By Julian Jonker
First, a warning. The writer approaching the intersections and digressions that comprise the history of jazz in – and outside – South Africa is confronted with the conundrum of finding a place to start. How does one tie up the mutiplicitous locations and trajectories of the jazz story and mould them into something resembling a linear narrative? Perhaps one can’t, and is left to juggle false starts and dead-ends.
My own endeavours to write about jazz in South Africa have been troubled. Too much assonance and syncopation; I am constantly frustrated. Am I tying up loose ends or am I twisting the tale into ever more frustrating knots? This time, perhaps I should start with some attempt at organisation. Allow the storyteller then to gather his mental paperclips and post-it notes. The evidence in full view: vinyl records scavenged from basements and collectors reluctant to part with their prizes; a pitifully meagre pile of CD re-issues; photographs published and unpublished; hours of interview tape; an untidy stack of green notepads scribbled full with detail.
Where to begin? There are, firstly, names:
Mankunku, McGregor, Brand.
Moeketsi, Moholo, Dyani.
Pukwana, Gwangwa, Coetzee.
Just a few, to give you a taste. Don’t fret because you haven’t heard their records before. Say the names slowly, as you would recite a poem. Let the consonants roll languidly off your tongue and stretch your lips to pronounce each vowel, and you will already hear distant strains of music.
There are also photographs. Photographs by Basil Breaky, who documented the scene in Johannesburg and Cape Town just before its hottest players made their ways to Europe, leaving the cities to grow dark and silent. One picture: Abdullah Ibrahim, head bent over the keyboard of his piano, his arm stretched over into its gut, plucking its strings. Arched over, listening to some deeper music from the piano’s heart.
Photographs by Hardy Stockmann, who documented the Cape Town scene of the late fifties. One shows Hotep Galeta, then named Cecil Barnard. His face is bright with youth as he smiles intently at a white girl – a ‘friend’ – who is coyly eating an ice cream. The camera’s aperture traces a brief hiatus in the Immorality Act’s thick shadow.
There are the notes I made one summer trying to track down this thing called Cape jazz. In one notepad I’ve scribbled something next to transcripts of interviews and article references:
[January 2001] Listened to Vincent Kolbe and Alex Tabisher interviews today, came out of D6 [District Six museum] feeling dizzy. Leave with an intense feeling of place but I hardly see the people walking around me.
Several pages later, another note:
All these articles about oral history, but there seems to be no questioning of what history is for, except the recording of the past. But it’s really about the uncovering of secrets, secret places and secret meanings, it’s about that sense I felt on walking out of D6 and seeing something else around me.
But making lists of names, things and places, even this indulgent itemising of experience, doesn’t make sense of lives lived in jazz timing. Attempting to follow the syncopated trails of these individuals, attempting to uncover the secret histories of these places and people, requires something less fastidious. Perhaps one needs a device, as a playwright might use to manipulate her material into some semblance of a reality. A device that allows for movement, a device with an intimate knowledge of displacement and shifting centres of gravity. A device that edges towards the possibility of a narrative that can tie together all these loose pieces, or better yet, makes the tying unnecessary.
[February 2001] One of the reasons why writing about Cape jazz feels so urgent is because it is so under-researched. What attracts is me is seeing the process of writing and constructing history as it unfolds. … I think it’s Alessandro Portelli who says that the most important part of writing the “life and times” of somebody is the “and”. I think one way to show the importance of the “and” in the life and times of somebody like Jimmy Adams is by writing about the process of writing about him.
You see (the story-teller continues): narratives are never comprehensive, and the narratives which we fit to histories, political histories, social histories…jazz histories…are no more so. Where does one begin a story? By deciding merely to begin a story, one shapes the story, one makes a choice, consciously or not, about what to include and what to exclude. By starting, one silences other potential narratives, narratives perhaps of the same events but which don’t begin in the same place. The story-teller silences by ending too. The story-teller silences even by deciding which routes to take between beginning and end.
What happens to those silenced fragments which fall away from the story-teller’s false starts? Can one shape a story from forgotten but imagined fragments and silences as a designer might shape form from negative space?
Memory too, is narrative. Memory can be described as much by its narrative twists as by its blind spots, its unspeaking nooks. Think of the silences imposed by the public memories of our identities and histories, by the public narratives which we listen to and sometimes accept as describing who we are. “The struggle of man against power,” begins one story by Czech writer Milan Kundera, “is the struggle of memory against forgetting”. And yet there is no narrative without silence!
Since silence cannot be avoided, perhaps let me make it an explicit part of my story, an admission, so that I can continue without guilt.
Where to begin? Which silences? There are many.
Silences abound in the story of Kippie ‘Morolong’ Moeketsi, the hard living alto saxophonist and composer who outshone constant comparisons with Bird Parker, toured with Todd Matshikiza’s King Kong, and played on Jazz Epistles, South Africa’s first jazz long-player. After his frustration with the music scene in Johannesburg led him to bouts of drinking and violence, Kippie was admitted to a mental institution, where he suffered electric shock treatment. Was he schizophrenic, as some suggest, or suffering from alcoholic dementia? Or perhaps his spirit crushed from the daily defeats of ‘petty’ apartheid? … Silence. Police confiscated Kippie’s instrument while he was on tour in 1964, and he didn’t play saxophone again, until 1971. … Silence. How could Kippie have felt to have forsaken the music for so long; Kippie Morolong Moeketsi, whose very life essence was the music?
Stories told and retold may portray Kippie Moeketsi as a brash, arrogant, even irresponsible man. But Jimmy Adams, the Cape Town saxophonist who was a pioneering band leader in the forties, tells otherwise. Jimmy met Moeketsi after finding himself stranded in Johannesburg. He tells how for almost a year Kippie would come and give him one pound for food, every day. Over Christmas of that year Jimmy went on tour to Lorenço Marques with Kippie, Winston Mankunku and Hugh Masakela. Kippie lent him money to buy badly needed clothes for the gig.
Jimmy, for his part, thought at the peak of his youth that he was living the dream, spearheading something as modern and gleaming as the post-war cars that appeared on the roads, all chrome and sleek suspended angles. His saxophone had a similar glow and tilt, as did the angular momentum of the flattened blue notes he played. He was a contemporary of other Cape Town vanguard jazz players like Harold Jephta, Kenny Jephta and Henry February. He was (some say) the leader of the first Cape Town jazz band. Jimmy never liked the Johannesburg scene – too many people imitating the American players. Even Kippie was practising over Charlie Parker records.
Jimmy Adams saw his opportunities narrow down towards the end of the fifties as other musicians left into exile. Jimmy couldn’t leave because he had a wife, he had settled down into his home. But the scene in Cape Town was already suffocating. Now, Jimmy works a job at Ratunga Junction, a garish Sun City-like theme park just outside the city.. He troops around accompanied by someone playing a large drum making “circus music” to entertain tourists. What happened in the intervening years?
Jimmy told me once that he had been to the Green Dolphin, a jazz theme-pub at the sanitary tourist-oriented Waterfront complex. The pub had been decorated with pictures of early jazz pioneers: Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington. Jimmy complained about selective memory: what about us? What about us?
After struggling with the SABC, Jimmy Adams eventually released a record with the Teal company. Once in the studio, the producer told him firmly: “You don’t play gam enough man! Play more coloured!”
[March 2001] What was Jimmy Adams thinking on the train speeding back from LM, after playing with Kippie + Hugh + Mankunku, speeding back to (bury) the rest of his life in Cape Town?
Here’s a similar story. At the end of one year I spent a long Cape Town summer at the District Six museum, scavenging through their oral history archives in ever widening circles, looking for the feel of those years, the forties and fifties, when jazz felt like a brave new dawn; looking for that feeling as if it would have somehow survived the years, to be picked up by the crude technology of our recording machines. Henry February was a name that came up time and time again in this widening search; the most advanced jazz pianist of the time, perhaps he could have become a legend like Abdullah Ibrahim. But February stayed.
I saw Henry Feb play once on a double bill with Tribe, the recently formed Cape Town avant-bop quartet. February’s music was in stark contrast – lyricism of almost baroque complexity, like Stan Getz on Summer Rain. A stately elegance. Somebody that night compared him to Art Tatum. Listen also to February on Sathima Bea Benjamin’s Cape Town Love. Timelessness well-tempered.
Of course I tried to talk to Henry Feb during that summer. Valmont Layne, curator of the District Six oral history archive, warned me beforehand. “He’s a very difficult man”, he explained. “He’s very bitter. I mean, he’s a great pianist, some say technically even better than Abdullah Ibrahim. He’ll try and size you up first. He strung us along for quite a while, until we just gave up.” One day I phone February up and tell him that I want to talk to him about the heyday of the Cape Town scene. No, he says, no, no, no. I don’t have anything to say. I try to explain that I know it’s a difficult story – my nerves now suddenly kicking in – but that it’s one that has to be told. There’s a soft but abrupt click as he puts the receiver down.
[January 2001, notes made from the District Six Museum oral archives] Vincent Kolbe interview, 5/10/99 … Henry ‘Martin’ February dropped the name February so he could play with white musicians …
Imagine Winston Mankunku, sweat pouring from his forehead as his stand with his sax at full tilt, but hidden from the stage by a heavy curtain. The curtain prevents Mankunku from appearing on the same stage as the white band and thus from violating the apartheid laws against multiracial gatherings. Mankunku is heard but unseen.
the scream of the sax
the whispers of the horn
bellows of the yoked bull.
(Vusi D. Mchunu, Stronger Souls, 1990)
Let me start again (but where to begin)? There are silences of other types: exile, for example, and death. Exile is one of the threads running continuously through the stories of South African jazz. Exile manifests itself not only in the stories of those who left the increasingly repressive atmosphere of apartheid South Africa, but metaphorically, in the stories of those who stayed.
[February 2001, notes from the District Six Museum oral archives] Vincent Kolbe interview, 5/10/99 .. moving to the Cape Flats, the township experience, is like emigrating …
And death. It is the deaths of young artists in exile that most attracts a sense of horrid fascination. Nat Nakasa, a bright young writer, outspoken when writing for Drum about the increasingly repressive apartheid government, eventually awarded a scholarship to Harvard. He was allowed to leave the country only if he agreed to go into voluntary exile. They called this an ‘exit permit’. Nakasa jumped to his death from a Harlem building, age 28. Why?
And in 1975, Blue Notes trumpeter Mongezi Feza, dead in London at the age of 30.
Johnny Dyani, age 41, in Berlin. Or did he die on stage in Sweden in 1986, as Steve Gordon writes in Beyond the Blues? Or on stage in Paris, as Sandile Dikeni writes?
Consider Nikele Moyake, tenor, teacher of Dudu Pukwana and Duke Makasi. Johnny Dyani tells a story about the normally shy Moyake at a party at which Dollar Brand introduced him to Wayne Shorter, then tenor with the Miles Davis Quintet. At some point Moyake got annoyed at Shorter’s arrogance, turned to him and said: “I used to play what you are playing.”
Moyake left South Africa with the Blue Notes in 1964, but like many so many of the exiles who suffered from distance and longing, he contracted an undiagnosed and fatal illness (What disease? check). He came home to battle it, and died in Port Elizabeth in 1969.
Singer Don Tshomela once called Moyake “more dangerous than danger…the bull that bullies the bull”.
Yakhal’inkomo – the cry of cattle at the slaughter house.
Dumile, the sculptor, told me that once in the country he saw a cow being killed. In the kraal cattle were looking on. They were crying for their like, dying at the hands of human beings. Yakhal’inkomo. Dumile held the left side of his chest and said that is where the cry of the cattle hit him … Yakhal’inkomo. The cattle raged and fought, they became a terror to themselves; the twisted poles of the kraal rattled and shook. The cattle saw blood flow into the ground.
I once saw Mankunku Ngozi blowing his saxophone. Yakhal’inkomo. His face was inflated like a balloon, it was wet with sweat, his eyes huge and red. He grew tall, shrank, coiled into himself, uncoiled and the cry came out of his horn.
This is the meaning of Yakhal’inkomo.
(Mongane Wally Serote, Yakhal’inkomo, 1972)
So where to begin? There are so many stories here, they twist in and out of each other like that madman Charlie Parker’s horn lines. They are written over each other, like a medieval palimpsest. Or maybe a better analogy is transatlantic trade routes, crisscrossing between continent and culture.
Imagine Kippie Moeketsi in downtown Johannesburg, dressed pin-striped bright-shoed like Bird Parker, walking hips-swinging like Bird Parker, swaggering hard-drinking like Bird Parker, dying institutionalised caged beat-spirited like Bird Parker. The hipster ethic, across Atlantic trade routes to eGoli, the slumyard marabi blues, across Atlantic slave routes to Manhattan.
Many of these routes are routes of exile, outwards and in. Where to begin on these routes?
Perhaps with the musicians who crop up again and again in the photographs of Basil Breakey and Hardy Stockmann. McGregor, Moholo, Dyani. Pukwana, Moyake, Feza. The Blue Notes left the country in 1964. Formed by pianist Chris McGregor, this seminal band included the talents of bassist Johnny Dyani, drummer Louis Moholo, hornmen Dudu Pukwana, Nikele Moyake and the young Mongezi Feza. When they left they took with them the memory of home, and when they played they invoked home with each note.
But perhaps one should rather talk about this thing called exile, and what it means for blackness. Exile recurs in the routes of black migration. Does the black American have a return ticket across the middle passage? Can the black diaspora come home? Can the creole un-creolize? So one might name all these migrations ‘exile’. But the questions are double-edged. Is there a return across the middle passage? Can the black diaspora go home? Can the creole un-creolize? Where to? Perhaps exile is permanent.
All these routes; what then of jazz and blackness? Again – where to begin? With the importance of Black Pride movements to the jazz innovations of the sixties and seventies? With the importance of black culture to Black Consciousness generally?
It becomes more necessary to see the truth as it is if you realise that the only vehicle for change are these people who have lost their personality. The first step therefore is to make the black man come to himself; to pump back life into his empty shell; to infuse him with pride and dignity, to remind him of his complicity in the crime of allowing himself to be misused and therefore letting evil reign supreme in the country of his birth. This is what we mean by an inward-looking process. This is the definition of “Black Consciousness”.
(Steve Biko, I Write What I Like, 1978)
The Black Consciousness Movement emerged in South Africa as an organised front in 1968, the same year which saw the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. It was also during that year that the Blue Notes recorded their first album in exile: Very Urgent.
The BCM, which later evolved into the Azanian People’s Liberation Organisation, advocated black unity and militant struggle against white oppression. There were American counterparts to the movement, as not only did the civil rights movement gain momentum there, but people such as Malcom X, Eldridge Cleaver and Leroi Jones began espousing radical separatist beliefs and advocating militant struggle in the name of black nationalism. There was a soundtrack to this surge of radical thought; while not all black musicians necessarily adopted similar perspectives, many were influenced by the rising frustration with the situation of black Americans, and a corresponding reclaiming of black African culture.
Free jazz, out jazz, the New Thing, the avant-garde, Black Classical Music…these terms are all used to describe the explosion of sound when black jazz musicians started pushing the boundaries of the art form, disgruntled with the inroads white musicians were making into bebop as well as the limitations of the form, and closely allying themselves with the radical politics of black nationalism.
[January 2001] a friend intereviews Sathima Bea Benjamin, Cape Town-born jazz vocalist and wife of Abdullah Ibrahim. “I don’t come from Georgia, but you know what? I do. Because it’s the same, okay. You have to see where this music came from…this is just my theory, so people can disagree with that, I don’t really care. But I know that black Americans…were ripped away from the African continent, some 500 years ago, and taken to the plantations there in the deep South, right? That’s a long time ago. And I can just imagine that one day, or one evening, or early one morning, there was a woman out there, and she let out a wail, you know? And to me, that was the beginning of this music. That’s all.”
One main example of the new spirit in jazz was the continuous pioneering of Coltrane and its culmination in works like the 40 minute collective improvisation Ascension. Ascension had to be split over two sides of a vinyl record contain-ing all the wild uncentered movement of Coltrane’s spiritual yearning. It was a record which finally made true one critics’ description of Coltrane’s earlier playing as ‘sheets of sound’.
These experiments with tonality and rhythm were evident at the beginning of the sixties already in the works of Charlie Mingus, Sun Ra, pianist Cecil Taylor and Charlie Mingus’ sideman Eric Dolphy. Other musicians like saxophonist Albert Ayler and Coltrane-collaborator Archie Shepp continued this uncontainable sound into the saccharine seventies, and Chicago musicians such as the members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago kept the tradition going into the eighties. The music, however, was given a name and an icon in 1960 already, when Ornette Coleman released his Free Jazz – A Collective Improvisation.
The breakthrough that Coltrane and Miles Davis had initiated was the more complex use of tonality, the way a song’s chord progressions will harmonically restrict which notes are available to a musician to play. They used more and more distantly related scales, stretching the bounds of western tonality and coming close to, even moving beyond what the European classical music tradition had achieved at the beginning of the 21st century. Free jazz then broke away from tonality absolutely, allowing players to play unrelated notes in a way that makes little harmonic sense to the western ear. This music doesn’t have a harmonic anchor, a tonal centre of gravity, nor even a rhythmic bedrock. Instead the music is about texture – ‘sound surfaces’ – not harmony. As Sun Ra said, “[t]here are about a thousand ways to play a single note”.
Material want is bad enough, but coupled with spiritual poverty it kills. And this latter effect is probably the one that creates mountains of obstacles in the normal course of emancipation of the black people.
(Steve Biko, I Write What I Like, 1978)
Black consciousness wasn’t the only form of consciousness circulating in the New Music, though all these forms of consciousness were closely tied together. Spiritual consciousness was another aspect. Listen to Coltrane: his music and his album covers reveal a life more and more haunted as he blazed forward. He has a solemn intensity, a gaze not of this world. Listen to the music of Sun Ra who told tales of alien abduction and Saturnian descent, mixed nationalist politics with future-primitive stage costume, and created a sonic collage of free collective improvisation and cooky sci-funk textures. His was a science fiction doctrine of faith that turned its eyes away from the cold, urban rationality of ghetto Chicago.
Riding in a freight train,
listening to Coltrane in the freezing rain
my reality went insane
and I thought I saw Jesus…
(Saul Williams, Twice the First Time, 2001)
Jazz is a music which has its roots in a life of insecurity, in which a single moment of self-realisation, of love, light and movement, is extraordinarily more important than a whole lifetime. From a situation in which violence is endemic, where a man escapes a police bullet only to be cut down by a knife-happy African thug, has come an ebullient sound more intuitive than any outside the US of what jazz is supposed to celebrate – the moment of love, lust, bravery, incense, fruition, and all those vivid dancing good times of the body when the now is maybe all there is.
(Lewis Nkosi, Jazz in Exile, 1966)
Where to begin? Perhaps with the New Thing, the sound born of the harmonic contortions and collective pyrotechnics of sixties innovators Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Ascension-era Coltrane; but as intepreted by the South Africans. More particularly, Chris McGregor. Who knows how it started? Perhaps when McGregor met Albert Ayler in London? Perhaps the New Thing was always innate in McGregor’s musical imagination?
After the Blue Notes, Chris McGregor formed the Brotherhood of Breath, an extended line up including many of the musicians who had played with the Blue Notes originally. Their music was an inspiration to an emerging ‘out’ scene in Europe. Their records, as well as those of members like Louis Moholo and Johnny Dyani have been released by European labels like Cuneiform and Ogun, labels who specialise in the bleeding edge of new jazz music.
Just last year Cuneiform released a Brotherhood of Breath live recording made in 1973 in Bremen, Germany. The recording, much like Abdullah Ibrahim’s 1973 album African Space Programme, is a stunning document of how free jazz could be melded with folk African cyclic structure. From rolling motherland melodies the band lets go in a paroxysm of collective improvisation, leaving behind all ideas of tonal structure, rhythmic order, timbral well-behavedness, as if exorcising these human created fetters.
But neither the moans of guttural animals nor the squawks of brass agonies are appropriate metaphors for what the players do on this recording. Rather say that the horn lines sound like the streaks of light one sees on closing one’s eyes while driving down neon-lit highways. Rather say that the sudden coalescing of harmony out of the chaos sounds like the cascades of sparks, red flushes one perhaps sees behind closed eyes after witnessing the mushrooming of an atomic cloud.
Freedom is not a positive strategy, it’s an absence. The Brotherhood of Breath never played ‘free’ or ‘out’. They just played. Each musician played as if an exuberant scribbling kid, or as if an artist throwing paint at a canvas seemingly without care about form.
Consider the original action painter Jackson Pollock, who scandalised the art world by throwing paint at his canvas in what some thought was a random fashion. In 1956 Time magazine called him the “bearded shock trooper of modern painting, who spread his canvases on the floor, dribbled paint, sand and broken glass on them, smeared and scratched them, named them with numbers”. Pollock threw out the subject and concentrated on process, creating an opus that vividly documents life in the Atomic Age. Pollock himself noted that “the modern painter cannot express his age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture. Each age finds its own technique.”
Basil Breakey once explained the aesthetic of that age to me. Breakey, whose book Beyond the Blues is the definitive portrait of the tragic demise of the sixties South African jazz scene, currently lives off the goodwill of a backpacker’s lodge in Kalk Bay. What happened to him in the intervening years?
Breakey was born in Port Elizabeth but moved to Johannesburg where he met up with the musicians on the jazz scene. In Johannesburg Breakey was reading Kerouac as well as Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn and Tropic of Cancer, banned at the time in South Africa. Another major influence at the time was William Burroughs, whose shuffle technique maybe captures best the disintegration that haunts Breakey’s later photographs of the jazz scene.
Breakey’s literary influences may explain why he was drawn to the music that Chris McGregor and Dudu Pukwana were making at the Dorkay House community centre. It was an avant-garde music, far ahead of its time. “Well it was like underground music”, Breakey explains, “first of all the music was ahead of its time, and it was like a disintegration and breaking up of things, like cubism. It was like cubism in a musical form. It was a protest.” The photographer mentions Ornette Coleman as well as Jackson Pollock as inspirations. Pollock’s White Light was used as the cover for Coleman’s groundbreaking 1960 album Free Jazz, and Breakey is specific about his attraction to the artist. “Those pictures were painted after they dropped the Bomb on Hiroshima. It’s like an explosion”.
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo
in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural
darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz
(Allan Ginsberg, Howl, 1956)
A new reason to end Reason: like Ornette Coleman’s systematic unstructuredness. A system he named Harmolodics, it was a thing without a tonal centre, a way of understanding the world without seeking out a structural centre. This is the revolution in European classical music that Stravinsky and Schoenberg brought at the beginning of the twentieth century, forsaking the structuring process to remake music in a way that made sense of a new world. Its recurrence in the jazz of the sixties and seventies foregrounded a postmodernist aesthetic that forsook the centre – no, it recognised that the centre was always false. It embraced the hybrid multiple truths which we make and remake in silent protest against the stony Reason of Empire, of the Atomic Age, of Global Capital.
Black culture, jazz in its broadest form, never mind that it is not something which exists innate in a people, is – and it is anti-modernist, both in its pre-modern imagery and in its post-modern technology. Black science, as the hip-hop/drum ‘n bass generation have named it; making sense of the world without the linearity of culture bound by Enlightenment doctrine.
…breakbeat science, as I see it, is when Grandmaster Flash and DJ Kool Herc and all those guys isolate the breakbeat, when they literally go to the moment of a record where the melody and the harmony drops away and where the beats and the drum and the bass moves forward. By isolating this, they did something comparable to switching on a kind of electricity, by making the beat portable, by extracting the beat. … They more or less grabbed a kind of potential beat which was always there, by severing it from the funk engine, by materializing it as actually a portion of vinyl that could be repeated.
(Kodwo Eshun, Abducted by Audio)
One can talk about jazz as having a modern aesthetic, if one could talk about modernity as a ‘purely aesthetic’ feature. Jazz critic Francis Davis has written about the sense of modernism in the disjointed chord progressions of bebop, the sense of future that is missing from the rehashing of contemporary neoclassical bop. This futurism is instead exactly what was heard in the jungle and Detroit techno which burst out during the nineties. It is the otherworldliness, the gentle alien-ation of the music of contemporary producers like LTJ Bukem and Carl Craig.
They drew cars too. If someone had made them a present of a magazine, or if they’d pooled their allowances and saved their pennies, they took the publication home and traced the automobile designs on paper, adding their own interpretations and trying to make their vehicles as modernistic and sleek-looking as possible.
-(JC Thomas on John Coltrane’s childhood, Chasin’ the Trane, 1975)
But there is also modernity in a theoretical sense, the modernity that has come under continued attack by the post-World War II intellectual left. This is the modernity of post-Enlightenment Europe with its Truth and Science and Commerce and High Culture and the inscrutable divides between each. The modernity that Europeans brought to the natives, to teach them to talk properly, sing properly, worship properly. This is the modernity that imposes one Truth where there are many, that sanitises truth with its Science, the same Science that sanitised with Scientific Racism, with Social Darwinism, and eventually with Hiroshima.
Jazz, like black culture generally, is anti-modern. In some senses it attempts pre-modernism: look at the primitivist iconography of groups like Art Ensemble of Chicago, the Motherland yearnings of the black nationalist jazz musicians. In other senses it is post-modern. Listen only to any of the musicians so far mentioned. Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, even Miles Davis on Bitches Brew. Their music was about letting go of the stability of pre-imposed structures, whether tonal, rhythmical, philosophical. The centre cannot hold.
The result is the perfect expression of what cultural theorist Paul Gilroy has articulated in his book The Black Atlantic: the idea that blackness on both sides of the Atlantic has been a counter-culture of modernity. Gilroy explains how blacks in the west “had to fight – often through their spirituality – to hold on to the unity of ethics and politics sundered from each other by modernity’s insistence that the true, the good, and the beautiful had distinct origins and belonged to different domains of knowledge.” An organic anti-modern intellectualism, expressed through the discourse of black culture. “The history and utility of black music,” continues Gilroy, “…enables us to trace something of the means through which the unity of ethics and politics has been reproduced as a form of folk knowledge.”
And what of the black nationalism and the naive pan-Africanism that marked much of the American avant-garde? Paul Gilroy points out that the history of black political ideas has been shaped by European ideologies in its focus on rootedness. This explains much of the home-land mythologising of black separatism. Instead perhaps blackness should be made sense of by understanding routes of black migration and hybridisation; the “successive displacements, migrations, and journeys (forced and otherwise) which have come to constitute these black cultures’ special conditions of of existence”. Routes, not roots. It is this sense of homelessness which, though often disguised by Motherland yearning, is a foundational aesthetic of black cultural expression.
It is time to end, and yet I haven’t yet begun. If the stories continue to knot around each other with their assonances and their silences, then here at least is one meaningful tangle – an intersection of the routes of the South African exiles, and the routes of the avant-garde jazz pioneers, and the routes of the anti-modern hipsters, and the pan-Atlantic routes of black migration. Those routes converge in their wild search for a home, a single truth, a tonal centre which is no longer there, a place from which to begin. They converge, momentarily, in an exile of the heart.
Out of respect, let me then end where I began (or, where I first attempted to begin). Not with the noisy exuberance of black classical music, but with silence.
I would like to acknowledge the staff of the District Six Museum for their commitment to preserving the stories of Cape Town. Without their willingness to share these stories, silence would have pervaded this essay much more thoroughly.
Movements based on John Coltrane, A Love Supreme.
This essay is also available in print in Chimurenga 11: Conversations with Poets Who Refuse to Speak (2007).