Jazzocracy: Bravery is something you can’t buy or sell

2011-02-01 13:07

Jazz is the abode of the brave. To become a jazzman is to become a frontiers man; this holds true for both listeners and players alike.

How else can we explain the spirit that moves talented brothers like Cape Town native, Kyle Shepherd?

This gifted jazzman can easily have chosen to pursue preoccupations with pop and other more bling-prone musical pursuits, but he chose the road less travelled.

By electing to embrace jazz, both as a musical genre and a discipline, Shepherd was risking it all.

He knows he is less likely to command as much a following as spectacularly vulgar kwaito acts such as Mgarimbe, or high-earning outfits like TKZee.

But with his two albums to date, A Portrait of Home, and FineArt, this brother soldiers on.

It took real bravery. Bravery is something you can’t buy or sell. It’s a thing of honour, of beauty.

Jazz, rooted in the gut bucket grandeur of the blues-by-any-name, what Wynton Marsalis called “that noble sound… the sound of human glory” is what possesses the likes of Shepherd.

A belief that beauty is eternally possible and so it’s worth pursuing.

But to be an adequate jazz listener is to be willing to face yourself with brutal honesty, for the music rips you open and presents you with the truth of your existence.

When the Bee-Bop generation came along and said “this is not music for dancing”, what they really meant to do was to take the music above the allure of the trivial joys.

It was to say: Jazz is not jive music!

Imagine the guts it must have taken that great saxophonist and composer, Sydney Mnisi, to get started as a musician.

At the ripe age of 28 Mnisi resolved to quit his job as a fitter and turner at an engineering company that was paying him quite well enough for kin and kith to celebrate him.

He decided to pick up a saxophone and become a jazz player for the first time in his life.

Until that point he had only been a record collector with no experience as a musician to speak of.

“My parents thought I was mad to quit my job,” he’s fond of saying.

But today it’s hard to imagine South African jazz without some of his compositional contribution.

Think of his unforgettable ode to a township and its people: Tembisa – The People; that exquisite piece that defined Andile Yenana’s 2002 album, We Used to Dance (Sheer). To see him play live is even more life affirming.

Michael Cuscuna was right: anyone who thinks it’s easy to be a jazz musician will never understand what it means to “go on stage every night, 300 times a year and dare to create something new, start from ground zero every day and truly create something that’s as close as it is humanly possible to a masterpiece by midnight”.

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