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Hamba Kakuhle Winston Mankunku

by Greg Davids / 14.10.2009

It is always a sad occasion when a jazz musician has passed on before his full story has been told, still I have nothing but good memories of this great musician and an even greater human being. I had the privilege of growing up around Winston in the late ’70’s, early ’80’s when my Dad and Winston were both members of the same band. The band was the Henry February Nonet which at the time featured in the frontline Mr. Winston Mankunku on tenor, Ezra Ngcukana on alto and older brother Duke on trumpet. Later Willy Haubrich held the trombone chair.

The rhythm section featured Mr. February on piano, Kenny Japhta on guitar, Max Diamond on drums, Basil Moses on bass and my dad, Robert Davids on percussion. I would accompany him to both rehearsals and the Saturday afternoon sessions at Samantha’s and later the 5 to 4 clubs. This was the beginning of my education in jazz but also a broader education in life skills under the tutelage of a phenomenally talented group of men and very decent individuals who all played a fatherly role toward a sometime precocious young lion.

Winston Mankunku, who along with Max Diamond and Ezra Ngcukana later informally enlisted my services as a roadie and driver to their various sessions across town. Needless to say, not always good lessons were derived from these late night jaunts especially with Messrs. Diamond and Ngcukana but I was experiencing the life of a jazz musician, an important insight to my later career.

Winston was an extremely dignified gentleman with an arresting humility, arresting because in spite of his sophisticated knowledge of the idiom and an advanced sense of harmony, which, at the time was the preserve of just a few jazz musicians, he never forced this greatness on his colleagues or anyone for that matter. He was very respectful of his audience and appreciative that he was admired. He chose to quietly and with great eloquence express his gift through his horn. His burnished tone was derivative of none, yet at the same time reflective of all the grand saxophone masters from whom he learnt and lent. His deep commitment to his art did not come without great struggle and the all too few recordings are hardly representative of his contribution to jazz whether here in SA or the international jazz community of which he was an elder states men in the company of Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, James Moody et al.

Yesterday I spent the afternoon in the company of another great saxophonist, Robbie Jansen. We reflected on Winston, his music and the meaning of a being a jazz legend. A title both of these people deserved more so than many others. Not every well known jazz musician is a jazz legend, what defines this special group of people is the originality of their voice and the consistency of their contribution to the form. As the afternoon rolled on into evening, our initial sorrow about Winston’s passing turned to into a deep and reflective conversation about music and musicians and albums yet to be recorded. Without planning, Winston’s death became a catalyst for us to celebrate this art form we so love and reinforce our respective roles in ensuring the jazz continuum.

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