Friends & Friction: Art of jazz can change boardrooms

2014-10-09 13:45

Business can learn a lot from jazz.

Historians disagree on the origins of the genre or the meaning of the word. Some say it started as a negative word, as in: “The niggers are jazzing up the music.”

What is clear from history is that American writers like Gerald W Johnson lamented the jazz generation. “Among the very young, the ­impression prevails that the so-called Jazz Age was marked by a collapse of morals, public and private,” he wrote in his book Incredible Tale.

Even in the black community, jazz was ­referred to as “the Devil’s music”.

Composer Jelly Roll Morton spoke about how his grandmother threw him out of the family home when she discovered that he played jazz – there could be no greater sin.

Years later, jazz proved to be a great unifier in a racially divided world. Throngs of white youngsters met their black countrymen in the love and appreciation of great musicians such as Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. That was just before the world was hit by a phenomenon known as Hugh Masekela.

If influence could be drawn like a line, you would see how Masekela’s has spread into every nook and cranny of modern jazz. Marcus Miller, the man who resurrected Davis from his first death, tells a story of how he and his childhood friend, Omar Hakim, cherished playing with “the guy who played the African stuff, Hugh Masekela”.

That was when Miller and Hakim were still searching for gigs in New York nightclubs.

Jazz is about collaboration, which is something black businesses must learn to do. Masekela’s original Stimela has a young Joe Sample on electric piano. The latter went on to become a legend with The Crusaders.

I put it to you, my friends, that Letta Mbulu popularised the Afro in the US and the world. Before her arrival, American artists of African origin such as Ella Fitzgerald wore their hair straight. This includes the great musical protester, Nina Simone. They tried to fit in.

In 1966, Simone released an album called Let It All Out. On the cover, she has long hair. In 1967, Mbulu released her debut album, entitled Letta Mbulu Sings.

On the cover, the African girl is wearing an Afro. Remember that back then, Americans of

African descent were called “coloureds”, Negroes or black Americans. There was no person referred to as an African-American then.

So the Afro can only be associated with the fresh wave that came from the motherland, ­Letta Mbulu.

In 1976, Alex Haley published Roots, a novel about slavery that changed the way the US saw itself. A year later, a TV miniseries of Roots was made and Quincy Jones produced the soundtrack.

Unlike the managers, who are driven by ego and try to do everything themselves, Jones turned to his friend Caiphus Semenya to write the songs about Africa.

Semenya adapted a Yoruba church song, Ise Oluwa, which, according to Mbulu, says: “What God has created can neither be improved nor destroyed.”

The song was renamed Many Rains Ago.

When Mbulu cries “goodbye, motherland”, you can feel the pain of her own exile, and how she must have felt leaving the shores of her country.

In a nutshell, we have, in this country, people who have changed the world – Makeba, Masekela, Semenya and Mbulu, to mention but a few. The lessons to take from them is to work together, and share ideas and successes. They were driven by passion for work, not by ego.

Maybe if we listened to their music a lot more and read their history, we would go on to change the world in the boardroom.

Kuzwayo is the founder of Ignitive, an advertising agency

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