Obit: Jazz legend makes final transition

» obituary

It’s possible to imagine the departed jazz saxophonist, Zim Ngqawana, willing and ready for his mortal transition.

About the eventuality of death, Ngqawana once said: “It’s a logical part of every man’s journey – every man is born, he suffers and then he dies.”

The world-renowned musician was pronounced dead on Monday night at the Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital in Joburg.

He was buried on Tuesday night in the city’s West Park Cemetery, as per Muslim burial rites. Ngqawana is reported to have suffered a stroke during a rehearsal at his home in Troyeville, Joburg.

With age, the 51-year-old jazzman became increasingly focused on music as a spiritual portal. He once said: “The music has taught me that it is about something more than itself . . . it’s a meditation.”

On his 50th birthday, he declared: “I’m preparing to drop this body.”

But before doing so, Ngqawana had an illustrious career spanning three decades.

He was born on December 25 1959, the youngest of five children. Ngqawana started learning the flute at 21 and later matured into a master saxophonist, woodwind-instrument player and pianist.

Though he left school before gaining university entrance qualifications, his talent won him entrance to Rhodes University’s school of music.

Ngqawana later pursued a diploma in jazz studies at the University of Natal, now UKZN.

He was offered scholarships to the Max Roach / Wynton Marsalis jazz workshop, and later a scholarship to the University of Massachusetts in the United States, where he studied with jazz elder-statesmen Archie Shepp and Yusef Lateef.

On his return to South Africa, Ngqawana worked with Hugh Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim before striking out on his own.

As a band leader, Ngqawana released a praiseworthy catalogue, San Song (1996) with the Norwegian San Ensemble, Zimology (1998), Ingoma (1999), Zimphonic Suites (2001) and Vadzimu (2004).

These were followed by a number of live recordings; which include Zimology: In Concert, recorded during his residency at the University of Tennessee in the US. It includes a sterling performance by that university’s faculty ensemble.

The album features the penultimate instalment of his expansive composition, The Migrant Labour Suite, which first appeared on his debut album, San Song as Amagodulka (Xhosa for “migrants”).

The suite charts a migrant labourer’s transition in three movements: The Migrant Worker in his Homeland, The Migrant Worker on a Train, and The Migrant Worker in Johannesburg.

Ngqawana’s residency in Tennessee saw him adding Migration to America to these transitions.

So it’s in keeping with this theme that Ngqawana’s own passing is seen as a musical migrant making his mortal transition into the eternal pantheon of departed jazzmen.

» The artists’ organisation Bataki­

Ba-Tshwane, in partnership with the State Theatre, will hold a memorial service today at 2pm at the theatre’s Rendezvous Hall

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