need to interrogate why we are compiling such lists, and what their intended purpose is.

One American scholar, Damon Phillips, employed a methodology derived from organisation theory and hard quantitative mapping to uncover some key factors in how certain tunes became jazz standards in the 1920s and 1930s. In his 2014 book, Shaping Jazz, he found that geographical location, record label, and industry and audience assumptions – including assumptions about race – played a huge role in what tunes ended up as standards, and how they related to what people defined as jazz.

Had Phillips applied his methodology to South Africa, he would also have needed to consider the deliberate, systematic fragmentation and separation applied to cultural products by apartheid policies during the formative years of South African jazz.

South Africa may well be the only country outside the US where jazz was for a time a popular (rather than a niche) music, and – as the music of a nontribal, urban working class – actually played a vital role in bringing the fragments together. But restrictions and censorship impeded the free movement of both cultural products and players of colour. Ironically, some American jazz may have circulated more effectively via LPs: the late Tony Schilder reflected that you could sit down at a piano anywhere, call Green Dolphin Street, and be away.

The tunes that have already captured the feet, hearts and horns of South Africa and become standards were the ones that most effectively overcame the obstacles.

The Manenbergs, Meadowlands and Yakhal’Inkomos survived not because they were exemplars of genre characteristics suitable for teaching – or even because they were damn good tunes (although they were). They survived because they embodied and signified truths about context, identity, history, feelings and struggles. They told stories whose narratives resonated with their time; stories as much about the bodies, communities and conditions of performers and listeners as about notes, structures and harmonies. Those songs continue to resonate today, although they may say different things to us than they did to those audiences then. The dispossessed residents of Sophiatown in 1956 heard Meadowlands as defiance; today’s audiences respond to it as to a joyful dance tune.

But enshrining a canonical approach to researching, teaching and evaluating South African jazz – “It’s only jazz if it’s within the tradition we have defined, or fits with our pre-selected examples” – begins a very dangerous process.

The US shows us some of the potential dangers. To take a few examples, Ken Burns’ canonical American jazz history erased the black avant-garde. The conservative booking policies of influential institutions such as New York’s Lincoln Centre in the 1990s created in-groups and out-groups, affecting opportunities for players throughout the country, and thus what audiences got the chance to hear. Canonical teaching policies at some music schools in the US prioritised making jazz ‘respectable’ in the eyes of the mainstream; the style was defined in terms of a few famous men, and the terminology and methodology of Western classical music studies; and, as John Scofield observed, too often graduates all played “the same licks because they all have the same books”.

Choral music in South Africa offers similar lessons. Where the choral canon is used as the source of competition set-pieces, choirs spend the whole year preparing within that narrow range rather than exploring – or creating – new music. Whenever that kind of canonical approach is enshrined, the doors have been closed on new ideas and different kinds of performers or performance.

That is the risk of the paucity of South African music and musicians in the academy, or a curriculum with three separate streams for jazz, African traditional and Western classical music. Erecting those kinds of barriers ignores the fluidity of both music-making and the meaning of a term such as jazz, anywhere in the world. As Dalamba observed: “Kippe Moeketsi’s solo on Yardbird Suite sounded very South African indeed – but not because of what you think ‘South African jazz’ should sound like.”

* Ansell was also a panellist

What constitutes a South African jazz standard – and which ones are The Con’s favourites? Help us decide by suggesting your favourites in the comments section of this piece and The Con will compile a playlist of readers’ favourites.

Main Photograph: Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz, Nduduzo Makhathini at the National Arts Festival 2015 courtesy of CuePix/ Sithasolwazi Kentane

 

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