Jazz has been around for more than 100 years, and over this time it has
influenced many other genres, from bebop to soul to hip hop, to name just a few. Its history means perceptions of jazz are associated with an older generation, and sometimes it looks stuck in a time capsule. Yet the jazz greats all started young.
Dizzy Gillespie recorded his first record at 22; Winston Mankunku Ngozi released Yakhal’ Inkomo at 28; and Miriam Makeba was 24 when she released her hit single Pata Pata. Jazz continues to thrive, with a new generation using
technology to experience and create music without boundaries or geographical limits. Many young artists are inspired by the genre, but don’t consider themselves purists, experimenting with a wide range of sounds to
create new interpretations and attract wider audiences.
SHABAKA HUTCHINGS, 32, SAXOPHONIST:
Shabaka Hutchings is a London-bases saxophonist and composer, who lived in Barbados for most of his childhood. He describes Barbados as having a lot of provisions for music, giving him a strong foundation. He has been playing music full-time since he finished his studies, but only after turning 30 did he start to feel he was getting closer to what he was trying to achieve. In 2010, Shabaka was awarded BBC Radio 3’s New Generation Artist award.
Hutchings has spent a great deal of time in South Africa, and recently released Shabaka and the Ancestors, a record that sees him collaborating with local jazz musicians, including Mandla Mlangeni.
Paying homage to the ancestors comes from having heard someone in South Africa describe the ancestors as ever-present and active in our lives. “We don’t
generally talk about the ancestors in England or in Europe and there are many reasons for that — one being the idea that it is linked to paganism. I feel more
connected here,” Hutchings says.
He sees the focus on young people and jazz as moving in phases. Hutchings emphasises that there have always been young people doing their thing, but
public perception has been determined by the media promoting safe and established musicians. It looks as if jazz is undergoing a youthful rejuvenation, but it’s always been a young scene, he says.
SHANE COOPER, 31, BASS GUITARIST:
Shane Cooper is known for fusion, working with jazz and electro music. When it comes to defining the jazz genre, he feels it is marketed as out of touch and disconnected from reality. It’s projected as highbrow, inaccessible and for older and wealthier people, which makes people shy away from going to jazz gigs. “If you look at the majority of jazz musicians in this country who have been creating original content, they are probably under the age of 40 or 30.
It is by no means a throw-back music,” says Cooper, who was awarded the 2013
Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year for Jazz. Cooper shies away from the term jazz, because he does not like to be defined as one type of artist. He wants people to listen and decide for themselves. As a musician who performs both in jazz and electro bands, his focus is on the love of different projects, where he gets to express himself in multiple ways.
“It’s important to me to keep inspired and keep stimulated, and I need
different things to do that. So part of that is studio work, and part of that sitting in a room producing behind a computer. I always refer to electronic music as the animation of the music world and jazz is like theatre. For me, I love being an
animator and being a thespian,” he says.
Cooper has just released an EP, Cards on Spokes, with tracks inspired by
the different states of transition that one can experience mentally, spiritually,
MANDLA MLANGENI, 30, TRUMPETER:
Mandla Mlangeni says jazz has always been for young people. “It is not stuck and has always been about challenging the status quo,” Mlangeni says. “Jazz does not exist in a vacuum. It is never in isolation.”
The 30-year-old fell in love with the trumpet almost by mistake. He wanted to
play the saxophone while studying music at Welcome Music School in Pimville,
Soweto, but only the trumpet was available. Within a year, Mlangeni had mastered his craft.
For him, jazz represents the voice of the dispossessed. It encompasses the struggle and is used as a voice of liberation. He draws on a range of influences, which include an uncle who is a sangoma, and his late father, an activist and human rights lawyer. Currently, Mlangeni is also influenced by the Fees Must Fall movement and South Africa’s politics. He is critical of the older generation’s respectability politics: he feels they do not embrace new, experimental sounds. “When we make our own advancements and find our voices, we are made to feel like we are making a noise or that our sound is too busy,” he says.
Mlangeni started the Amandla Freedom Ensemble because he and a few of the
band members were not getting booked, and saw the need to become creative about sustaining themselves. The band members relate well and feed off one another. Each member has a specific focus and Mlangeni admits he is not necessarily the first to play, the most knowledgeable, or or even the best artist.
PHUTI SEPURU, 27, PIANIST AND VOCALIST:
Phuti Sepuru picked up an ear for jazz at an early age from her dad, who at the age of 16 worked at a record store and built up an enviable record collection over the years. As a classically trained artist, with 12 years of experience, Sepuru sees herself as musician first, before being a jazz musician.
One can only define what jazz is after having experienced it for a few years, she insists. “Studying and recording music takes up money. If you do not make money, you can’t compensate (for) that,” she says, noting the importance of brand building. Sepuru recognises the industry is male dominated, but says this
does not define her. Neither does being the first black female academic in her music department at the University of Pretoria, as she was raised to believe she could do things without boundaries.
THANDI NTULI , 29, PIANIST:
“I did not necessarily study jazz because I thought it was good. I studied jazz because I had a classical background and I knew that jazz would help me compose,” says Thandi Ntuli, 29, who describes music as part of her DNA. She started playing when she was four years old.
When it comes to jazz, Ntuli feels the definition of the genre is determined by those who try to market it. However, when she sits down to compose music she does not necessarily do so with the intention of creating a jazz song. Rather, she draws on whatever is influencing her at the time. Ntuli steers clear of defining her work, and is not driven by her audiences’ expectations of what they want to hear from her.
The internet has changed the way people consume and perceive jazz, but has its disadvantages, with streaming making it harder for artists to get paid. However, Ntuli used the internet to raise funds via crowd sourcing for her debut album The Offering, which she released independently in 2014. This approach
allowed her to control and own her sound.
The Offering has received critical acclaim, as well as numerous awards and recognition, including a MetroFM award nomination for Best Urban Jazz in 2015. Ntuli’s next album will be released early in 2017 and will include themes around black love and relations. It is inspired by by Black Lives Matter and
conversations about moving towards a fairer society.
ZOE MOLELEKWA, 22, PIANIST:
Zoe Molelekwa grew up in jazz. He watched his late father, musician Moses Taiwa Molelekwa, perform in Johannesburg at Kippies and the old Baseline in Melville, but it did not dawn on him that this was something he wanted to pursue when he grew older. After his parents passed away, Molelekwa started composing on the piano, without formal training, and found music to be the best outlet for thoughts and feelings.
As a young person, Molelekwa acknowledges youth are obtaining more recognition for their music and other contributions to society. “We are getting more comfortable and confident in expressing ourselves as young people,” he says.
Moleleka is looking at recording an album in the future, but for now is writing and taking the time to learn and experience things. He is presently studying at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, but was at first was reluctant to explore a career in music. “I was also overshadowed by the fact that my dad is a musician, and people thinking that I am only doing the jazz thing because my dad was a great jazz musician,” he says.
Molelekwa never got to know his father well and he is reluctant to play his music live. “I feel like I need to treat it with so much respect and sincerity, because I do not think he would have played his music in the same way today, and I see this in the different ways he performed in videos,” he says. However,
Molelekwa is greatly inspired by his dad, whom he believes really put an African face to jazz standards.