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Where The Jazz Cats Graze

by Max Barashenkov / Images by Jonx Pillemer / 01.02.2012

He could watch Kesivan Naidoo play the drums for hours. He would get stoned and surrender to the careless but precise flicks, the blistering snare rolls, the myriad of movements that somehow conjured a unified sound. He did not understand this music, his closest references being Weather Report and Miles Davis. The atmosphere itself was alien – the audience still, no smoke hanging in the air, no tussles at the bar – yet, as he sat in the small room in Buitenkant street, he was strangely unbothered, unconcerned with fears of being out of place. He simply watched, somewhat enthralled, somewhat aroused. Later, when he would talk with Lee Thompson and Kesivan, the two of the three owners of The Mahogany Room, he will be told that what he did wasn’t ‘watching’, it was ‘listening’.

“What’s the difference between the Mahogany Room and Swingers?” he says, attempting to mask his lack of knowledge with a name of club he had overheard from much wiser lips.

Lee: Swingers has a once a week they jam session, which is what put them on the map. The rest of the time they aren’t really a jazz club. It’s more of a dance place where they play smooth jazz.

Kesivan: The Mahogany Room is modeled on New York clubs like the Village Vanguard. It’s based on that idea.

Jazz Club - Mahogany Room Stage

“And what is that idea?” he asks, sensing that these two want to talk more than he wants to ask questions.

Kesivan: Well, jazz has been performed in these small places since the early 50s, only later did it get into larger venues and concert halls. Small clubs is where the creative stuff really happened. You’ll find in New York, the biggest jazz club will be around 120 seats. These small venues are fundamentally about music, the audience feeling as part of the band.

Lee: It’s not a bar with music, it’s a music venue with a bar. Everything we’ve done in this place is with music in mind. From the rubber countertop to the fact that we don’t have certain equipment here that makes noise. The whole aim was to create a space that is quiet and performance orientated. We want to be quite clear about that. We get up on stage every night and inform the audience what this venue is, that this is not a background jazz gig, so they must please keep quiet, turn their cell phones off. There is nothing like this in South Africa at the moment. We have this massive pool of talent in Cape Town – a lot of local jazz musicians travel the world and are well respected overseas but at home, they had nowhere to play.

Kesivan: Like, the Green Dolphin was a restaurant that had jazz. In our place, the artist comes first, while at the Dolphin that wasn’t the case. You had to adhere to certain types of jazz you could play, volume levels and so on. The whole point of the Mahogany Room is to create a culture of listening music. It’s not a new thing in the rest of the world, but in South Africa a lot of jazz, at places like the Galaxy, has been advertized as music that you dance to. This goes back to real jazz clubs being small – there was this local notion of jazz clubs being these big spaces, purely because the music they were presenting was under the guise of ‘dance’ music. Around the world, people know the difference between real jazz and smooth jazz, whereas in South Africa the general public still don’t understand it.

Lee: It’s jazz, but it’s not jazz.

Kesivan: People dance to music and there is nothing wrong with that. But post 1940s, jazz became a listening art form, a culture where people that want to listen to music can enjoy that experience. Artists want that too because most of the time they, especially acoustic jazz musicians, are reduced to background sounds.
“It’s early days still, the Mahogany Room has been open for less than two months, but how has the response been so far?” he wants to smoke, but dares not in front of the two jazz mammoths.

Lee: The venue is full every night. Getting people in here is not a problem. We’re still feeling out our business model. It’s been working really well with just one artist a week, because a lot of people come more than once. That’s the nature of jazz – you can watch the same band four nights in a row and get a completely different experience.

Kesivan: The New York model works like this – you pay per show rather than the whole night. You can come and drink and hang out the entire evening, but for the period of the show, due to the small capacity, the people that paid can go watch it. We do two shows a night. That way more people get to see the band play and the artists get paid better.

Jazz Club - Piano Fingers

“Is there money in jazz?” he wonders, looking at the modestly dressed duo.

Kesivan: Not really. A little,once you get into it and commit. It’s sustainable, but you’re not going to become rich. Sure, there have been artists who’ve made fortunes by playing so-called jazz, but at the end of the day, for me, they are actually playing R ‘n B. We’ve thought about dedicating ourselves to money, but then we realized that’s where the devil lives. If a businessman were to take a look at our business model, he’ll probably tell us that we’re nuts.

Lee: We’ve made a living playing jazz for the last ten years. I haven’t made any money playing punk rock with Hog Hoggidy Hog.Man, we’ve missioned for jazz music. Day in and day out. And every now and again we’d look at each other and say – why are we doing this? Why are we touring, why are we hardly making any money? And it’s because we’ve given ourselves to this.

Kesivan: As cliché as it sounds, when we were kids, we found something beautiful in this music and we want to bring it to the rest of the world.

Jazz Club - All about the Instruments

“So you’re the jazz crusaders then?” he snorts.

Kesivan: Well, we don’t really have education about jazz culture in this country. There are some programs on Fine Music Radio and guys like Evan Milton who promote this music. But I find most of the audience develops from people coming to this music on their own. It’s music that’s best experienced live, so someone telling you or playing you a record won’t convert you. In the Mahogany Room, we are trying to achieve is a sense of authenticity. That’s why we have the acoustic piano. Some people might say that they don’t like jazz music, but that is probably because they have never listened to it in an authentic setting.

Lee: There is another thing. People think that in order to enjoy jazz you need to be this educated person. Which is bullshit. A person that has no pre-conceptions or understanding of what they are hearing, their reaction is pure, it’s what they are feeling rather than what they know. For some people, it’s almost daunting to come into a jazz club, a “do I know my shit enough” kind of mental block. The less you know about jazz, the better it is.

Kesivan: Obviously the music is challenging, that’s why people and musicians like it, but at the end of the day it’s about being able to express oneself. We would love for people who don’t know ‘shit’ to come in and hear what we hear and form their own opinions.

Jazz Club - The Venue

Jazz Club - On The Drums

*All images © Jonx Pillemer.

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