It was a Jazz Life – Fellows’ seminar by Catherine and Darius Brubeck

13 November 2017

As Artists-in-Residence Catherine and Darius Brubeck addressed STIAS fellows on their book project, which is a memoir of a quarter century of performing, teaching and promoting jazz in South Africa.

“Jazz affected change in South Africa as it has done throughout its history,” said Catherine Brubeck. “Covering the period from 1983 to 2005, the book is not a history of South African jazz, nor is it a chronological report of the development of jazz education but rather a personal account of an initially improvised programme embraced by a significant and remarkable set of people.”

Brubeck - 1
STIAS artists-in-residence Catherine and Darius Brubeck during their seminar presentation on 9 November 2017

Darius is an acclaimed musician, son of Dave Brubeck and Honorary Research Professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and Catherine currently manages the Darius Brubeck Quartet and was formerly the Special Projects producer and co-ordinator at the Centre for Jazz & Popular Music, University of KwaZulu-Natal.

In November 1982, Darius signed a two-year contract with the University of Natal as a Music Theory teacher and that “turned into a quarter century of improvisation”. This appointment led to the establishment of the first-ever jazz studies degree programme in Africa and the creation of the Centre for Jazz & Popular Music which was eventually designated as one of the university’s centres of excellence.

Catherine and Darius’ book aims to tell the story of a jazz life both on and off the campus and give some insights into the lives of musicians (many now deceased), who made music throughout the turbulent, challenging and changing times of the 80s and 90s in South Africa. It explores the fullness and limitations under apartheid and thereafter. They both quoted a slogan that was often used during this period, “Jazz for the struggle and the struggle for jazz”.

“We came to South Africa to be on the left side politically speaking,” added Catherine. “It was time to infiltrate institutions and transform from within.”

Reading extracts from the book, Catherine gave the audience a flavour of some of the personalities of the time including possibly the “best-ever South African male jazz singer, Ronnie Madonsela” who sadly was murdered and in whose name they helped establish a jazz scholarship. She also described the unique vibe of the Rainbow Jazz Club and Restaurant – the first restaurant in the Durban area that catered for blacks in a white area.

A pivotal moment was the 1988 visit to the United States by The Jazzanians, the first multiracial student band to tour overseas. They attended the annual conference of the National Association for Jazz Education in the USA and received national TV coverage. The United States Information Service sponsored and organised a cultural exchange tour around the country for the students and shortly after their return to South Africa, the University of Natal created the Jazz Centre with Darius as its Director.

“1988 seemed like the right time to step out of line and take chances,” said Darius. “The Jazzanians success was a springboard for international interest in jazz education in South Africa and was followed by many other overseas tours and donations to the programme.”

It was also a time fraught with challenges particularly in academia. Black students still needed permission to attend white universities – “as the only jazz studies department in the country we had an advantage here”, but many potential students didn’t have the necessary matriculation entry requirements or finances.

“We had to find our own funding as many students were penniless and didn’t meet the entry requirements,” said Catherine.

Some of the ‘improvised’ solutions to these problems included allowing non-degree students/musicians to attend classes and perform or coach in various ensembles and the eventual acceptance of students to a diploma programme on the basis of audition.

“What was the harm in having extra students in classes I was giving anyway,” said Darius. “And once on the diploma programme, students could qualify for degrees thus bypassing the matric-exemption requirement.” A key feature of the success was that “we were drawing from a community that was already playing jazz and wanted to play it better,” he added.

“We were deeply involved in the complicated cultural politics of the 80s and 90s and consequent institutional transformation. At times some people within the music department thought we shouldn’t be there,” added Catherine, “because we created our own world and it was amazing what we got away with.”

“It was a good preparation for the challenges of academia in the new South Africa,” continued Darius. “We experienced transformation years before the word became a key term in South African universities. We accidentally established a blueprint for transformation. I think, however, that we now need to look more critically at the massification of education.”

Unifying rhythms

“The political outlook, psychology and vibe was an echo of the civil rights movement in the US,” he continued. “It was a struggle for equality and justice. This may seem slightly dated and naïve now. One loses confidence but not the beliefs themselves.”

Speaking of the strangeness of being simultaneously part of the system by participating in music programmes for the South African Broadcasting Corporation while also being on committees to overthrow the system, Darius said: “It was an odd time – you were free and unfree at the same time”.

During the question and answer period, it was pointed out that people found a safe social space at places like the Rainbow and the Jazz Centre, and in the unifying spirit of music.

Turning to the music itself and the creativity of jazz, Darius emphasised that his goal was always for the music to sound good and to avoid merely imitating US models by encouraging a strong South African sound. “The main barrier to creativity is usually technical in some way,” he concluded. “If someone can show you the how, the what will come out.”

Nic Paton, a former ‘Jazzanian’ who attended the seminar added that, “expecting the unexpected while still respecting the tradition is built into jazz”.

Both Catherine and Darius agreed that the point was not to be on the attack but rather to offer a model of how life could be different. “Our ideal or vision was culture building not separateness.”

Words & Photograph: Michelle Galloway, Part-time media officer at STIAS

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