A rare set of 1964 photographs of the iconic South African jazz group The Blue Notes was shown for the first time at Wits University last week. Charl Blignaut was there.
A fairly small but hugely passionate crowd of academics and jazz lovers ventured into the icy Joburg winter’s night on Thursday last week to partake in a rare feast: the addition to the photographic and musical archives of a “new” set of live performance photos of the seminal and hugely mythologised jazz sextet The Blue Notes. The photographs, recently discovered, are made even more extraordinary by the fact that they are so ordinary, showing musical fraternity, passionate performance and a racially mixed scenario at the height of apartheid, after the clampdown that followed the Sharpeville massacre of 1960.
“The Blue Notes embody the beauty of South African jazz in the 1960s, and the dynamics of its struggles during and against apartheid,” read the programme notes.
The black-and-white images, full of life and music, were taken by a student and photography enthusiast, Norman Owen-Smith, who went along to the Blue Notes concert at the then University of Natal Pietermaritzburg’s Great Hall in 1964.
Taking turns to speak were music historian Lindelwa Dalamba and art curator Boitumelo Tlhoaele, who staged the exhibition, called Before the Wind Changes: 1964 and the Making of the Blue Notes. It is part of a colloquium and winter school called Narrative Enquiry for Social Transformation (Nest): Narrative Renewal amidst Provocations of Memory, Hurt and Healing.
The Blue Notes began after a meeting between pianist and alto saxophonist Mtutuzeli ‘Dudu’ Pukwana with pianist Chris McGregor in 1959. Musicians came and went at first, but by 1964 the other four members were cemented: Louis Moholo-Moholo on drums, Nikele ‘Nick’ Moyake on tenor saxophone, Mongezi Feza on trumpet and Johnny Mbizo Dyani on double bass.
The sole remaining member, Moholo-Moholo, could not attend the opening because he was playing at the National Arts Festival in Makhanda, but he sent his blessings via Dalamba. Later in the evening he featured in a documentary clip that was shown, in an interview about the pain of exile. The tears that stung his eyes as he spoke of dispossession and death infected the audience too, as the evening alternated between joy and sadness, ending in a rolicking live performance featuring Afrika Mkhize on piano, Thembinkosi Mavimbela on double bass and Lungile Kunene on drums.
Lining the walls of the venue in the grand old engineering building were Owen-Smith’s beautiful, simple photographs that capture a moment in the band’s history when they were still young – in their teens and twenties – and just before they fled apartheid into exile. Almost the entire Blue Notes archive is documented in exile and not at home, explained Dalamba.
She and Tlhoaele wanted to move away from the “big” story of South African jazz – “exile, anti-apartheid and postcolonial struggle” – to find the normality and intimacy of the ensemble captured by a simple audience member. She drew gasps from the audience when she explained how jazz writer Gwen Ansell told her that she had been alerted to the existence of Owen-Smith’s photos, only to find he worked as an academic just a few corridors away from her office.
“There is a provocation of hurt every time we engage with the story of The Blue Notes and the open wound of exile’s rupture,” said Dalamba. “Healing means bringing them back. But we don’t want to glamorise with melancholy and nostalgia. We want to renew our connections to the music, and we can do that by writing better and working better – because the musicians deserve better.”