What did the lost photographs of Blue Notes say about South Africa’s jazz heritage

The history of the Blue Notes is inextricable from apartheid’s denial of music – specifically jazz-based – imagination. Owen-Smith’s photographs are a rare and surprising addition to an archive that is hungry for fans of jazz all over the world.

The Blue Notes embody the beauty of South African jazz in the 1960s and the intensity of the struggle against apartheid. The band formed in the year 1959 following a reunion with two of South Africa’s most admired jazz artists, and both of them were exiled from South Africa. One of them was the piano player and alto saxophonist Mtutuzeli Dudu Pukwana. The other was piano player Chris McGregor. In 1964, the remaining four members were enshrined as Louis Moholo-Moholo, drummer – the last remaining member, and Nikele Nick Moyake on the tenor saxophone. Mongezi Feza plays trumpet and the double-bass player Johnny Mbizo Dyani.

The Blue Notes were in full swing in Pietermaritzburg on the day of their departure from the country. Norman Owen-Smith

Owen-Smith’s bright, simple photos make the mundane exceptional, showing the musical chemistry, passion for performance, and a racially diverse group at the height of apartheid in the aftermath of the crackdown that followed the Sharpeville massacre in 1960. They record a period in the history of the band as they were young, between their teens and early twenties, as well as just before their exile.

They’re an important addition to the archive. The collection includes a portion of a documentary about jazz in Britain, which consists of a short clip of Blue Notes’ performance at the 1964 Antibes Jazz Festival, posted on YouTube by McGregor’s younger brother. The footage from the archives is held by French TV, but experts from South African jazz based in France have been unable to locate the footage.

The very rare video excerpt of the band is available on YouTube.

This is the sole video clip that features Blue Notes. This is the only video excerpt of Blue Notes I have come across despite the fact that, according to my doctoral dissertation, they are one of the best-covered jazz groups of the apartheid time.

The archive also contains other elements that include an online database of information about the group created in the late 1980s by British journalist Mike Fowler. The text that it is based on is Maxine McGregor’s biographer Chris McGregor and the Brotherhood of Breath My life with the Brotherhood of Breath, a South African Jazz Pioneer.

A different album, dubbed Township Bop, was released in 2002. The album was comprised of previously unreleased material that the group had taped at the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s Transcription Centre in 1964.

In 2013, the radio station SAfm broadcast a two-part documentary. Additionally, a variety of artists have performed and also recorded tributes for the group.

These contributions – currently with Owen-Smith’s photos included – signify the beginning of a new chapter for the group of musicians who mostly played in live venues. Their recordings would go without a trace for long periods, such as their 1964 live recordings in Durban, Legacy: Live in South Africa 1964, which was released in the year 1995.

Healing and memory

Since the late 1950s, many jazz musicians fled the country. In contrast, others were subjected to the sexist practices of the apartheid music business, which would usually take them on or record only if they fulfilled their demands regarding what to perform, with whom to play with, and when to play it. Many quit playing altogether. These are the causes of pain that repeat in an endless loop every time we delve into South African jazz history. Actually, a few requirements for commercialization persist present, not just within South Africa and not just connected to jazz. Musicians’ lives remain precarious.

It is then obvious that healing will require bringing these musicians back.

How do we get there, and where? Louis Moholo-Moholo is now back to his home in Langa, located in Cape Town, and is still playing. What about Moyake, who passed away in South Africa? And Dyani, who is interred within South Africa? And Feza, who departed South Africa at 19? McGregor traveled to the nation just before his death. However, he did not visit Pukwana. The healing of the open wound wrought by the rupture of exile is a physical and creative process that requires a return.

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