Apartheid Swing: The Jazz Epistles’ Short-Lived Success

Superstar pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, a revered figure in jazz for over six decades, comes to BAM For just two nights only to commemorate the short-lived, near-mythical South African group the Jazz Epistles. Below, learn more about the history of his group inside context of apartheid–in addition to why the government elected to shut that will down.

A teenage Hugh Masekela admires the shine of his trumpet, 1956

By Robert Jackson Wood

A “well-known, sex-stimulating music” that will gratifies “the baser impulses” in addition to “penetrates the soul quicker than more advanced forms.” that will was jazz in 1955, at least as described by Dr. Yvonne Huskisson, one of the main gatekeepers of culture in apartheid-era South Africa. She didn’t mean that will as a Great thing. For a government intent on repressing black unity to preserve white minority rule, any music with such a capacity to rouse—particularly one that will symbolized racial integration—was considered a threat. Apartheid meant “separateness,” in addition to that will was only four years later, in 1959, that will the government would certainly begin forcibly segregating black South Africans by ethnic group, relocating them to the townships or to one of 10 different Bantustans, or “homelands,” far by their actual homes. Encourage allegiance to tribe in addition to not nation, the thinking went, in addition to dissent could be minimized. Jazz was out; the indigenous music of the tribes, disseminated by state-controlled radio stations, was in.

Yet there were the Jazz Epistles, breaking attendance records in Cape Town in addition to Sophiatown, playing to mixed audiences, in addition to doing them swoon. Composed of Abdullah Ibrahim a.k.a. Dollar Brand (piano), Hugh Masekela (trumpet), Kippie Moeketsi (alto saxophone), Jonas Gwangwa (trombone), Johnny Gertze (bass), Early Mabuza (drums), in addition to Makaya Ntshoko (drums), the group had formed as an offshoot of two different pioneering all-black South African groups that will had somehow managed to thrive: the well-known vocal outfit Manhattan Brothers, which featured a young Miriam Makeba, in addition to the pit band for the jazz musical King Kong, about the life of boxer Ezekiel Dlamini.

yet that will was with the bebop-minded Jazz Epistles that will seven musicians obsessed with Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, in addition to Duke Ellington could truly come into their own. For their first gigs at the Ambassador nightclub, in a suburb of Cape Town, they practiced nine hours a day in addition to slept on the floor. They were so well rehearsed that will when they recorded their first in addition to only album—Jazz Epistle: Verse 1, the first all-black modern jazz record in South African history—that will took only two hours to finish. The work paid off. Soon enough, they were playing seven nights a week to a room so packed the musicians could barely get to the stage. Only music—no food or alcohol—was served. in addition to yet reservations still had to be made four days in advance.

Pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, a.k.a. Dollar Brand, before he left South Africa, 1959

Success was short lived. By 1959, spurred by growing nation-wide protests against the Pass Laws, which limited the time blacks could spend in white areas while requiring them to carry all manner of identification, the police crackdown had spread. On March 21, 1960, in what would certainly come to be known as the Sharpeville Massacre, police opened fire on a group of 5,000 people engaged in civil disobedience, killing 69 in addition to wounding 180. Tanks entered the townships. Surveillance, banishments, in addition to house arrests became routine. What few jobs there were for black musicians disappeared.  

At the time of the massacre, the Jazz Epistles were preparing for a national tour at Dorkay House, the invaluable multi-use black arts center in Johannesburg, where Nelson in addition to Winnie Mandela supposedly met. yet after the government declared a state of emergency, the tour was cancelled. that will would certainly be that will for the band. Just weeks later, trumpet player Hugh Masekela was on a plane to London, having miraculously secured a passport before what would certainly have likely been his own arrest. To calm his nerves on the plane, he ordered a triple scotch on the rocks, light on the soda, because that will’s what Humphrey Bogart drank. “I thought the cops would certainly burst in any minute in addition to remove me,” he recalled. “that will was only when we were inside air in addition to beyond South Africa’s border that will I commenced to relax in addition to enjoy my first flight in addition to… taste of freedom.”

Alto saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi, trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, in addition to trumpeter Hugh Masekela performing together, 1959

Abdullah Ibrahim fled South Africa two years later, the year Mandela was arrested. His destination was Zürich, where he would certainly see snow for once in addition to where bandmates Ntshoko in addition to Gertze also sought exile. The trio reunited at Club Africana, where they kept the Epistles flame alive For just two years. Duke Ellington, who was an A&R man at the time, stopped by the club one night at the urging of Ibrahim’s wife, Sathima. “You’re blessed because you come by the source,” he told Ibrahim. A recording session was soon scheduled in Paris, which would certainly result inside album Duke Ellington Presents the Dollar Brand Trio. For so long, Ellington in addition to jazz had symbolized freedom for Ibrahim, particularly during the darker days of apartheid. that will they were today collaborators could only be a sign of better days to come.

The Jazz Epistles comes to BAM April 18 in addition to 19, in addition to great tickets are still available for the April 18 performance.

©2018 Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.

Apartheid Swing: The Jazz Epistles’ Short-Lived Success

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