Kippie Moeketsi and the birth of South African jazz

Stuart Nicholson
Wednesday, July 6, 2022

South Africa’s contribution to jazz remains one of the music’s great untold stories. Stuart Nicholson looks at the birth of the country’s jazz scene

Kippie Moeketsi in 1963
Kippie Moeketsi in 1963

The open-backed truck that had become a hearse for a day slowly made its way up Zulu Drive.

It was heading to the Capetown cemetery, where saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi was to be laid to rest.

Behind it, the cortege extended for over a mile.

On that day in May 1983, saxophonists played a graveside homage to the man they called ‘The Father of South African jazz’, a man who had been friend and mentor to countless South African musicians, not least Hugh Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim (formerly Dollar Brand), who had both left behind the rigid segregation of their homeland to achieve international recognition.

" Kippie could have blossomed into something as great as anything Charlie Parker had already shown us

From afar they joined in silent prayer: “My sadness slowly began to lift that afternoon,” said Ibrahim years later. “Kippie’s life was not wasted. How could it be when it was Kippie who gave us everything we know? We have built on what he taught us.”

People that May day in 1983 also spoke of the saxophonist’s scalding brilliance, a raw genius that Masekela, another who wanted to be there that day on Zulu Drive, came to realise after moving to the United States, “Kippie could have blossomed into something as great as anything Charlie Parker had already shown us. It was only when I was in the States for some time and played with all their jazz greats I realised how great Kippie had always been. If he had lived in America he would have been up there with Bird and Trane.”

Instead, Kippie Moeketsi remained in a South Africa plagued by venality and paralysing ambiguities, and in the end it was too much.

He died an impoverished alcoholic with just one album under his own name.

Today, Moeketsi is regarded as a key figure in the South African jazz story – for example, in 1997 a musical about his life opened in the Civic Theatre in Windybrow, Johannesburg.

South African jazz is a story that has remained blurred and indistinct over the years because its political potency was seen as a threat to the Apartheid mindset and as a result, it was downplayed and disrupted; Moeketsi suffered the confiscation of his instrument by South African border authorities on a Malawi trip and was deprived of his work pass, which together kept him out of professional music for around seven key years in the mid-1960s.

Stompie Manana

Here in Britain, South African music first attracted attention in the late 1950s with the release of the album Something New From Africa at a time when kwela – urban dance music, often played on a penny whistle – was still heard on the street corners of Johannesburg.

Little Lemmy ‘Special' Mabaso emerged from the album a star, launching African township music onto the world stage.

In the 1960s, a key part of the London jazz scene was a South African contingent of musicians, among the best known were Chris McGregor & The Blue Notes, saxophonist Dudu Puckwana, trumpeter Mongezi Feza, bassist Johnny Dyani and drummer Louis Maholo.

They and others created a vibrant music scene of their own at places like the Flamingo, The 100 Club, the Roundhouse, the old Ronnie's and Hampstead Country Club. But of the jazz scene in South Africa that had spawned these musicians, little was known.

In apartheid South Africa, jazz had taken root in the 1940s and early 50s from imported 78 rpm records of American big bands.

These recordings had inspired local musicians to form bands of their own to play dances in the 1950s, but reinterpreted with kwela and marabi influences and local music customs.

When recordings of bebop hit South Africa, a modern jazz scene was born and one of the first to master the idiom was Kippie Moeketsi, who mastered the inner detail of the music by ear while other musicians were still playing big band music.

A willing teacher and mentor, at the end of the 1950s, he could be seen and heard at Dorkay House, at the end of Eloff Street in Johannesburg, where there was a jam session once a fortnight.

Miriam Makeba

It was where all the jazz musicians gathered and on some nights there would be Kippie Moeketsi, Miriam Makeba, Dudu Puckwana, Hugh Masekela, Wilson Silgee, Jonas Gwangwa, Makes Nkosi and countless others, all of them part of a burgeoning modern scene from which emerged the most important South African jazz group of all, The Jazz Epistles.

The Espistles group grew out of the house band for the stage musical King Kong – part Broadway, part Township music – but Kippie Moeketsi, trumpeter Hugh Masekela and trombonist Jonas Gwangwa were yearning to build an adventurous small group.

“Kippie, Hugh and I left for Cape Town, because Kippie was talking about this pianist he had met, Dollar Brand [later Abdullah Ibrahim], and Dollar came in with Johnny Gertze our bassist [latter Claude Shange] and Makhaya Ntshoko our drummer, whom we had to get permission from his parents [later replaced by Gene Latimore],” said trombonist Jonas Gwangwa later.

Only one recording of the band has survived, Jazz Epistles Verse 1, comprising original material; it was the first LP recorded by an African group.

“There had never been a band like The Epistles in South Africa,” said Masekela in his autobiography Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela.

Although members of the band had previously recorded with pianist John Mehegan, an American educator on an exchange visit, on Jazz in Africa, they largely performed American standards.

However, the Epistles’ true musical personality shone on Verse 1: it acknowledged hard bop, marabi and kwela (which later became mbaqanga) on pieces like ‘Uka-Jonga Phambili,’ ‘Dollar's Moods,’ and Kippie Moeketsi’s ‘Blues for Hughie and ‘Scullery Department’.

Moeketsi would later say the Epistles were, “The most exciting band I ever played with.”

Now deeply engraved in South African jazz history, the Epistles' story, according to Dr. Sazi Dlamini at University of Kwazulu-Natal, “hasn’t been told because it’s hidden history.”

Part of that “hidden history” includes Kippie Moeketsi’s album, Tshona!, originally on the Gallo label, which had a limited print run of just 500 copies and has for years been impossible to find (albeit a part of the album surfaced briefly in 1992 on the Kaz label), but has now been re-released in full by the Canadian imprint We Are Busybodies (read the review).

The 'Tshona!' sessions in 1975

Recorded with a group that included Pat Matshikiza on piano and Basil 'Manenberg' Coetzee on tenor, it’s one of several key albums We Are Busybodies is releasing which provide a fuller picture of South African jazz; Coetzee’s Shrimp Boats, just released by WABB is another.

Coetzee was just 15 years old and still living in District 6 when he sat in with the Dollar Brand Trio on penny whistle.

His saxophone style was shaped by Township jazz, his sound a reflection of life around him, where, “there's a lot of poverty in the townships, and people are frustrated, and my sound is created within that environment.”

Coetzee, who died in 1998, was another impressive saxophonist who garnered enormous acclaim for his solo on ‘Manenburg Is Where It’s Happening’ with Dollar Brand’s band in 1975; Manenburg was a settlement where many of the residents of District 6 were removed when the authorities razed it to the ground.

The title track to the album of the same name, it quickly became the most iconic of all South African jazz tunes, Capetonians even called it 'our unofficial national anthem’ and Coetzee’s name became forever associated with it.

After the Epistles were wound up, Dollar Brand and his partner Beattie Benjamin left South Africa in 1962 and was playing in Zurich when Duke Ellington’s Famous Orchestra played there.

Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim)

Benjamin persuaded Ellington to see her partner and Ellington promptly booked a recording session in Paris producing Duke Ellington Presents… The Dollar Brand Trio.

Brand initially owed much to Ellington’s patronage, but he soon established himself internationally, and when he appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival, DownBeat observed that, “Dollar Brand’s music is a fresh wind blowing from Mother Africa... he makes music all of his own, a remarkable pianist.”

Brand returned to South Africa in 1973, where he recorded Dollar Brand +3 – his trio with Kippie Moeketsi – an often overlooked highlight in both men’s discographies.

Together with a series of recordings made by Brand in South Africa during the 1970s, with Moeketsi and Basil Coetzee – ‘Black Lightening,’ ‘Little Boy,’ ‘Black and Brown Cherries’ and ‘Ntyilo Ntyilo’ – and tracks with Coetzee, including ‘Manenburg,’ are recognised as classics of South African Township jazz.

That evocative, yet haunting sound also found voice in the African Jazz Pioneers.

Formed in 1981, it brought together many of the musicians who gathered at the Dorkay House jazz sessions in the late 1950s and early 1960s who did not make the headlines, but were nevertheless accomplished musicians, not least trumpeter Stompie Manana (who appeared on Coetzee’s Shrimp Boats), saxist Edmund 'Ntemi' Piliso and Timothy Ndaba.

The voicings and rhythmic inflections of the saxes, for example, can be heard today echoed in the vocal ensemble Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which brought the sound of Township music to Paul Simon’s 16-million selling album, Graceland.

When South Africa’s ‘First Lady of Song’, Miriam Makeba, emigrated to the USA, she had a No.1 hit with the ‘Click Song.’

Her boyfriend Hugh Masekela, thanks to anti-Apartheid activist Bishop Trevor Huddleston, had engineered an invitation for the trumpeter to study at London’s Guildhall School of Music.

When finally his passport came through it came just after the infamous Sharpville massacre and the government ban on black musicians from inner city clubs.

It ended the Jazz Epistles but marked the beginning of Masekela’s long and distinguished career.

At Guildhall he won a scholarship to the Manhattan School of Music (1960-64).

Masekela, an exciting, fiery soloist, made several excellent albums in the period that followed; with his then-regular band with Larry Willis on piano, those albums – and The Americanization of Ooga Booga, Grr (both 1966) and The Lasting Impression of Hugh Masekela (1968) – brought together jazz and mbaqanga.

His No.1 hit of 1968, ‘Grazing in the Grass,’ sold over four million copies and was based on “Township jive.”

In 1987 he wrote ‘Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela)’ which became an anthem of the anti-apartheid struggle, the tragic but ultimately triumphant backdrop against which classic South African jazz was acted out.

But when, in the 1970s, Dollar Brand returned to his homeland, he said, “After all those years in the States playing traditional South African music I told musicians this is it, this is what we should be playing. But most wanted to play straight American jazz, they didn’t recognise the worth of their own music.”

Times had changed, and so had South African jazz.


This article originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of Songlines. Never miss an issue – subscribe today

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