South African jazz can sometimes be misunderstood and heavily underrated. It’s often seen as a music genre of times long gone. A genre for old timers at stokvels and self-important peeps who listen to complex music.
Some may think that it is nothing but ancient history, soon to be buried along with an older generation. Nothing could be more untrue. The jazz industry is alive and kicking with young and talented musicians who are building the South African music canon one jazz note at a time.
At the moment, SA jazz holds some of the most skilled and prized musicians globally. While many of us thought the Casspers and Kwestas are the only few who are staking their claim in the local and international music industry, jazz musicians like Bokani Dyer, Kyle Shepherd, and Siya Makuzeni (to name but a few) are creating waves from within the country and beyond.
Over recent years, the SA jazz industry has introduced some fresh, dynamic and vibrant musicians to the music scene. What you hear these days is not only limited to the kind of jazz that your uncles and grandmother’s listened to.
Rather, artists mostly rage between the ages 20 – 40, and the music they create is versatile and able to merge with sounds that range from techno-electronic music (from artists like Shane Cooper), spiritual and traditional South African sounds by the likes of Nduduzo makhathini, to meditative and soulful melodies by musicians like Zoe Modiga.
In their sound and style SA jazz artists are unlimited, constantly transforming and absorbing inspiration from the older generation of jazz artists, their peers and from the changing nature of music and society in general. The jazz scene in SA is anything but boring.
Talented singer and pianist, Thandi Ntuli mentions that this is only normal, since art is oftentimes reflective of our surroundings.
“Jazz as an artistic approach has always lent itself to absorbing different styles and influences. You see that by how even within one country there are various “styles” of Jazz. It can be a very self-reflective way of creating music. Naturally our own experiences and surroundings will find space to be expressed in this music.”
“I am so excited and inspired by what is happening in the local scene. It’s vibrant and so much creativity is going on.
“A lot of artists are making their own albums, releasing or collaborating and the market seems hungry for it because it is being well received. The thing that excited me most is how different everyone’s voice is too and how many of my peers are also getting a lot of love outside the borders. South African Jazz has always had an intriguing uniqueness about it.”
Like any other industry though, jazz has its own problems. Women are still gaining recognition as artists in an industry that’s mainly a boys club. As a results, women are often subject to stereotypes within the industry. In an interview with Lloyd Gedye, Thandi said that “There is definitely still a lot of [sexism],” she says. “‘You play so well for a girl,’ or ‘You should meet Thandi, she is the best female pianist in the country.’ I mean really, did they have to go there?”
The SA Jazz industry faces a lot of financial hurdles as well. With little funding, infrastructure, and market reach (in comparison to popular music) it becomes hard for young musicians to develop their craft and grow in the industry.
Much of the revival and surge of creativity in jazz, particularly in Johannesburg, has had plenty to do with the opening of The Orbit in 2014 – a popular jazz club that has given the many young and established artists of today the platform they needed to showcase their talents and make their mark in the music industry. As of August, the club has sent out letters via email and in social media asking fans and musicians to help fund them in maintaining the venue and continue to support local jazz in doing so.
Kevin Naidoo, the owner of the popular jazz spot, says that there’s a possibility of the club closing down, but they are still hopeful.
“The funding process has not been successful unfortunately, but we have a lot of proposals out and are still talking to interested parties. We would prefer to receive some grant funding, a corporate sponsor or an investment partner.” he states.
He continues, and states that if they were to accrue the right amount of funding for the club, they would continue to become more active in the industry by expanding to other locations and spreading the interest in SA Jazz music. The closing down of the jazz club will not, however, deter the continuing legacy of the The Orbit
“We […] have events we have planned throughout the country, some in partnership with the Nelson Mandela Foundation. This includes collaborations with performance artists and the making of documentaries and these [projects] would still continue in the short term even if the physical space closed down. We’d also still like to launch our livestreaming / online video platform and [we] have interest from various organisations all around the world looking for premium African content, there’s a huge demand for this.”
With The Orbit being one of foundations that’s played a part in the renewal of SA Jazz, we’re sure this news might spark a lot of joy for many jazz fanatics and frequenters of the club. SA Jazz music is a significant part of our cultural heritage as South Africans and it’s amazing to see artists like Thandi, Bokani, Zoe, Kyle, Nduduzo and others reviving jazz in a way that continues the legacy of jazz greats like Hugh Masekela, Zim Ngqawane, Letta Mbulu and Miriam Makeba. At the same time they are also bringing new excitement to jazz and the music industry as a whole.
The emergence of jazz artists keeps revealing the diverse range of talent that young musicians have in SA. In a time where commercial South African music can sometimes sound like a copy and paste of popular Western music, the creativity and versatility of SA jazz and it’s artists is nothing short of refreshing and brilliant and we need more of it.
image credit: bardillentertainment.co.za