Grand Jazz fallout over piano

2014-05-18 15:00

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A majestic R200 000 Steinway and Sons grand piano took centre stage in a bitter fight that has led to the closure of Cape Town’s premier jazz club.

The Mahogany Room has been placed under voluntary liquidation, the culmination of a dispute among its high-profile partners over allegations of vandalism, assault charges and court orders involving changed locks.

The tiny club – it has capacity for just 50 people – was founded by lawyer Lawson Naidoo, band manager Lee Thomson and drummer Kesivan Naidoo three years ago after Kesivan and Lawson met at the Grahamstown Arts Festival.

It was modelled on Kesivan’s memories of New York’s famed Village Vanguard, where he had performed in the past.

“I got an idea of what a proper jazz club should be like. I knew what was missing in South Africa,” he said.

Kesivan, a former Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner, has played around the world and recorded with the likes of Miriam Makeba.

In an interview soon after the Mahogany Room opened he waxed lyrical over the club’s Steinway piano.

“The piano has resonance. There is magic which happens in acoustic jazz. This needs to be represented with acoustic instruments and a keyboard would spoil this ambience,” Kesivan said.

During its short existence, the Mahogany Room hosted Hugh Masekela and was credited with reviving the country’s jazz scene. But it hit a sour note in February when the partners split, citing irreconcilable differences.

Lawson took custody of the grand piano. The club has since reopened with the new name Straight No Chaser, with Kesivan and Thomson in control.

They hope to replace the piano this week.

Lawson – former special adviser to parliamentary speaker Dr Frene Ginwala, deputy secretary to the Pikoli Inquiry and present executive secretary of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution – told City Press that it had been a “very acrimonious” split.

He cited chaotic management as the starting point of their woes. “These are musicians and administration is not their strongest point. The ball was often dropped and I had to pick it up,” he said.

Kesivan said: “It was a dispute over how things should be run. Eventually we couldn’t deal with each other any more. I mean, Lee and Lawson couldn’t be in the same room together.”

In January Lawson found he could not enter the club because the locks had been changed. He lodged an urgent application at the Western Cape High Court to gain access.

“They didn’t oppose the application, so the court ordered that they give me a set of keys,” he said. After that both front tyres of his Chrysler were slashed outside the club one night.

He also laid a charge of assault with police after being pushed around at the venue. “I didn’t feel safe any more,” said Lawson.

A legal representative for Kesivan said the parties have “agreed to disagree” and appointed a liquidator to assess the jazz club’s assets. They hope to have the split finalised this month.

Lawson is eager to put the fight behind him: “We had a good time while it lasted. But the last few months have been very stressful. I feel taken advantage of.”

Meanwhile, the show goes on at Straight No Chaser in Buitenkant Street. For Kesivan it’s all about the music. “We’re not interested in politics,” said the East London-born drummer.

Kesivan is set to play at Carnegie Hall in New York in October.

» This article was updated after first published to correct Kesivan's place of birth.

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