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Steeped in Jazz

by Andy Davis / 02.09.2009

Hugh Masekela is in the shower. I’m sitting in his living room waiting for him to finish his morning routine. I arrived at the designated time for our interview, but the old man was still sleeping. “Heavy night last night. Big party,” his wife tells me as she hands me a coffee and instructs me to sit in the living room and wait. I hear Hugh coughing and gargling, brushing his teeth. Finally, the man arrives, looking groggy but clean. Smelling fresh. He sits next to me on the couch with a bowl of sliced banana and papaya and his cup of black coffee.

‘I miss exile.’ He says. ‘I didn’t work a tenth as much as I have to here.’ He laughs. ‘And mostly it’s community work, gratis work.’ He nods. ‘Mmm hmmm.’
‘But I owe so… ‘ he sings. ‘If I didn’t come from here, who would I be?’
He doesn’t leave a window for an answer.
‘Everything I am, my resource was this place. I sucked it dry. So I have to give something back.’
‘You have given more than your fair share back.’ I disagree.
‘Let’s begin.’ He says.
‘I’d like to do this…’ I begin.
‘I don’t care just put the thing on. I don’t like to rehearse interviews.’
‘The first thing I’d like to do is ask what you think the most influential jazz albums are.’ I say.
‘Let’s not rehearse just ask.’
‘Well what are they?’
‘Are you recording already?’
‘OK. There are too many, Andy. Because I grew up in homes of prolific music collectors and my parents, my uncles, friends next door had records like by the Jazz Maniacs, local bands, by the Harlem Swingsters. And I don’t know what you categorise as jazz but there was the Manhattan Brothers, the African Exports, there was Dolly Rathebe, Thandi Claasen – this was all from the time when I was a kid to when I was a teenager. Then there was the Merrymakers of Springs and the greatest trumpeter to date, in my life, a man called Eljiah Mkonyana, he came out of Springs, he was in The Merrymakers, he also played the tenor saxophone but he played the most beautiful trumpet. I still try to play like him and I can’t. He died in 1961, he also had the most beautiful singing voice and was the funniest guy ever… And I played in The Merrymakers as a teenager, which was like the greatest opportunity that I imagined anybody could ever have in life. It always reminds me of what Louis Armstrong said about playing in the King Oliver Band, you know, that he looked up so much to King Oliver that he didn’t believe it when he was a teenager and got into the King Oliver Band. And there was another trumpet player who’s still alive, Banzi Bongani, he also played a mean trumpet in those days. And also a third guy who’s name was Hanyane, he was a left-handed trumpet player. And the three of them to date in this country are the best trumpet players, I don’t know where the hell they came from because there has never been anything like them ever since.”

Hugh Masekela

He pauses to eat some fruit and washes it down with the strong black coffee.

“And then of course there was Louis Armstrong, from overseas, he was the greatest influence I think from a personality point of view, him and Miles Davis, although they were opposites – but I think that if it wasn’t for Louis Armstrong – because for us when we were affected by albums it wasn’t just the music, it was the person and the personality and the way they talked and the way they dressed. But Louis Armstrong was the most… he was the all time homeboy, because he never finished a paragraph without mentioning his hometown of New Orleans. If you read any of the things that he said or anywhere that he talks, New Orleans always comes up. And he remained a kid. When I met him, he told me, ‘the worst thing that people do is try to grow up,’ and that growing up and wanting to grow up is the most disadvantageous focus that human beings have in their lives. Because as soon as you grow up you get fucked up. Even if the body doesn’t allow it anymore, you have to remember to play. And you have to laugh a minimum of 100 times a day, otherwise you ain’t living. And I think if it wasn’t for Louis Armstrong the world would still be square and we’d still be wearing powdered wigs. I think he hipped the world. And of course his music was outstanding. Then of course there was Duke Ellington and Count Basie, Cap Calloway, Jimmy Lansford, Lucky Millender, Tiny Bradshaw, Glen Miller, Tommy Darcy and his brother Jimmy. There was Ari Shaw one of the hippest guys who ever lived then there was Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton these were all people we saw in those sepia shots and some movies. And Chick Web, the little short hump-backed drummer who brought up Ella Fitzgerald. And then of course there was Ma Rhaini, Bessy Smith, Mahalia Jackson, Sarah Vaughn and there was Carmen McGrey, Billy Holliday, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra. There were the Modernairs, the Mills Bros. We sang all their songs. And then there was Louis Jordan, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of them. He was one of the hippest bands Louis Jordan and his Tin Penny 5. And there were all the different soloists Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Hodges, Lester Young. And then came be bop and there was Thelonius Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Budd Powell, Oscar Peterson and of course Miles Davis and Clifford Brown. This is just the shortlist of all the people who had major major influence on our lives in the 40s and 50s. And I think I was very fortunate to be able to meet all these people. All my life I think I was the luckiest kid. Right through my life I met all the people and played with them. If I didn’t play with them I played in festivals with them. And they became first name friends, all of them. And when I got to the States, I was lucky to have my career start very early in the States. As soon as I finished university I already had a band. And by 1968 I was headlining the Newport Jazz Festival with all those people, some of them had passed away of course. So I was not just influenced by the records, but actually the people. And I think from a radical militant standpoint Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong, socially, had the strongest influence on me. Of course Belafonte and Miriam Makeba too. Louis Armstrong in the 50s when they killed those kids in Alabama, used to do State Dept tours as a goodwill ambassador for the States and he said, ‘I ain’t doing any of this anymore until something happens’. And that’s when the civil rights orders were given and the schools were desegregated. And then Miles Davis just didn’t take shit from anybody. I was still here in 1954 and we were standing outside Birdland and he came up for a smoke and the cops asked him to move on, because niggers were not supposed to be lingering in the streets. And he said, but I’m playing downstairs. Cops said, we don’t give a shit, either go back down stairs or move on. And he said ‘fuck you!’ to the cops. And he was a helluva boxer and a karate guy and the cops tried to hit him with his baton and he beat the shit out of that cop and the other cops had to come and arrest him. This appeared on the front page of the Star in 1954 and I said Jesus, what a guy. This was when the defiance campaign was coming up. And I got to meet him and he was the most directly honest person that I ever met. Him and Fela Kuti. He was just like, when you’re full of shit they didn’t waste time, but it didn’t mean they hated you, they’d just say, ‘Andy you’re full of shit’. Stop that shit, you’re full of shit. That’s something admirable in a person, that they don’t get mad at you but they can tell you that’s bullshit.”

Read Part 2 here.

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