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The Horn Man Who Died In His Sleep

by Greg Davids / 18.08.2010

A Tribute to Ezra Ngcukana.

My first exposure to live jazz was at about 12 years old with the Henry February band who at the time boasted a frontline of Ezra Ngcukana on alto,tenor & soprano, brother Duke Ngcukana on trumpet, Winston Mankunku on tenor and later Willy Haubrich on trombone. In the rhythm section was the man, Mr Feb on piano, Kenny Jephta on guitar, my Dad, Robert Davids was on percussion, Max Diamond on drums and Basil Moses on the electric bass.

A few years later my forays into the world of the professional musician came courtesy of Ezra Ngcukana. I was his self appointed, or might it have been, self inflicted roadie, this at the naive age of 19 years old. Man did I get into trouble, but wow, did I learn a lot!

Everything I got to know about the great horn men of the period, bebop and its musical language, was through people like Ezra and drummer Max Dyamani, aka Max Diamond. I also got the taste of the life of the jazz muso, the women, the booze, the hard edged lifestyle.

The three of us travelled to and from gigs in Gugs, Manenberg, Lansdowne and Mitchells Plain in my little Mini which often threatened to topple over because of how much it listed to one side due to Ezra’s disproportionate weight! As I drove they navigated me through the harmonic language, stylistic nuances and phrasing of the masters, Parker, Gillespie, Powell, Monk, Miles, Roach, Philly Joe Jones et al. Just as well that they navigated musical language rather than directions to the clubs because Ezra never drove and Max always got us lost, even when it was directing you to his pad in Gugs!

I loved when Ezra would sing the heads and horn solos of tunes for me like “Straight, No Chaser”, “Four and More”, “Donna Lee” in his soprano voice (hip, if not odd for such a big guy), or Max would explain one drummer’s cymbal technique from the other as we drove mindful of the dangers of being arrested for either driving over the limit or worse, breaking the curfew in the townships. Both had an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz, even as they were finding their own voices in the SA jazz scene. By the late 70‘s they were already contributing to the African continuum of the form with original interpretations of jazz saxophone.

Ezra Ngcukana

Tyrone Appollis and Ezra Ngcukana

We lived dangerously during that tumultuous period of the early eighties and were charged by the political climate, the talk of a revolution and by reading Trotsky, all the while we were feeding our souls on ‘trane and Miles and Monk. I learned all the jazz standards through these journeyed lessons and would only hear the original recorded versions much later, but by this time, I would have an in-depth understanding of the jazz vocabulary and the exponents that pioneered the bebop movement. This invaluable experience and first hand tutorship gave me my great love for bebop which, in reflection was directly attributable in those early years to Ezra Ngcukana and Max Diamond.

I worked many times with Ezra through the years and his genius was something he always took for granted. He would musically land on his feet with little effort, regardless of the situation. His laid back style and easy nature underplayed the serious woodshedding that was really going on.

Ezra was like our Sugar Ray Leonard of the Tenor, he played hard, punched hard and always nailed the song. He could flippantly toss off complex phrases at break neck tempo’s with perfect intonation… even when being so intoxicated he could not even stand! He was a mathematical genius as well and this made him the perfect improvisor, his knowledge of harmonic motion was far superior to any of his peers at the time.

When Ezra gave that mischievous smile before he soloed, you could swear that this gentle giant was not the same monster about to unleash those fearsome bebop chops.

That’s how I choose to remember him and not the sad state of the horn man who died in his sleep.

*A memorial for Ezra is being held at the Gugulethu Sports Stadium this Saturday 21 August, at 10h00am.

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