Adam Glasser at the Gugulethu Harmonica Workshop in 2012. Picture: SUPPLIED
Adam Glasser at the Gugulethu Harmonica Workshop in 2012. Picture: SUPPLIED

In February 1961 Adam Glasser was five years old as he waved goodbye to his father, the musical direct Spike Glasser, as he boarded a plane at the Johannesburg airport with the King Kong cast heading for performances in London.

His father’s love of SA culture and the vibrance of the King Kong musical left an indelible impression on the young Glasser that later informed his career. Spike Glasser died in August aged 92.

Now 63, Adam Glasser is an internationally renowned chromatic harmonica player. He plays on the Hohner CX12 produced in Trossingen, Germany. The company also produces a smaller, inexpensive harmonica ideal for teaching and playing SA jazz.

Glasser uses the smaller instrument at his teaching workshops in Gugulethu, Sophiatown, the Molelekwa Foundation in Tembisa, Gauteng Jazz academy and the Bushfire festival.

“I have had this obsession with trying to introduce the harmonica to wider audiences. I still hope it could be the next pennywhistle. You can play a lot of SA jazz standards on it such as Ntyilo Ntyilo, Manenberg, Lakutshonilanga and many others,” he says. 

Dorkay House in Johannesburg was Glasser’s first temple of music. In 1972, as a teenager at Parktown Boys High, he began frequenting the music precinct and met musical director Mackay Davashe who, along with alto saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi and pianist Sol Klaaste, had been key members of the team that arranged the music for King Kong.

Mackay permitted Glasser to sit in on band rehearsals for the show Phiri starring Sophie Mgcina and featuring Barney Rachabane. After Davashe’s sudden death from a stroke in 1972, Glasser attended his funeral service at Uncle Tom’s Community Hall in Orlando West.

Glasser’s search to be “free in myself”, as he puts it,  led him to working in a record store, teaching English as a foreign language, studying at the Berklee College of Music in the US and finally to working as a pianist in London.

His determination to connect with SA jazz was rewarded again in 1985 when bassist Ernest Mothle introduced him to saxophonist Dudu Pukwana. He joined the outfit Zila,  and began performing with Lucky Ranku, Eric Richards, Harry Beckett, Tebe Lipere, Joey Maxim and singer Pinise Saul, his long-time collaborator.

In 1986 on tour with Pukwana in Spain, Italy and Belgium, Glasser recalls, drummer Churchill Jolobe entertained their fellow ferry passengers with a hilarious anecdote about King Kong leads Joe Mogotsi and Nathan Mdlele.

“These guys were so striking to my imagination. There are certain South Africans whose imagination and humour is beyond the level of Shakespeare,” he recalls. “Because of the socioeconomic context at the time they survived in London and did well on the European circuit. There was something about the cauldron of those days which enabled bands of such radical quality to express themselves on an international stage.”

Between 1990 and 2006, Glasser worked with the Manhattan Brothers, producing and recording their final album Inyembezi in London with guitarist Condry Ziqubu, bassist Glen Mafoko and drummer Godfrey Mgcina.

With the assistance of US entertainment lawyer and SA music lover Thomas Rome, a deal was negotiated with EMI SA and the album was released in 2006 at a stokvel meeting in Diepkloof Hall, Soweto.

Glasser’s composition titled August 1 was first recorded on Pukwana’s album Zila ’86. It is now included in the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music syllabus. He is writing a manual that takes students from beginner to advanced level on the harmonica while he teaches part-time at Kingsdale Secondary School in London.

He hopes that an official organisation, such as the UK’s Associated Board Royal Schools of Music, will create a syllabus of SA jazz standards.

“Sort out the licensing and make the lead sheets available, as well as the original versions of the songs, to every primary school, high school and university,” he says.

Glasser’s SA Jazz Standards Legacy Project was boosted by SA/UK Season in 2015 with a discussion panel in SA and a series of concerts in London.

His two solo albums Free at First and Mzansi  include a harmonica version of Quickly in Love from King Kong and an arrangement of the traditional Goema Song from the 1962 musical Mr Paljas, for which his father wrote the music.

His new album SA and Beyond recorded in 2017 in London and featuring Bokani Dyer on piano and UK jazz guitarist Rob Luft, will be released in 2019. Cuts from his instrumental performance of King Kong Revisited will be added.