Jazz Epistles Brett Rubin

Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Jazz Epistles

The session is only dimly remembered now. It took place in January 1960, in the midst of the South African summer, at the Gallo recording studio in Johannesburg. The album that emerged, Jazz Epistle, Verse 1, was the first full-length by a Black South African jazz ensemble. With a print run of just five hundred copies, it became an instant rarity.

“It was very quick,” the pianist Abdullah Ibrahim recalls of the gathering. “We had, I think, two days. But we’d been rehearsing the music, playing the music, injecting our affirmation of our culture.”

Had they ever. For just about a year, the Jazz Epistles, a sextet that formed as a kind of supergroup of top Johannesburg and Cape Town players, had shaken up South African music. Theirs was a resolutely modern jazz, as fluent and edgy as anything made in New York at the time. Night after night they packed venues, skirting the edges of apartheid rules against performing for mixed-race audiences.

The group’s elder, at the ripe age of 34, was Kippie Moeketsi, an alto saxophonist with an encyclopedic grasp of Charlie Parker’s work as well as South African folk traditions. Ibrahim was a decade younger, but already a scholar of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. Trombonist Jonas Gwangwa was in his early twenties. Trumpeter Hugh Masekela was barely out of his teens, but had experience in jazz big bands and had even toured the country backing a singing group called the Manhattan Brothers.

They could tell they were on to something.

“Oh yeah, we knew,” Ibrahim says. “Because we’d all been working on it individually.”

A penniless Ibrahim, then still known as Dollar Brand, had walked from Cape Town to Johannesburg to study with Moeketsi. South Africa had a busy jazz scene that shaded into the dance-hall music of the working-class townships, which in turn was rooted in the traditional rhythms mine workers and other migrant laborers had brought from different parts of the country. Moeketsi imagined an exacting modern jazz, on par with American bebop innovations, but one that made space for some of these rhythms and reflected South Africa’s own cultural mix.

Moeketsi recruited Ibrahim for his vision, then Masekela and Gwangwa after the four met while playing in the orchestra for King Kong, a popular musical detailing the rise and fall of a boxer named Ezekiel Dlamini. (The show also featured Miriam Makeba.) To round out the Epistles, they recruited Johnny Gertze, a young bass player from Cape Town, and drummer Makaya Ntshoko – himself, as it happened, a former bantamweight prizefighter.

Playing their first gigs sometime in mid-1959, the Epistles quickly caught on. “We were a talented group, and we were big scholars of the music,” says Masekela. “We sold out venues wherever we went. We became huge, and we were about to tour the whole country.”

But history decided otherwise. In March 1960, the Sharpeville massacre of protesters precipitated a hardening of the already repressive regime. A ban on public gatherings shut down all but the government’s favored entertainers; the Epistles identified with the liberation movement. “We had to break up,” Masekela says. Within a couple of years, most had left the country for Europe or America to pursue individual careers.

Today Masekela and Ibrahim are among the grand elders of jazz – and its two most famous South African exponents. But given their differences in temperament and musical styles, the fact that the two men shared a start in a fierce bebop band akin to, say, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers (a clear inspiration for the Epistles, down to the name) is scarcely recognized. “Many people have never heard that we played together, because we went on and charted our own roads,” says Masekela. “It’s a surprise for people who know us separately.”

All this makes the revival of the Jazz Epistles a historic occasion. Two shows in Johannesburg last year, with Masekela, Ibrahim, and Gwangwa, were red-letter dates drawing South Africa’s political and cultural elite. Now Ibrahim brings Jazz Epistle, Verse 1 to New York City, with a concert at Town Hall on April 27. Gwangwa and Masekela will be absent (the latter recently suffered a dislocated shoulder, forcing him to bow out of the performance) but with South African trumpeter Lesedi Ntsane filling in, and Ibrahim’s longtime band Ekaya rounding out the group, it’s an event in its own right.

The Epistles’ album was eventually reissued but remains hard to track down, although seven of the eight tracks can be found, out of sequence, on a widely available but mislabeled compilation. They reveal a band of rare prowess, with bold themes (“Dollar’s Moods”), broad loping swing (“Blues for Hughie”), and general all-out cooking (“Scullery Department,” which Moeketsi pointedly named for the only part of white clubs where the musicians could eat). Ibrahim even has a solo piece titled “Gafsa.” Elegant and careful, it presages his later direction.

Despite the album’s scant distribution, it managed to reach important ears. Ibrahim recalls that when he moved to New York, he discovered that free-jazz luminaries Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, among others, were fans. “When I met Ornette and Don at [Coleman’s] Prince Street studio, they told me they had been listening to Jazz Epistles,” Ibrahim says. “And we found synergy. It was a natural development that happened between all of us.”

The story of the Epistles is, among other things, a testament to the sheer energy of jazz in the late 1950s, the way it sparked new thinking in the United States and South Africa alike. Though the young South Africans had not yet traveled, they were hip to every new development. Older musicians like Moeketsi stood in for the music schools where Black students weren’t welcome, and listening parties, known as “jams,” brought jazz heads together on weekends in the townships. “There was a fanatical following,” says South African jazz scholar Gwen Ansell. “There were lines around the block whenever a new consignment of American jazz arrived.”

But the political crackdown of the early Sixties scattered the scene and pushed its remnants underground. Modern jazz was regarded as suspicious because it was cosmopolitan and had formed an audience that crossed race and class lines. The regime was more comfortable allowing music that fit its notion of separate communities with their own “tribal” cultures.

Since the advent of democracy, in 1994, jazz has reimplanted in South Africa, with a major festival in Cape Town and a busy scene in Johannesburg in tune with current trends, such as experiments with hip-hop and electronica. Ibrahim and Masekela, though constantly traveling, have both made South Africa their home base. Sadly, Moeketsi would never know freedom; after an unsuccessful stint in Britain, he returned to South Africa, where he died in 1983, wracked by poverty and psychological distress. Bassist Gertze died the same year, also in South Africa.

But Moeketsi in particular lives on among South African jazz listeners and, most of all, his bandmates. Ibrahim places him in the same pantheon with Monk, Ellington, and his Japanese musical and spiritual teachers. Playing the music of the Jazz Epistles now, he says, is as much a point of connection as it is a pure experience in its own right.

“I find hope and guidance from the people who survived and played music against all odds,” Ibrahim says. “When you realize there’s no past and no future, there’s only this moment. The moment of truth that cannot be recaptured. And that is what we respect and revere when we are playing this music.”

— Siddhartha Mitter, for The Village Vioce