A journey through South Africa's jazz heritage


Johnny Dyani Quartet - Song For Biko

JOHANNESBURG - South African jazz has diverse roots, early influencers being the arrival of the US warship, ‘Alabama’ in Cape Town in 1862, where its slave contingent, referred to as ‘coons’ would entertain the populace in minstrel outfits. A minstrel troupe from Virginia, US, toured South Africa in 1890, providing the roots of Kaapse Klopse music, later to evolve into Cape jazz and ‘goema’ music.



In the 1920s, as jazz recordings began to proliferate, merchant seamen brought the music to South Africa’s shores. Initially, these influences proliferated in Cape Town and the Eastern Cape, but, with Johannesburg increasingly becoming the country's commercial hub, the jazz bug migrated to gold reef townships, with free-living Sophiatown a key hub from the 30s to the 50s.

South Africa has produced scores of exceptional jazz musicians, but a disproportionate number of them came from the country's two greatest bands from the late 50s and early 60s - The Jazz Epistles and The Blue Notes.

Due to space requirements, eNCA's look at South Africa's jazz heritage (below) will focus primarily on these two groups and their personnel.

The Jazz Epistles

The Jazz Epistles were South Africa's first important (albeit short-lived) bebop band. Its members included Dollar Brand (later known as Abdullah Ibrahim) on piano, Kippie Moeketsi (alto saxophone), Jonas Gwangwa (trombone), Hugh Masekela (trumpet), Johnny Gertze (bass), and Early Mabuza and later Makaya Ntshoko (drums). The group became famous through their jam sessions at the Odin cinema in Sophiatown. They recorded the first album by a black South African band (Jazz Epistle, Verse 1) just before disbanding in 1959.



That same year, composer Todd Matshikiza's musical, King Kong, became a hit in Johannesburg. It told the tragic story of a South African heavyweight boxer. Miriam Makeba, members of the Manhattan Brothers and the Jazz Epistles formed part of the production.



The 1960 Sharpeville Massacre marked the beginning of an era of greater repression of African culture. The government imposed a State of Emergency and put activists who challenged apartheid laws on trial. 

Jazz was an expressive force seeking musical and social equality. The apartheid system tried to muzzle it by not allowing jazz performances and radio broadcasts featuring jazz. Many prominent musicians went into exile, initially impelled by opportunities offered by an invitation for King Kong to tour Europe.

Some found the freedom and the contacts with other musicians in Europe irresistible and thrived in exile. But many others were torn between the desire for freedom and longing for home, and substance abuse, primarily drinking was to take its toll, many exiles not living to experience the advent of freedom in South Africa.

Abdullah Ibrahim

Abdullah Ibrahim, who hails from Cape Town, left for Europe in 1962 before moving to New York in 1965 under the guidance of Duke Ellington.

They became friends after Ellington saw Ibrahim perform with his Epistles-based trio in Switzerland, when he was still known as Dollar Brand, alongside Gertze and Ntshoko.


In America, Ibrahim rapidly achieved recognition, playing with many of the leading free jazz exponents of the time, including Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Elvin Jones and  Archie Shepp.



Hugh Masekela

Hugh Masekela gained an interest in the trumpet in his youth and was given his first instrument by anti-apartheid activist, Archbishop Trevor Huddlestone. He performed in the Huddlestone Jazz Band in Johannesburg and performed with the King Kong show before returning to South Africa and playing with the Jazz Epistles. He left the country shortly after the Sharpeville Massacre.

Masekela's 'Grazing in the Grass’ was a number-one hit in the US in 1968, selling four million copies.



His 1987 hit single, 'Bring Him Back Home' a tribute to Nelson Mandela, became an anthem for the Free Mandela movement. He has played with Paul Simon, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Dave Matthews, among others.



Kippie 'Morolong' Moeketsi

Kippie Moeketsi was born in 1925 on the East Rand in Johannesburg. He was South African jazz music’s equivalent of United States’ jazz giant Charlie Parker - both men took jazz to new heights with their unique style of playing that left other musicians in awe of their virtuosity. But both were unable to conquer the demons of discrimination and denigration so prevalent in their period, turning to drink and drugs in a similarly self-destructive fashion.
Moeketsi toured London with the cast of King Kong in 1961. He died at the age of 58 in 1983. A jazz club in Newtown, Johannesburg, Kippies, was named in his honour.



Moeketsi is credited with introducing Abdullah Ibrahim to the music of Thelonious Monk. Ibrahim’s tune, "Bra Joe from Kilimanjaro" was a tribute to Moeketsi.

Johny Gertze

Gertze, who started out as a highly competent saxophonist before shifting to the double bass, left the country in 1962 and made a name for himself on the European jazz circuit before returning to South Africa in 1968. He died of a brain tumour in 1983.

Makaya Ntshoko

Ntshoko formed a short-lived band, the Jazz Giants, after the break-up of the Jazz Epistles,  before leaving South Africa in 1962. He performed in Europe with the Dollar Brand Trio.

In the 70's he formed 'Makaya and the Tsotsis'. He performed with Dexter Gordon, Ben Webster, Mal Waldron and Johny Dyani and, in later years with John Tchicai, Pierre Favre and Irene Schweitzer. In 2014, the 'bird's eye jazz club' in Basel, Switzerland honoured him with a concert to celebrate his career.



Jonas Gwangwa

File: Jonas Gwangwa performs with the Jazz Epistles on 16 June 2016 at Emperors Palace. Herbert Opland\eNCA.

Jonas Gwangwa left South Africa in the early 70's before taking a role as musical director for the ANC's cultural ensemble, Amandla, from 1980 to 1990.



He composed the score for the movie, Cry Freedom and performed in 1988 at the tribute concert to Nelson Mandela at Wembley Stadium, England.

The Blue Notes

The Blue Notes was one of South Africa's two legendary jazz bands. The band's core personnel consisted of Chris McGregor (piano), Dudu Pukwana (alto sax), Louis Moholo (drums), Johnny Diyani (double bass) and Mongezi Feza (trumpet). Constantly harassed because of their mixed-race grouping, they left South Africa in 1964 to play at the Antibes Jazz Festival in France and established themselves amidst the ‘Free Jazz’ movement in Europe where they released numerous albums.



In Europe, challenged by limited opportunities, the group fractured, with various members going on to play with other powerful groupings. Moyake, homesick and ill, returned to South Africa, where he died in 1965.

After Mongezi Feza’s death in 1975, aged 30, the remaining Blue Notes members reunited to produce a tribute album, Blue Notes For Mongezi



In1986, and similarly, after the death of Diyani, they released Blue Notes For Johnny.

Chris McGregor

South African jazz pianist, bandleader and composer Chris McGregor was born in Somerset West, but grew up in the then Transkei where his father was headmaster at a mission institution near Butterworth. Here he was exposed to the village music of the Xhosa population.

McGregor studied at the South African College of Music in Cape Town, where he was gained exposure to the vibrant Cape jazz scene. During this period, he performed in a musical, Mr Paljas, written by his composition teacher Stanley Glasser, alongside alto-saxophonist Dudu Pukwana, with whom he would share a lifelong collaboration.

Shortly thereafter, McGregor put together a group which played at the 1962 Moroka-Jabavu jazz festival in Soweto. Here, he was exposed to Kippie Moeketsi, Dennis Mpale and others.



Through these contacts, he formed the Blue Notes in 1963, initially with Dudu Pukwana on alto, Mongezi Velelo and, later, Sammy Maritz on Bass, Early Mabuza on drums and Nikele Moyake on tenor. Trumpeter Mongezi Feza joined soon after, and with Johnny Dyani replacing Sammy Maritz on bass and Louis Moholo taking over on drums from Early Mabuza, the legendary Blue Notes grouping was completed.

After the Blue Notes disbanded, McGregor formed Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath, which included some of the original members of the Blue Notes enhanced by European musicians. However, it was always clear that he was leader, in name only, of a democratic group of musicians.


McGregor never got to see a free South Africa, he died of cancer in 1990, followed a month later by Dudu Pukwana. Louis Moholo, the only surviving member of the Blue Notes, returned to South Africa in the 90’s, where he performs regularly.

Dudu Pukwana

Dudu Pukwana was born in Walmer Township, Port Elizabeth, in 1938. Although a multi-instrumentalist, he is primarily known as an alto-saxophonist and his composing.

Pukwana performed alongside Chris McGregor in the Cape Town musical Mr Paljas. He won first prize at the Johannesburg Jazz Festival with Moyake's Jazz Giants and was invited to join the Blue Notes sextet where he was initially, and would remain one of the key composers for the group. 

Pukwana later went on to form two groups with fellow Blue Notes members, Mongezi Feza and Louis Moholo - Assagai, an Afro-rock group, and Spear, more politically-oriented jazz formation.



In 1978, Pukwana formed Zila, featuring South Africans Lucky Ranku and Pinisa Saul. They recorded a number of albums under his label, Jika Records. 

Pukwana performed in the Nelson Mandela Tribute held at Wembley Stadium On 16 April 1990. He died in London in June 1990.

Johnny Dyani

Johnny Mbizo Dyani was born in 1945 in Duncan Village, East London, where he spent his formative years.

Dyani was the double bassist for The Blue Notes, but when the group disbanded, he managed to carve a prolific career, playing with jazz giants such as Don Cherry, David Murray, Steve Lacy and Leo Smith.

He toured Argentina in 1966 with Steve Lacy's quartet and performed throughout Europe before settling in Scandinavia, initially in Denmark and later Sweden.



Dyani recorded an album, The Forest and the Zoo, with fellow Blue Notes player Louis Moholo. He also recorded with Joseph Jarman, Don Moye, Mal Waldron, Pierre Drge and many others.



Dyani died in 1986, shortly after performing in West Berlin.

Louis Moholo

Louis Tebogo Moholo was born in Cape Town in 1940. He is the only surviving member of the Blue Notes that went into exile in 1964.

Speaking of exile, Moholo said, "We were rebels and we were trying to run away from this apartheid thing. We rebelled against the apartheid regime that whites and blacks couldn't play together. We stood up."



Moholo was also a co-leader of The Brotherhood of Breath, and later formed Viva la Black and The Dedication Orchestra, releasing a number of albums under the Ogun Record label, including Spirits Rejoice and Louis Moholo's viva-La-Black.

Moholo has performed with Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, Derek Bailey, Steve Lacy, John Tchicai, Evan Parker, Enrico Rava, Roswell Rudd, Peter Brtzmann, Keith Tippett and Harry Miller among others.

Moholo took his Freedom Tour to South Africa in 1993, performing for a week at the Market Theatre. He returned to South Africa in September 2005.

Spokes Mashiyane

Spokes Mashiyane was born in Mamelodi, Pretoria in 1933. He was regarded as South Africa’s greatest kwela pennywhistle artists. His unique sound landed him a record contract with Gallo Music, for which he made numerous albums. He played at the famed Newport Jazz Festival in 1965, a performance overshadowed by the controversy of Bob Dylan shifting from an acoustic to an electric sound. Nywhistle for its simplicity, and claimed his musical inspiration came through his dreams. He died in 1972 of cirrhosis of the liver. Mango Groove wrote their song Special Star as a tribute to Mashiyane. The 2016 short film, ‘The Suit’, based on a short story by Can Themba featured Mashiyane’s music.



Many. Only living, or living and dead. Off the top of my head - living - Phillip Tabane, Madala Kunene, Abdullah Ibrahim, Louis Moholo, Jonas Gwangwa, Sipho 'Hotstix' Mabuse

Dead - Spokes Mashiane, Kippie Moeketsi, Chris McGregor, Dudu Pukwana, Johnny Dyani, Zim Ngqawana, Bheki Mseleku, Moses Molelekwa, Gideon Nxumalo, Winston 'Mankuku'Ngozi

Thandi Klaasen



Philip Tabane



Please note that this introduction is nothing more than a taste of South Africa's rich jazz heritage. Due to the nature of the medium, many artists - Gideon Nxumalo, Miriam Makeba, Thandi Klaasen, Dorothy Masuku, Abigail Khubeka, Allen Kwela, Sipho 'Hotstix' Gumede, Zim Ngqawana, Bheki Mseleku, Moses Molelekwa, Sipho Gumede, Hotep 'Idris' Galeta, Madala Kunene, Phillip Tabane, Winston 'Mankuku' Ngozi, Sibongile Khumalo and Carlo Mombelli, among many others - have not featured here. 

A new  generation of South African jazz virtuoso's is now wowing audiences, locally and abroad. May this tradition continue.