Jazz: The New Age of Listening (Part 1)

A writer by the name of Sethembiso Zulu once said “Jazz music and its subculture were embedded in South African township life, for as long as the townships themselves have been in existence, jazz was and still is a unifier, people travel long and far in various modes in their best outfits to attend gatherings far away” which got me thinking about how often I go to jazz events and see the proverbial camaraderie and fellowship that comes with being collectors, followers, curators of our vibrant and exciting jazz scene. There is a sense of family and oneness when we get together, usually a Friday or Saturday afternoon filled with soul food and an astute dress sense, “Di Ndukus” and the players competing against each other to see who will play the best set to appease the crowds. True unity in that moment is evident, a glimpse of what the real world should and could be like if we all loved and listened to jazz. Silly, I know but one can dream…. Right? I recently attended an annual jazz festival in Johannesburg where I witnessed this unity in action; we got together as followers and creators of jazz and enjoyed local and international artists who gave us yet another reason to fall in love with jazz.

One also spares a thought about the people that curate these events, the people that bring the people together, remember South African Saxophonist Jeremiah Kippie Moeketsi? We lost him in 1983 at age 59 but his jazz club remains alive in the hearts and minds of many, I am also thinking about the Orbit and Just Badela just to name a few, they are the unsung heroes who have devoted their time and efforts not only to jazz as a genre of music but also towards the preservation of the culture throughout the years. In the not so distant past, live jazz music as we know it had started to die a slow painful death. Jazz lovers constituted themselves into jazz appreciation societies which sought to recreate the atmosphere closer to that of a live jazz club environment, fast forward to present day, seems Live Jazz is once again slowly rising up from its lifeless slumber to reclaim its rightful place, this is thanks to the activism that has rallied behind jazz. I also pay homage to the writers, musicians, promoters, broadcasters and curators who are all part of the ecosystem in which jazz thrives and resides. A particular collective of curators comes to mind when I think about it, in fact… about two years ago when I started presenting Jazz Radio, I had the pleasure of meeting such a collective who go by the name of “Jazz in Our Lifetime”; their sole purpose is to celebrate the luminaries and pioneers who have tirelessly contributed to the South African Songbook through events at various venues in and around Johannesburg. One would assume that they were a bunch of forty to fifty something-year-olds but much to my surprise they are in their twenties and thirties with the drive to bring jazz to the younger market and by young, I’m referring to those who would rather be in the scenes celebrating their newly acquired adulthood to the decibel defying “amapiano” or “living their best lives” at the latest launch and savouring the spoils of the effervescent “social media culture”. So naturally, intrigued, I had to get to know this emerging collective whom, despite the pressures of being the “cool kids”, went against the grain and took a different direction, a direction that had a notorious reputation of conservatism and momentousness.

Marvin sat down with members of “Jazz in our Lifetime”; Mduduzi Godlo and Kelebogile Motswatswa and they shared their journey as a collective of artists and curators of the series.

Marvin: Jazz in our lifetime? Who is Jazz in our lifetime and what inspired this movement?

MG: It was a conversation that started between two friends, it was around November of 2017 at the now-closed jazz club The Orbit and the idea was a “Jazz Party” with all our friends. This conversation then escalated into a jazz jam, where Yonela Mnana alongside Sisonke Xonti and Siphiwe Shiburi were amongst others who joined the jam session. After the gig, Pianist Yonela Mnana uttered the words “it felt like the 1960s jazz for 20- somethings of that time; it was like jazz in our lifetime.” And in that moment, just like that, we had given birth to what we have today, that same moment has since incited us to keep the South African jazz songbook alive until today.

Marvin: Why Jazz?

MG: My first encounter with live jazz had a lingering effect, it reminded me of the known and unknown black history and also lived in the moment of my agony and selective happiness, a sense of familiarity is what this feeling was like.

Marvin: For many, jazz is a niche “genre”, an entity for the mature and conservative, how did you manage to change the narrative and encourage the younger crowds to pay attention to jazz?

MG: We have not really “re-invented the wheel”, we exist as another avenue and as an ally of South African jazz for our patrons and many of them have shared some interesting views and experiences, one in particular where it was said that “connections are made through our jazz sessions, it brings together a diverse crowd with various perspectives and we are able to set aside whatever differences and share a cosy and intimate space where jazz is enjoyed and celebrated. It is just good quality music to those who love and want to explore more of it.” Others have also described the emotions that are evoked when they attend these sessions; lively descriptions such as “Vibrant, Spontaneous, Deep, Free and Full of Life” are some of the emotive phrases that have been used to describe it all. Essentially, these comments and compliments capture what “Jazz in our Lifetime” represents; a non-pretentious space aimed at building connections and celebrates being young, gifted and black. Everyone, whether musician, poet, photographer and venue owner who has been a part of our events are young and black. The protagonists of this narrative have been young people who are at the forefront of jazz conversations and defying the expectations and misconceptions associated with jazz. How we have managed to draw in a younger audience is by positioning ourselves in non-traditional spaces that are more accessible to the younger crowd.

Marvin: Let us unpack the jazz landscape in South Africa, so many exciting names and so much to choose from, how does Jazz in Our Lifetime curate these events? What informs your line-up at these sessions?

MG: We didn’t start off with a script of how we were going to do things, but we knew that we needed a band, sound, venue and patrons; given the amount of backyard and post-gig conversations we’ve had with musicians, it was almost inevitable that we’d attract artists who were genuinely looking for authentic platforms and partnerships through which to share the music that they had been working on. With sheer determination, the artist’s passion and talent, our resoluteness propelled us to want to be on this journey with them. The “behind the scenes” conversations gave us an understanding of the jazz language, which in turn allowed us to select who would best encapsulate the essence of Jazz in Our Lifetime and exemplify the South African jazz songbook.

Marvin: Jazz in Our Lifetime as a collective has an impressive repertoire of artists who lend themselves to the series, what has stood out for you in terms of the different shows, performances etc?

MG: The beauty about South African jazz is that, each musician has their own way of telling our stories and one gets contrasting experiences from that, in fact it also makes it difficult to pick out what we would call “the best” because we spend time understanding them as individuals and their craft and that expresses a different feeling every time one comes in contact with it. It also speaks to the foundation of many South African jazz artists as they have a similar understanding of how to play, even though the interpretations of the music will vary. However, our first event that we hosted, gave us an understanding of how to organize these events, gave us our name too.

KM: I will admit, it is very difficult to say, who has stood out the most because each artist is singular, and one tends to find it hard to compare two people who are not the same. If there is one show that I found quite captivating was when we showcased Keenan Ahrends, that show had fewer people in the audience, which gave me an idea that we could actually leverage off by curating events that are warm and close. Indeed, we are definitely learning and perfecting which is going to allow us to curate more intimate settings for our events that will certainly take our sessions to another level. Marvin: As an events company, what has been your biggest challenge? Are people coming to the events?

MG: As a jazz project, the biggest challenge is actually getting the people to attend your events and given the presumption around jazz; in the city and in our country generally, it tends to be an uphill battle as a start-up. Many venues also do not appreciate the value of live jazz performances in their space the first time around and usually take some convincing in that regard. Then there is also having the right service standards to retain the patrons for your events. Lastly, one also has to take into consideration and be cognisant of the logistics process too, referring to cover charges, payments etc., however, we were fortunate to encounter people who understood the intention around the project, and we have been able to partner with great brands and venues.

Marvin: Let’s reflect on your successes and your plan for the future, where would you like to see Jazz in Our Lifetime going?

MG: The biggest success for us when we were approached at the Thembelihle Tojana event and complimented about how vibrant and appealing our jazz event was and that for us as Jazz in our Lifetime saw that as a positive nod and cemented our position in the jazz scene as an integral entity. We have also become a vehicle and an ally that allows musicians to expose their music to different venues and audiences within the jazz scene in Johannesburg.

The same event Mduduzi is referring to, surprised us as we were not anticipating the number of people who were at the event. It was rather stressful, but most certainly up there with our biggest success stories.

Writer:  Ngwako Malakalaka