We here at Afropop love to get our hands on fresh music, unreleased tracks and unheard sounds. So we were floored to find out about this incredible resource just waiting to be delved into. A decade of live performances, capturing an oft-forgotten scene: the late ’60s jazz of South Africa.
Ian Bruce Huntley is singlehandedly responsible for the documentation of hours of concerts in Cape Town over the decade of 1964 to ’74, a collection that has come to be known as the Huntley Archive. Including not only audio recordings, but hundreds of photographs as well, it serves to powerfully document an era for which all too little evidence has survived. Astonishingly, Huntley was no musician, journalist or scholar. Instead, he was a devoted, perhaps even fanatic, fan of the music, willing to risk social opprobrium (along with threats of far worse) for crossing color lines during apartheid. It seems that wherever there was jazz, there was Huntley, along with his reel-to-reel, microphones and camera. And thanks to Electric Jive Records for hosting this archive, we can be there too.
It has been well documented that the late ’50s and early ’60s was an important time for American jazz music. Visionaries like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman continued to push the boundaries of the art beyond the swing and bebop styles, yet still worked within many of the boundaries that would fall during the transition to free jazz by the end of the decade. In South Africa, we see much of this spirit, not to mention repertoire, show up in these amazing recordings—it’s remarkable the number of times the Miles Davis composition “Milestones” shows up.
We are given glimpses of the many facets of the jazz scene, from the restaurant to the nightclub to the interiors of the artist studio. We can also see how the evolution of the music was mirrored in both countries. Here are our perceptions of a few of the recordings.
The Zambezi was a restaurant fabled for hosting some of the best jazz groups around. This night in 1964 features the Ronnie Beer group playing the traditional small group lineup of rhythm section (piano, bass and drums) and horns (trumpet, sax and trombone). The style of the music is reminiscent of the late ’50s small group work of Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderley. The group plays a number of standard tunes taken from the American songbook: In fact, aside from the two originals, this set list could have been taken from any Prestige Records recording date.
Room at the Top (1964)
Again, we see the more traditional sextet lineup (alto, tenor, trumpet and piano, bass and drums.) Most notable is how long the artists are allowed to stretch out over the tunes. This might be due to the fact that the gig is at a venue and not a restaurant, giving the musicians more freedom on what (and how long) to play. The version of “Milestones” found here lasts for over 31 minutes. The band is cooking throughout, and fortunately the music never settles down despite the length. Both of these recordings showcase talented groups working well within the established idioms of the music.
Experiments at Selwyn’s Room (1966)
This recording finds these musicians playing a private session, free from the constraints of audience expectations. Side A begins with a piano and drum duet between Ebrahim Khalil Shihab (Chris Schilder) and Selwyn Lissack. Taken only two years after the previous recordings, we find the music far more adventurous, moving into realms beyond post-bop. Moments of the music sounds akin to noted pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand), thanks to the low-register piano vamps and cyclical drum grooves. (In fact, why not check out Max Roach and Ibrahim’s duet recording, Streams of Consciousness, for another take on the drum and piano duo.) Bass and saxophone appear on the recording, changing the group dynamic. It is here that we can hear the influence/similarities of American artists like pianist Cecil Taylor and saxophonist Marion Brown, especially on side B. All of these artists were able to continue to push the boundaries of the art form in the search of greater musical freedom.
We have only begun to scratch the surface of this incredible and unique resource. As of now, Jive has released 55 recordings, along with a short write-up about the performance and photos, and promises to continue to add more content each month. We can’t wait to see what’s in store. Happy digging!