About Advertise
Culture, Music
Louis Armstrong

The Death of Jazz

by Sihle Mthembu / 24.11.2010

I am sad to report that Jazz is dying. The music that once shook the clubs and pubs of Sophiatown and Mkhumbane. The vibrations that pulsated in anyone willing to listen have been relegated to the fringes of history. With the exception of a few down town cafes and the pilgrimage of diehard fans to festivals barely mentioned on the arts pages of newspapers. Saul Williams puts it best in his spoken word piece Telegram: “Hip Hop is lying on the side of the road half dead to itself / Blood scrawled over its mangled flesh / like jazz stuffed into an oversized record bag.”

Jazz is dying. I remember watching the Oscar nominated documentary – A great day in Harlem. It got me thinking that Jazz, unlike most contemporary pop music, is perhaps the only purely original musical form. It doesn’t sample and more often than not most of the great tracks from legendary musicians like Hugh Masekela and Miles Davies were creative accidents. Unlike the modern day wonders like LITTLE Wayne. (Yes I don’t call him lil, it’s LITTLE Wayne). I remember my first Jazz orgasm. It was in 1999 and I was visiting my grandmother for the first time in Jozi.

As a young boy struck by the enormous size of this city, coupled with the unpleasant business of walking through Park Station, I thought I was in for a gatvol time. I remember arriving at the house the first night and looking past the big screen TV at the stack of records my grandfather had. Thinking to myself he could open up a record store and make a fortune. Bear in mind that 1999 was the magical millennial year of big boom box blasters and All Star Chuck Taylors – but this old timer still had a record player. Not some sleekly designed Technics HI-FI either. I’m talking the original record player complete with a large side horn that could rival any Kudu in the Kalahari.

Miles Davis

Events that night include being lectured to about the importance of Abdullah Ibrahim and listening to Louis Armstrong’s Potato Head Blues over and over again. It seemed awful at the time! But I guess that’s how jazz jelly rolls – it grows in you like a cancer. It has an aura only good music has. It creates its own rules. Its own world within the world. Jazz is a front for the “classy” like opera these days but it remains free of the mindless materialism currently eating through hip hop. Jazz generates feeling.

A feeling most likely to be experienced on YouTube. Live performances in Switzerland and Gibralta uploaded by purists like me – holding on to the past. Even dinosaur music stores help murder the interest in classic tunes. Jazz is kept right at the back and limited to one or two rows. Looking for Duke Ellington’s Jungle Night in Harlem? Nope, not here! We got the latest 50cent though! Really? As if hearing a muscle man brag about cars is going to add salt to my soup. Women are keeping jazz alive. Esparanza Spalding springs to mind. With a verdant generous voice and a whizz on big base instruments she is one of the last of a dying breed. I remember watching her perform at the White House. Elegant and understated. Supreme and sublime. It was bittersweet. Esperanza had made it to the center of global power at a time when the music she lives for is fading from cultural relevance. We need to help rescue a musical form that will otherwise die out. In return we get to enrich our lives.

*You can start by reading this and this and this.

Ella Fitzgerald

Louis Armstrong

Boldens Band

Boldens Band circa 1890

8   1
RESPONSES (28)
  1. dudie says:

    Great piece!
    Well, I was in Harlem twice this year, and i can tell you that jazz is thriving big time.There are dozens of jazz pubs/clubs – hundreds of musicians that play for up to 10 bands – it’s happening. In San Francisco I saw many young jazz musicians playing around the Mission district. Sure, jazz, especially in Joburg is over and done, but its the jazz musos’ fault – seems like they all go for that really bad in taste afro-jazz; the thing that reminds you more of badly fashioned r&b rather than art. I havent seen one double-bass, keys, drums trio in Joburg yet – always some chick or cheese-boy who wants to make it up to SABC, singing flat and ‘loving his/her fans.’ its corporate central, no matter what race you are… what do you expect? very sad indeed.

    Thumb up0   Thumb down 0

  2. brandon edmonds says:

    Be great for you to write something more for us @dudie!

    Thumb up0   Thumb down 0

  3. bloggs boy says:

    the SABC is a terrible collection of non musical plethora and idiotic “dee jays” all in their fake american accents.>>is this a result of BEE or some buddy buddy system!!!need i say more…….!who the fuck are these people?, this industry used to be about people with knowledge and taste, now its cluttered by wannabees and idiots whom cant even spell jazz or music …this is not music by popular demand , its music by numbers, coprorate dickheads….heres to healthy pirate radio stations..come on man………

    Thumb up0   Thumb down 0

  4. Stephen says:

    Really loved this, thanks Sihle. It’s ‘media’ people like us that can help keep the beauty of jazz and all it’s astounding philosophical implications alive. We’ve just got to keep writing, talking and singing it’s praises whenever we can, to whoever we can. I wrote a thesis relating to new media and jazz technique (the first post on: monolution.com) that woke unsuspecting readers up to exactly how significant and relevant jazz actually is! It’s all we got, we got to keep jamming, just like our heroes did!

    Thumb up0   Thumb down 0

  5. WordWallah says:

    Hate to pick because it’s a great article, but… Miles Davies?

    Thumb up0   Thumb down 0

  6. WordWallah says:

    Oh, and incidentally using Miles Davis as an example there is pretty funny, considering how much he plagiarised and outright stole from other musicians…

    Thumb up0   Thumb down 0

  7. gonzo nowhere says:

    Gerat article. And a great tragedy. Living in Cape Town you can’t believe how loosely people use the word “jazz”. In the words of a muso friend of mine, “you can’t just play jazz, you have to make it.” .And every time you’re on stage you have to make it afresh.

    @WordWallah
    but surely not nearly as many as stole, borrowed and learnt from him? One man’s inspiration is another man’s stealing (or vice versa)

    Thumb up0   Thumb down 0

  8. Gem says:

    Appreciate the piece & quoting my a dope track too! Again, it’s up to us, the people with strong opinions to put visions to concrete in these aspects (music, film). Too bad the media craves for another Nicki Mi-whatshertit & not genuine art. SMH

    Thumb up0   Thumb down 0

  9. Gem says:

    “a dope track too” (typo there.)

    Thumb up0   Thumb down 0

  10. Benoit (Benush for Andy La Menace) says:

    Dear Sihle.
    Do not despair,I ‘ m afraid you’re just suffering from good old RSA syndrom.
    Isolation, both cultural and emotional as it goes hand in hand.
    But there is no point pointing fingers and luckily this is fully curable these days.
    The world jazz scene (forget you tube) is very much alive even if its creative genius may never be as prolific as it once was.Who knows.
    The fact is that if you really love jazz and wants to hear it live and at its best you will have to travel.
    Maybe this is an opportunity to spread your wings and go see the world.
    Otherwise just get some records and open your hears, soul will follow.

    Ps. That said they are musicians around here who plays with their heart and are very much talented, maybe you could find out about them and let us know on Mahala.
    That would be great!

    Thumb up0   Thumb down 0

  11. boon says:

    Hmmm… this reporter seems to not know where the Jazz IS happening…

    Thumb up0   Thumb down 0

  12. the present says:

    @ boon – hey, why be secretive and mysterious – where IS it happening these days? Name the top 5 venues, I’m sure they’d all love to cram in a few more people thanks to the Mahala comments thread!

    Thumb up0   Thumb down 0

  13. fineyoungcannibal says:

    Simple: Jazz is in no way dead.
    No offense (it is great that people appreciate some of the more widely known jazz stars/groups), but after delving deeper into the incredibly vibrant and musically ‘rich’ world that is the jazz world, you will find that jazz is in no way dead. Instead, it is as alive and exciting as ever before (perhaps even more so than the period between the 20s and 70s – wherein many of the greats recorded), and jazz as a musical style is constantly evolving and being developed (the ‘envelope being pushed’), far from the foundation laid and innovations made by the early great improvisers, arrangers and composers of jazz in it’s ‘golden’ period.
    See: Joshua Redman, Vijay Iyer, Aaron Goldberg, Brad Mehldau etc etc

    HOWEVER, yes, the truth is that today jazz does not celebrate the same commercial popularity that it did in the 30s and 40s – the golden Swing era (the era of the big band, charismatic soloists and band leaders, and jazz in the dance-halls). But, I mean, Bebop in the

    Thumb up0   Thumb down 0

  14. fineyoungcannibal says:

    40s, and even the early years of the ‘cool’ jazz stream, was considered to be underground and was, in fact, very controversial – I mean, you weren’t hearing the newest, ‘hippest’ stuff on the radio, you were hearing (and watching it) in late night clubs – much like today.
    Nonetheless, jazz will never truly die – the music industry of today is so fucked anyway, no matter what (good) stuff you listen to, you’re not going to find it on the radio, on the charts, or on TV.

    Thumb up0   Thumb down 0

  15. the present says:

    BTW i think photo credits would have been in order for these stunning photos.

    Thumb up0   Thumb down 0

  16. Andy says:

    pics were taken from the time life archive…

    Thumb up0   Thumb down 0

  17. Anonymous says:

    the piece represents a sad reality but honestly lacks insight. Sure it is written from your perspective Sihle and I can’t hate on that. My only concern is you seem to be of the notion that Jazz is American. Sure you mention Masekela and Ibrahim but it’s not with much weight and respect as you mention american musicians. I mean the posted pics say it all. Your piece also fails to acknowledge young musicians here at home who have (despite the commercial scene) taken jazz back to it’s pure form and still make it relevant to the new listener – musicians like the late Taiwa Molelekwa, Capetonian pianist Kyle Shepherd, Melanie Scholtz also from CT, Jozi based singer and (need I mention FEMALE) trombonist Siya Makhuzeni.

    Bloggs Boy makes a relevant point about the industry and how it’s killing real music.

    Just my thoughts. Keep writing.

    Thumb up0   Thumb down 0

  18. Atiyyah says:

    Jazz is not dead. If you look hard enough, you will find that it has a strong, steady heartbeat. The problem in S.A is venues, not the lack of music and musicians. What is a problem however, is that a classic in the tradition of South African jazz, ‘Ntyilo Ntyilo’ reinterpreted by artists like Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masakela, Abdullah Ibrahim and Johnny Dyani, all spectacularly, cannot be found on something like Youtube. Another problem is that we are losing our legends without any documentation. Robbie Jansen, Ezra Ngcukana and Hotep Galeta all passed on, just only in the last few months. It is up to us to keep it alive.

    Thumb up0   Thumb down 0

  19. MatumzaOnline says:

    Forgot to include name in my comment. It’s above this one.

    Thumb up0   Thumb down 0

  20. MatumzaOnline says:

    the piece represents a sad reality but honestly lacks insight. Sure it is written from your perspective Sihle and I can’t hate on that. My only concern is you seem to be of the notion that Jazz is American. Sure you mention Masekela and Ibrahim but it’s not with much weight and respect as you mention american musicians. I mean the posted pics say it all. Your piece also fails to acknowledge young musicians here at home who have (despite the commercial scene) taken jazz back to it’s pure form and still make it relevant to the new listener – musicians like the late Taiwa Molelekwa, Capetonian pianist Kyle Shepherd, Melanie Scholtz also from CT, Jozi based singer and (need I mention FEMALE) trombonist Siya Makhuzeni.

    Bloggs Boy makes a relevant point about the industry and how it’s killing real music.

    Just my thoughts. Keep writing.

    Thumb up0   Thumb down 0

  21. SouthernSkeptic says:

    Go take a listen to SA’s very own Melanie Scholtz. This lady sure ain’t dead at all.

    Thumb up0   Thumb down 0

  22. Based God says:

    @Atiyyah

    “Another problem is that we are losing our legends without any documentation.”

    This is something that really really worries me!

    Get well Basil Moses!!!!!!

    Thumb up0   Thumb down 0

  23. Andrew says:

    One of the problems in JHb at least is the odd liquor law. To sell liquor and have musos playing you need an entertainment licence. But the law seems to make little distiction between a pumping club with DJs and a small intimate venue so there are not many small intimate venues as the neighbours object on the grounds that the license will be abused

    Thumb up0   Thumb down 0

  24. Mike Miller (USA) says:

    I was fortunate enough to both hear and meet the fabulous clarinetist Anat Cohen in Providence a couple of weeks ago. She’s unbelievably original in her sounds and also can handle a lot of the stuff originated by Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw.
    My greatest kick came when I went up to speak to her at the concert and she told me that she had played in a Jazz concert in Johannesburg during August, 2010. She said she loved the SA jazz musicians she had come intro contact with and was fascinated by the SA accent.
    She hails from a jazz family with brothers Avishai Cohen doing bass and (I think) Yuval on piano.
    What a blessing to have such a talented jazz musician who actually hails from Israel.
    I remember many great SA jazz musicians such as George Hayden, Art Heatley, Boet Pretorius, Rubber Forsyth, Gene Latimore and Bob Hill – most of whom I was fortunate to play with. I think jazz is very much alive and well.

    Thumb up0   Thumb down 0

  25. dudie says:

    is this the same mike miller?!
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_Miller_(guitarist)
    If yes, then I salute you, Mike!

    Thumb up0   Thumb down 0

  26. Mike Miller (USA) says:

    I am a pianist, not guitarist and played a lot in SA in the 50’s through the 80’s.
    I was also president of the Johannesburg Jazz Club for about 5 years. The club used to present live jazz in Jhb. on Sunday nights. Such luminaries as Dave Brubeck, Horst Jankowski, Stephane Grapelli and Lionel Pillay played at the club. I think the club was the first such club in SA.

    Thumb up0   Thumb down 0

  27. Mike Miller (USA) says:

    If you’re interested in my music, please go to mikemillerswingtet.com

    Thumb up0   Thumb down 0

  28. A Lady Porcupine says:

    Jazz is alive and growing in popularity.
    Jazz musicians are not pretentious and usually have classic training, but they are innovative, and once they’ve acquired the taste for jazz they will never let it go.
    Long live jazz!

    Thumb up0   Thumb down 0

LEAVE A REPLY

Loading...