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African Legends

The Jazz Epistles

By Nils Jacobson
Published November 17, 2006

The Jazz Epistles, whose core consisted of Abdullah Ibrahim , Kippie Moeketsi, Jonas Gwangwa and Hugh Masekela, made the first South African recording by black musicians, Jazz Epistle: Verse 1, in 1959.

By the time the rest of the world caught a whiff of South African jazz, it had already been cooking on high for some time. The popular music of black communities drew from African vocal tradition, colonial marching bands, Christian choral music and performers and recordings from across the Atlantic. Marabi, the piano/organ-based music of the ’20s, gave rise to several other styles. Kwela, a buoyant and catchy style whose hallmark was the pennywhistle, made it to London in the late ’50s, where it initiated a minor craze of its own.

Ironically, it took a mass exodus of South African jazz musicians to fully awaken European and American listeners. After the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960, it became increasingly untenable to be a black musician in South Africa, so many left. Vocalist Miriam Makeba, trumpeter Hugh Masekela and pianist Abdullah Ibrahim ( Dollar Brand) all found success in America. Chris McGregor, Dudu Pukwana and Louis Moholo helped spark a European free jazz revolution with the Blue Notes and the Brotherhood of Breath.

The Jazz Epistles, whose core consisted of Brand, Kippie Moeketsi, Jonas Gwangwa and Masekela, had made the first South African recording by black musicians, Jazz Epistle: Verse 1, in 1959; they won first place at the first Cold Castle Jazz Festival two years later. But when given the chance to support the cast of the popular King Kong musical (in which Makeba was the female lead), they jumped on board to tour England.

Curiously, less than 500 copies of Jazz Epistle were originally pressed, despite the group’s overwhelming popularity. Subsequent reissues have made up for that, and today there are two versions available (Jazz In Africa features extra tracks by a different incarnation of the group). It’s fresh and vibrant music, full of celebration, swing and dynamic interaction, solidly in the zone of hard bop from the era. Each player’s voice can be heard clearly, foreshadowing what would eventually flower as the seeds of this music took root and grew across the globe.

Recommended Recordings

Jazz Epistle: Verse 1 (Gallo)
Jazz In Africa Volume 1 (Camden)
African Magic (Enja/Justin Time) (by Abdullah Ibrahim)