All that Jazz

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Out of all the things I’ve inherited from my dad, there are at least a few that I’m grateful for. And no, none of the things on my list include my cleft chin, round face or short torso… all those physical traits that look far more attractive on him as a man than on me, his youngest daughter.

Luckily I also inherited less unpleasant things from him, like my love for reading, flying, trivia, dogs, coffee, travel… and jazz.

I may have mentioned in passing on here before that I grew up on a farm in the South African Bushveld.

Back then, we didn’t have a lot of money. Not that I realised it, because we never lacked food or clothing, and I had the dogs to play with and plenty of room on the farm to run wild, so in my childish mind we were definitely not poor.

In fact, in those days, we had one possession that made me believe that we were actually very wealthy: the record player that stood in a corner in the living room.

That record player and AM/FM radio combo was a monstrosity of a thing. Bulky and heavy and dating from who-knows-just-how-many-years before (which could have been anywhere from the early 1970s or further back), it was definitely not the most practical household appliance. (But then again, few appliances in those days were known to be particularly streamline and light-weight. Just the refrigerator alone from my childhood home would easily have swallowed up an entire New York City apartment.)

But bulky or not, in my eyes, that phonograph was pure magic: from the silver, shiny dials to the tiny, delicate needle… I adored it all. I didn’t understand its mechanics -after all, I believed the needle tickled the black discs on the turntable, thus causing the records to laugh out statically, but melodically. Fortunately, though, one does not necessarily have to comprehend something to derive enjoyment or pleasure from it.

In the same way, I did not understand the complex but beautiful music on the records my dad owned and played, but I loved it nonetheless, for it transported me far beyond the dust of our African farm, far beyond my imagination’s limitations to somewhere unknown where my soul longed to go but which my mind could not translate into language or pinpoint to a place on a map.

Eventually, in young adulthood, I was lucky enough to find a few places that satiated and answered the call of my childhood yearning: first in a speak-easy type jazz club in post-Apartheid Johannesburg, where I was in awe of African musicians freeing themselves from the shackles of our country’s shameful past and offering forgiveness and hope through the pulsing, kindly language of their township jazz.

Then, a few years later, I kicked off my shoes on the floor of an intimate, bare-brick, smoke-filled (before it was banned) jazz joint (the type you see in the movies): the famous Blues Alley in Washington D.C. (And yes, it’s entrance is really situated on an alley along the edges of Georgetown, near the waterfront.)
My shoes came off in there, because all of my heroic legends (including Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne) had also walked and performed there, which, in my humble opinion, made it musical Hallowed Ground. To this day, their framed, autographed photos fill the walls, and like guardian angels of jazz, they look over the performances of their contemporary successors like Diana Krall, Wynton Marsalis and Norah Jones as well as others who are privileged enough to be invited to perform there and to also walk in the footsteps of their idols.

Like traveling, every time I fed a bit of that yearning (by hearing Vusi Mahlasela and Hugh Masekela at a South African Freedom Day concert at the Kennedy Centre in D.C.; in a jazz club in San Francisco’s North Beach where the beautiful proprietor with the smoky voice, backed by a very capable trio of musicians, brings old classics to life every Monday night; in my amazing friendship with a Zulu sax and pennywhistle player in D.C. who’s lived and played his music there ever since the beginning of his political exile from South Africa, long before I was even born), it left me greedier than before, and so it has come to be that I am always in search of hearing more.

I wish I could remember the first jazz I ever heard on my dad’s record player, but unfortunately I don’t. Thinking back to my dad’s record collection, it would be safe to guess that it was probably Fitzgerald and Armstrong singing Cole Porter standards. Instrumental jazz records, like Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, only followed later.

My dad did this spot-on Louis Armstrong impersonation. He used to dance around the house and sing “Wonderful World.” I remember also trying to imitate the Armstrong rasp on several occasions and with great enthusiasm, only to end up coughing and gagging and to be left with a lingering fire in my throat from the strain.

The love affair I had with jazz wasn’t always easy to admit to. This penchant I had for a musical genre that was broadly (yet vaguely) classified by many people as “American and or ‘black’ music” was a very unusual passion for an elementary school aged Afrikaans girl to have.

But aside from the minor political scandal it could have provoked, and the fact that it was so uncharacteristic to even FIND jazz records in that tiny, conservative place where I grew up, it was in fashion during those days to – when asked at school what kind of music you liked – ramble off: “Anything but Afrikaans music, country, classical, or jazz.”

I don’t think any of those kids who so faithfully recited that mantra had even HEARD any jazz. But then, I’ve since learned that ignorance about something or someone has never prevented way too many people from forming strong and loud opinions about aforementioned something or someone!

Besides, I didn’t care that my musical passion wasn’t as “in” with the cool kids as the (ironically, American and or ‘black’) bubblegum pop imports that was repeated to death on the radio. I hoarded my passion and continued to listen to my dad’s records until they were too scratched up to play without skipping.

Fortunately, by the time I had all but destroyed my dad’s records, I had become a student at Pretoria’s Performing Arts High School, where many of my gifted friends (read: musical prodigies) were not only like-minded souls, but also provided me with my necessary fix (for free!) with their impromptu jazz jam sessions in the school’s assembly square during recess.

And by the time I had graduated high school, I had enough of my own money (earned by doing various strange jobs) and I could afford to buy inexpensive second-hand jazz albums and cassettes at flea markets.

As soon as I decided I was going to the U.S., I began plotting a pilgrimage to the annual Jazz Festival in New Orleans. I imagined myself walking through the French Quarter along Bourbon Street, live jazz splashing out of all the famous clubs onto the sidewalk, seducing me into paying the cover charge in order to get closer to the magic.

Alas, that dream still remains unfulfilled, for in my almost decade-long sojourn in the States, I never once made it to The Big Easy. Perhaps one day… if (dare I say ‘when’?) American Immigration allows me back into the country.

For now, I’d be more than thrilled to attend the Cape Town Jazz Festival taking place this coming weekend.

Does anyone know if the organisers of the event would hire a girl with no skills in exchange for a free pass to the festival? And whether they’ll throw in accommodation, and a lift, and… well, I’ll skip the food and just settle for a coffee allowance?

You know, like at the car shows, when they use girls to merely stand near the cars?

Oh, right… those girls are all PRETTY.

But really, I can try to make up for the lack of looks by draping myself sexily over the grand piano (a la Michelle Pfeiffer in The Fabulous Baker Boys - albeit a more unattractive, stockier and not-blonde-at-all version of Michelle. Only, they’d have to hoist me up there and find a way to get me down again). Okay, how about draping myself across the speakers..?

Fine, if looks and skills and flexibility are really THAT important, I’d willingly take a demotion and gladly lug equipment behind the scenes, or restring guitars until my fingers bleed, or shine the musicians’ shoes with my tongue, or…

I guess sometimes passion alone just ain’t enough to get you somewhere…

6 Comments

Rory said:

Passion might not be the only thing you need to get somewhere but it ends up being so important that i sometimes think you can fake the rest if you got the passion coming out of your ears :)

Red Dahling,
I miss you sooo much. I can so relate on many different levels. My passion happens to be classical music, I even have season tix to the Meyerhoff. I think it's great that a BEAUTIFUL woman in South Africa has been to Blues Alley and I who live less than an hour away has never been. (The girls at the car shows are usually as dumb as the a bag of wet sand) So it's not a good comparison. I once worked at a blues fest ; I got paid to be a peacekeeper(ie security ) I had to make sure no one snuck in w/o a ticket. I got to hang out in the beer tent,free food and a paycheck at the end of the night. Check to see if volunteers or concessions workers are needed for the Jazz Festival. It could be a nice and easy way to see a free concert.

deeleea said:

Ooooh wish I was going with you!!

I think Diva is onto something. I used to volunteer at a music festival for a whole weekend to get free lodging and entrance...

No Skill Required!

kerri said:

You make me laugh. And I'm sure you ARE pretty. You certainly write prettily. :) I work at a Jazz supper club in my city! The only one like it, actually. It's called "ella's." I really love it, and already I've been privileged enough to meet some really really talented Jazz musicians. The only downside is that now whenever I hear Jazz playing I instantly think "Hey! I'm working! Somewhere there is a drink I should be serving!" ;)

SilverSabre said:

Rory, what on earth happened to your blog??

Red..I didnt even know the festival was on!! Im such an idiot, and Jose Felliciano is gonna be there!!
I had a look at computicket and bookings seem to be closed? Do you have any idea if they are going to reopen, or if there are alternate places we can book tickets?

kyknoord said:

So true. Sometimes you need a car and a tank of petrol...
This is completely off the point, but what's with the favouritsm? How come you're havin' coffee 'n' cake with the likes o' Michelle and leaving the rest of us CT bloggers to weep and grind our teeth, huh?

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about
is a South African girl living in South Africa. That doesn't sound very original, we know, but you might find it remotely interesting when you learn that she has only recently returned to South Africa for the first time after a nine year, one month and two week (non-stop!) stint in the United States where she accidentally became an outlawed alien (also known, especially in immigration circles, as an 'illegal immigrant.' We prefer the term 'outlawed alien' ourselves). During her reversed exile from her homeland, she kept herself occupied by winning this website (but only after shamelessly bribing the judges) and thus being unleashed on the web where she slowly, leisurely became the World's Laziest Blogger; by being a nanny and by attending sci-fi conventions in search of other aliens. In the US, she also made her sailing debut, her international acting debut, tried and failed to learn the piano, and never learned to cook. She is hopelessly addicted to coffee, dogs (especially Labrador Retrievers), how-to books (with a particular fondness for her copy of the Time/Life A - Z Medical Encyclopedia), and she tends to grossly overuse parentheses (we're not kidding) during her attempts at writing, which you may - if you really have masochistic tendencies - subject yourself to by reading the words to the right of this column. If you REALLY and truly STILL want to know more, you can read her C.V. here.
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comments
  • kyknoord : So true. Sometimes you need a car and a tank of petrol... This is completely off the point, but wha... [go]
  • SilverSabre : Rory, what on earth happened to your blog?? Red..I didnt even know the festival was on!! Im such an... [go]
  • kerri : You make me laugh. And I'm sure you ARE pretty. You certainly write prettily. :) I work at a Jazz su... [go]
  • deeleea : Ooooh wish I was going with you!! I think Diva is onto something. I used to volunteer at a music... [go]
  • bookstorediva : Red Dahling, I miss you sooo much. I can so relate on many different levels. My passion happens to b... [go]
  • Rory : Passion might not be the only thing you need to get somewhere but it ends up being so important that... [go]
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