Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim & The South African Jazz Tradition
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On The Corner Masthead


January 23, 2018 | by Rusty Aceves

With heavy hearts, we must acknowledge the loss of trumpeter, composer, singer, activist, and South African jazz legend Hugh Masekela, who passed on January 23, 2018 in Johannesburg at age 78. The Jazz Epistles concerts with Abdullah Ibrahim at SFJAZZ from 2/22 to 2/25 will feature trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith standing in for Masekela, and the performances will be dedicated to his memory.

New Orleans jazz became known in South Africa shortly after the first commercial recordings of the music were made in 1917, making the trek to Cape Town on merchant vessels from the United States in the early 20s. Bands inspired by early jazz began forming shortly after, primarily among the Western-educated Xhosa nation in Queenstown and the Johannesburg ghetto Sophiatown, an area that became a hotbed for innovation and experimentation. As the music continued to evolve over the years, the ever-increasing level of sophistication gave rise to a new crop of South African musicians deeply versed in the jazz vocabulary, having been exposed to the current state of jazz via recordings and radio in addition to the American groups that toured the country during the period. One of the biggest bands of the late 1930s, the Jazz Maniacs, melded the influence of Count Basie and Duke Ellington with Zulu styles – a mix that made a lasting impression on a new generation of aspiring musicians including Hugh Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim. Born in Kwa-Guqa Township in 1939, Masekela began learning piano and singing from an early age, and was inspired to take up the trumpet at 14 after viewing Young Man with a Horn, the American film based loosely on the life of early jazz icon Bix Beiderbecke. The noted English Anglican bishop and anti-Apartheid author, Trevor Huddleston, gave Masekela his first instrument.


Abdullah Ibrahim

A Cape Town native, Ibrahim was born Adolph Johannes Brand in 1934, and demonstrated an innate talent for the piano as a youth. He made his professional debut at 15, and developed an advanced bebop approach as leader of his own trio under a stage name, Dollar Brand. In 1959, Masekela and Ibrahim formed the Jazz Epistles, an important but short lived group inspired by Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers that had the distinction of being the country’s first bebop group and the first to record an album. The Sharpeville Massacre of March 1960 led to drastically increased enforcement of apartheid and greater repression of African culture, and the Jazz Epistles were dissolved, with Masekela fleeing to the United States and Ibrahim to Europe before he also immigrated to the U.S. The trumpeter immersed himself in the burgeoning New York hard bop scene of the early 1960s and entered the Manhattan School of Music, where one of his classmates and collaborators was the masterful pianist, composer and arranger Larry Willis, with whom he reunites for his SFJAZZ performances. Masekela released his debut album, Trumpet Africaine, in 1963, and moved to Los Angeles in the late 60s during the ‘Summer of Love,’ scoring a #1 hit on the American ‘pop charts with his GRAMMY-nominated single “Grazin’ in the Grass.” He has since released over 40 albums and is recognized around the world as the greatest living ambassador of South Africa’s jazz legacy.

Upon leaving South Africa in 1962 for safe haven in Zurich, Ibrahim was joined by other exiled members of the Jazz Epistles to reform the Dollar Brand Trio in Europe. Duke Ellington, who was in Switzerland on tour, heard the trio at the Club Africaine in Zurich where Ibrahim had a residency. Ellington was suitably impressed, and became a mentor and champion of the young pianist, getting Ibrahim a record deal and attaching his name to Ibrahim’s debut release, Duke Ellington Presents the Dollar Brand Trio. Upon settling in the U.S., Ibrahim subbed on tour dates for Ellington, and began an illustrious career as a bandleader and composer, converting to Islam and performing with jazz greats Max Roach, Elvin Jones and Randy Weston. He returned to Cape Town on a pair of occasions, settling there after the end of apartheid, and maintains deep connections to the culture of his homeland and its impact on the jazz tradition.