Growing up in New Brighton meant becoming passionate about music regardless of style, whether it be jazz, soul, dance or whatever. We in the Eastern Cape have a proud history in music, politics, arts, culture, and sports. Add fashion, good times and just plain old township vibes, and that’s the unique New Brighton twist. The township has long been a pioneering hub, especially for jazz.
The effect of music on me? It marks a good feeling, sad times, a feeling of pain and joy, a reflection on life.African societies have a song for everything: for celebrating the birth of a child, for boys and girls coming of age for, songs for war and struggles, songs for mourning the loss of a life, and songs for reflection, praise and worship.
During the difficult and turbulent times of apartheid oppression and resistance, our New Brighton township never ceased living its life in songs and dance, such as in Athol Fugard’s theatre production with Winston Ntshona, Nomhle Nkonyeni and John Kani. The old Great Centenary Hall revelers enjoyed outfits like the Afro Teens (Sizwe Zako’s band), Black Slaves, the Soul Jazzmen and so forth. We proudly brag about our other exports, including the late great Zim Nqawana, Lawrence Matshiza, and Feya Faku.
In my generation’s era of student uprising and community revolts in the 1970s and 80s, police repression and struggles took centre stage. Protest found popular expression in art, with artists like Miriam Makeba carrying the message of resistance beyond South Africa’s borders.
American musicians too joined projects to protest apartheid.
In this atmosphere, the great jazz trumpeter, Miles Davis, mesmerised me with the intoxicating funk/rock fusion sound. His two award winning productions in the late 1980s – ‘Tutu’ and ‘Amandla’ – expressed solidarity with the oppressed in their struggles against apartheid. As a black person in America, he was also a victim of police harassment, and like other musicians of colour, he regularly faced racism. Along with many of his artistic peers, Miles found greater acceptance in Europe.My fascination with Miles stretches from his first recording as a band leader in ‘The Birth of the Cool’ album in 1949, to the last live performance of his rendition of Michael Jackson’s ‘Human Nature’, recorded in Chicago just before he passed away in September 1991.But my love for Miles has struggled for acceptance amongst my jazz appreciation circles: my friends think jazz has one sound and is formal. I retort that its character is essentially improvisational, and that Miles portrays that innovation, as a great jazz balladeer and band leader.
In its evolution, jazz has changed constantly because both culture and how people enjoy music has been changing, from the days of Jelly Roll Morton to Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, to Charlie Parker’s bebop movement and then, later, Miles Davis’s jazz fusion sounds.
Miles’s innovativeness led the evolution of jazz from the big band era of Count Basie and Ellington to the bebop era, when he played in Parker’s band at the tender age of 19 years old. In the early 70s, he introduced the world to the jazz/rock/funk fusion sounds we hear today, at the same time that drug abuse absorbed him.
We tend to project our heroes as angels, because we love them. Miles was not angelic. He had a drug and alcohol abuse problem, and once stole Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet to buy drugs for a fix. Miles had six unsuccessful marriages.
My favorite Miles Davis album, the first jazz fusion recording, ‘In a Silent Way’, comes from this period. Miles often said, ‘Don’t play what’s there. Play what’s not there.’ Hence his constant search and exploration for the unheard sound, the pondering of musical revelations and breaking of new grounds.
Regardless of the opinions of some jazz appreciators, I know one thing: Miles Davis played the most beautiful sounds!
Nkosinathi Jikeka is an activist from the Eastern Cape and a jazz lover.