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One of the magical things about living in NYC is that on an ordinary Wednesday night you can sit in an audience and hear one of contemporary jazz’s great musicians. Not play his instrument – no, that you can experience any place the musician may be touring. But sit in the audience and hear said musician share the story of his life – the story of his love of the very style and shape of music he has come to be known for playing.
I walked into the Great Hall last night, well aware of the way Wynton Marsalis has with a trumpet – having become the first jazz composer to win the Pulitzer Prize and notching up Grammy wins for both jazz and classical work. What I wasn’t aware of is his skill as an orator, as a story-teller. He took us back to the mid 60s when he grew up – telling us what he sees when he thinks back to that time. A huge presence in his life, like for many, has been his mother. But, as he’ll tell you over and over, in rhythmic, poetic fashion – naturally – you ain’t never seen no-one like Delores. Not on TV, not in the movies.  When she’d tell you something, you’d listen, because she knew what she was talking about, he told us.
She taught him the basics of life, those fundamentals that are always under attack but always come back around, just like the mighty Mississippi River, near where he grew up.
Don’t be greedy.
Don’t steal.
Look people in the eye.
Be quiet, listen, they have something of value to say too.
Don’t eat that last piece.
Hold your head up high and be for real.
Marsalis strung together anecdotes, as if arranging notes in a performance piece. They relayed how his mother physically helped instill jazz in his heart. She took him and his siblings to the symphony, even though she didn’t want to be there – the same symphony he would go on to play in. But beyond that, her very essence moulded the man he became and the music he would go on to play.
So many times I felt myself hmmm‘ing in much the same way I would if I heard a song I liked. One time his mother took him and his brothers to a parade; he was 8, they were 4 and 5. As he held onto the hand of his 5-year-old brother, he could see his mother was taking some strain in carrying the younger sibling. After he’d repeatedly asked if he could help, she said to him: “The weight of something depends on how you feel about carrying it.” HMMM!
She taught him about the most important thing in life – your spirit. “The spirit is ephemeral. It’s omnipotent and transcendent. This I have seen, and this I believe. And that’s jazz,” he said.
Delores passed away last year, bringing her words into sharper focus for Marsalis. He spoke about how she understood how easy it was for the meanings of things to erode, how fast the mind can adjust to the absurd and the mediocre, and to rally against that. Pertinent words for these crazy times. Take care of your spirit and your soul, he learned from her. Jazz — music — expands the soul, and that’s what we can learn from Marsalis.
“She told me, your soul was actually the biggest part of your person. But it occupies a small space. And that space grew when it connected with other people’s souls. And I was just a boy — but I heard her,” he said, wiping away the tears.
And I heard him.




Trumpeter, flugelhornist, composer, lyricist, singer, bandleader – Hugh Masekela is many things. But he’s also a legend, an icon, in a time when those labels are all too-easily thrown around. An elder among South Africa music history, “Bra Hugh”, as he’s affectionately known, is the real deal. And not just because he turns 75 today. But because he actually earned his respect – his contribution to music, not just South African but the greater jazz genre, cannot be denied. 

From the Billboard-chart topping, 1968 Grammy-nominated single Grazin’ in the Grass, to the esteemed NYC jazz circles he moved in, which included the likes of Harry Belafonte, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, to his relationship, both professional and personal, with Miriam Makeba, and his openness in overcoming his drug and alcohol addictions, Bra Hugh’s milestone is truly worth celebrating.

To mark his 75th birthday, Bra Hugh will be spending the occasion in New York City, a place he lived for many years, in exile from Apartheid South Africa. It was in New York he studied at the Manhattan School of Music. It was in New York that he was encouraged by Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong to hone his own unique sound. And so, it will be in New York that he celebrates this milestone of birthdays.

Born in the nondescript small town of Witbank on Johannesburg’s East Rand, April 4th, 1939, Bra Hugh’s story is well-known. Given a trumpet by Father Trevor Huddleston, he soon formed the Huddleston Jazz Band, before going onto great acclaim with the Jazz Epistles (alongside Kippie Moeketsi, Abdullah Ibrahim and Jonas Gwanga).

Leaving South Africa at the age of 21, after a stop in London, he headed for New York City, where he began what would be 30 years in exile. Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Charlie Mingus, Harry Belafonte – he mingled with them all. Even when he moved to Los Angeles, he found new fans ready to welcome him – from actor Peter Fonda to singer David Crosby. All the while, his music helped draw attention to the struggle in South Africa – Stimela and Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela) in particular.

I’ve been fortunate enough to interview him a number of times, and even though he can give journalists a hard time, I’ve found him to be quite obliging and warm in our encounters. I’ve interviewed his son too, US TV presenter Sal – an ace guy.

In the US, where he still continues to tour, Bra Hugh was honoured during the weekend of Barack Obama’s re-inauguration with the Keeper of the Flame award from the African American Churches in DC. At the time, Masekela said Obama’s second term was a dream realized. “It’s like a summary of the last 74 years of the life I have lived; where I have seen people of African ancestry all over the world march towards the gates of freedom.”

A few weeks later, he was up for his second Grammy – in the Best World Music category, but lost out to a posthumous Ravi Shankar record. Still, he keeps recording and playing his music – seeing him in Central Park during the first summer of my life in New York remains an absolute highlight. With over 40 albums under his belt, it’s worth raising a glass – albeit of sparkling water – to this titan of the music world.


Hugh Masekela performs at Jazz at Lincoln Centre on Friday April 6th.

 [Top pic: hughmasekela.co.za]