Free jazz of the legendary Blue Notes exiles lives on
Tribute line-up brings spirit of one of SA’s most famous bands to Grahamstown
The Blue Notes were undoubtedly one of the most revolutionary bands in SA, yet their legacy remains largely undocumented.
The Blue Notes Tribute Orkestra, which is performing at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown as part of the Standard Bank Jazz Festival, was formed to bring the band’s music back to South African audiences and to keep alive the free jazz approach.
The original Blue Notes were formed in Cape Town in the 1960s and consisted of Mongezi Feza (trumpet), Dudu Pukwana (alto sax), Chris McGregor (piano), Nikele Moyake (tenor sax), Johnny Dyani (bass) and Louis Moholo-Moholo (drums).
The group left the country in 1964 as exiles and relocated to London. Most of its members died in exile. Moholo-Moholo returned in 2005 and performs regularly in Cape Town.
The band fused African music styles, such as kwela, with free jazz and had a huge influence on the European avant-garde music scene.
The pan-African publication Chimurenga, based in Cape Town, has championed the band’s legacy through articles, artworks and its online radio station. In 2011, Chimurenga editor Ntone Edjabe approached trumpeter Marcus Wyatt to put together a band to honour the Blue Notes and to coincide with an issue of the publication exploring themes of history, exile and memory.
"He asked me to put something together that was a little bit bigger than normal," Wyatt says.
The result was the formation of the seven-piece Blue Notes Tribute Orkestra. The line-up included Andile Yenana on piano, Ayanda Sikade on drums, Thembinkosi Mavimbela on bass, Mthunzi Mvubu on alto saxophone, Janus van der Merwe on tenor sax, Siya Makuzeni on trombone and vocals and Wyatt on trumpet.
The membership of the Orkestra has changed over the years. The current line-up has eight members, with the additions of Romy Brauteseth on bass, Sisonke Xonti on tenor and Siya Charles on trombone and vocals.
"The idea is that it’s a heritage ensemble," Wyatt says.
"Almost like the Duke Ellington Orchestra or the Art Blakey Quintet — so that it becomes more of an institution as opposed to a gigging band and that young musicians come through the band and the members evolve and hopefully learn something about the legacy that the Blue Notes left us."
Wyatt had heard about the Blue Notes as a student, but there wasn’t a lot of information available about them and all their recordings weren’t easily available, he says.
However, since the launch of the Orkestra he says it has been an "incredible journey" for him and the band members to learn about the original musicians and the songs they wrote.
The Orkestra aims to bring the music of the Blue Notes back to local audiences, Wyatt says, not just by mastering their compositions but also by celebrating the individuals who were in the band and playing their compositions in the spirit they played.
"I think they were very important in the journey of South African jazz music," says Wyatt. "They were some of the guys who really put us on the map.
"I call them the ‘noncommercial exiles’ because they obviously didn’t have as much fame as Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim and Jonas Gwangwa. But they were instrumental in inspiring a lot of musicians and an entire scene, according to the older guys in London. When they arrived in London in the ’60s, they caused quite a stir and the way they played inspired a lot of the more avant-garde musicians who went on to be a big part of that scene. Keith Tippett, for instance, speaks a lot about the Blue Notes."
The exiled musicians toured Europe several times and also influenced many musicians who came to their performances.
"It’s important for us to honour them and to try to bring their music back home, because their music was not always easily accessible here," Wyatt says.
The radical spirit, livewire energy and level of improvisation are elements people always remember about the Blue Notes.
"People are generally quite taken by the music. The compositions themselves are really great, but I think it’s the energy with which that music was played, and the way that we try to play that music, is what grabs people," Wyatt says.
"There’s a large amount of energy and passion and there is resonance and there is dissonance and melody and harmony and groove and free avant-garde ‘outside’ playing. It really is about the energy that they emanated. That’s what made them such special musicians.
"When they started as a sextet they were more into the straight-ahead, hard bop sound. But I think when they left home and went into exile in Europe, there were a few factors that contributed to their music becoming more outside or having a free-jazz approach."
There was always love and passion in the music, Wyatt says.
"But as time goes by you can hear the music becomes slightly more dissonant and a bit more free. I think the pain of separation from the place of birth, the place that they came from, had a lot to do with that.
"These guys missed home and that resonates in the music," he says.
"The passion and the intensity at which they played that music reminds me of when I first met Sydney Mnisi, our tenor player. He always plays like it’s the last day on earth and like tomorrow we might not be here," he says.
"That was always their approach and they shook up a lot of people in Europe who wanted to be a part of that; to make music as important as life and death, which is what is was for these guys."
In 2012, the Blue Notes Tribute Orkestra recorded a live album at the Birds Eye Club in Switzerland. It was a collaborative effort between the South Africans and Swiss musicians that was released in 2017.
"We recorded it live. Especially with this kind of music, the only way we could record was to be live," Wyatt says.
The legacy of the Blue Notes lives on with many young musicians honouring their music, artists remembering them in dedicated artworks, collectors searching for their records and writers trying to document their important contribution to South African music.