Sathima Bea Benjamin
Sathima Bea Benjamin: Yeah. I was raised by my grandmother. My parents got divorced. Then my dad married again and she turned out to be a really – what do you call it – wicked stepmother. So there were big court cases and so on. My mother had remarried. She tried to get us back but she had a whole lot more children. She was not financially able to take us. My grandmother was there. She was 68 at the time and she said, “I’ll take these girls.” So I went to live with my grandmother, Grandma Benjamin.
S.R: So tell me what is your first recollection of hearing jazz? What was your first impression? What were your first thoughts?
S.B: Growing up with Ma Benjamin, I was about 9, 10, 11 – that kind of age. Grandma Benjamin was teaching me how to cook in the kitchen. We had one of those big old radios. Underneath I used to keep a pencil and paper. Then it was the BBC, because there was the union in South Africa. So we would get a lot of Nat King Cole, a lot of Ella, sometimes a little Sarah [Vaughan]. So when I would hear some songs – I was like 9, 10, 11 – I didn’t know them. I was just attracted to this kind of singing.
S.R: Do you remember specifically, like a specific Sarah Vaughan song or Ella Fitzgerald song that just struck you like lightning?
S.B: No, to tell you the truth, it wasn’t Ella or Sarah that got to me. It was Nat King Cole. I always tell people you could hear every word that he sang. His diction was so impeccable. I got that from him.
S.R: Did you know immediately, listening to Nat King Cole, if he was a black American or, as they would say in South Africa, maybe a ‘colored’ American or a white guy? Did you know his race when you first heard him?
S.B: I knew he was a black American. To this day, I don’t know why I was attracted to so-called jazz music. But you know, at that point, the Union of South Africa, when they played these things and these artists, nobody really said it was jazz. They just played it. It was just there to listen to and I gravitated towards it. I had no idea that later on I was going to be a jazz singer. It had nothing to do with it at that point. All I knew was that I loved this music.
S.R: What year are we talking about, when you’re hearing Nat King Cole?
S.B: Oh, gee, I was like – we are going to really work at this, because now I’m 74.
S.R: So we’re probably talking early ’50s then, right?
S.B: Yeah. That’s right. I was between the age of 9, 10, 11, 12.
S.R: You said that by listening to jazz at an early age, you felt alienated by your family and friends. Can you expound upon that little bit more?
S.B: Well, I was listening. I was writing it down, hiding it underneath the big, old radio. Grandma Benjamin would say, “Get back in the kitchen and continue with the cooking and so on.” I was just writing it down, because I didn’t have money to go to Daughters, the music store, and go buy sheet music. All I knew was that I was attracted to this. I would hear Frank Sinatra a lot, Nat King Cole, some Ella, a little bit of Sarah, never heard Billie Holiday. I’m trying to think of the other singers. Perry Como. Bing Crosby.
S.R: Was there a specific Nat King Cole song that really knocked you out that you heard?
S.B: No. Maybe Fascination. Yes. What attracted me to Nat King Cole was just his perfect diction and that you could hear every word. You know what? I don’t have perfect diction, but you can hear every word I sing. I think I automatically took that, not knowing. I didn’t know I wanted to be a jazz singer at this point. I just knew I was attracted to this music. What I’m trying to say is there was a sincerity there and there was a dedication of which I was somewhat aware. But I didn’t know where it was going. I was just somewhat aware of it. For instance, if I had thought that I would go on the stage or even if Ma Benjamin, if it entered her mind that I was thinking about that, that would be definitely a no-no, because they had this strange impression that women, who go on the stage, must be a whore or something. Nice girls didn’t do that. I was supposed to be a nice girl, being raised by a Saint Helenian grandmother.
S.R: In a few sentences, and you don’t have to stick on this too long, can you just paint a picture for our audience about the jazz craze that was going on in South Africa when you were growing up, either in the films, in the wardrobe, in the music?
S.B: On Saturdays we were allowed to go to the movies. We got the money to go to the movies. That is where I first, I guess, got acquainted with – I think I saw Cabin in the Sky.
S.R: With Peggy Lee?
S.B: It could have been Lena Horne. I think I saw Duke Ellington’s face somewhere. Yeah, because Ellington was in there too – he played. I think it was Lena Horne. You know what? Much later on, when I went to live with my mom, there was a library. I would go to the library. This guy, knowing I was interested in jazz, used to be a pianist and used to play for me sometimes. He gave me a book called, is it Lady Sings the Blues or Lady Day. You know, the moment – I think it was the very next day or so, that book was pulled off. I realized, when I read that book, oh, somewhere in the world, here in America, there are people who are called colored. I think that was a very instant connection, that somewhere in the world there were colored people,. Then there was the connection with the jazz and I understood it and I felt very good, because I said to myself, “Okay. It’s colored people and jazz and South.”
S.R: This is our music.
S.B: So this is what I must do and I felt very good about it – the connection with that word and people coming from the South and that they were mixed like us and all different mixtures, because everybody in Cape Town has a different story. As I said, mine is British, from that island of Saint Helena.
S.R: Do you, as a South African – because sometimes we say this on WBGO all the time, especially during pledge drives when we’re trying to raise money – celebrate America’s unique art form, jazz? It only came from America. As a South African, what do you think?
S.B: I believe it originated here. Duke Ellington says it came from the Caribbean because it came from British and it went to the Caribbean and from the Caribbean it came here. I don’t know where it exactly came from. But what happened is it went right around the whole world. Then I relayed it. Then later on, I had read all these books about this country. I didn’t tell anybody, but I identified very much.
S.R: So you still think jazz is American in origin or in nature? It’s not African?
S.B: Well, I think originally it came from Africa. Listen, it didn’t come from Poland. It originated in Africa. The rhythm first of all, is what God gave Africa. He gave Africa rhythm and music.
S.R: And the blues. Don’t forget about the blues.
S.B: Well, the blues – okay, someone says I don’t sing the blues. You know what? That’s true. I just don’t relate to the blues. I have a blue tinge in my sound. But I’m not a blues singer. I’m not unhappy about that. That’s just a fact.
S.R: Now, Abdullah Ibrahim’s sound is incredibly bluesy, especially with a lot of early recordings. He may not play the blues in its literal form.
S.R: I’m not saying that. He doesn’t play blues. But his sound is so bluesy.
S.B: Well, he’s a pianist. He’s a composer. I am a sometime composer. I’m not a trained musician, so I cannot say I’m going to sit down, if someone commissioned me to write some suite or something, I can’t sit down at the piano. He can. He schooled himself basically. He listened to a lot of classical. When I met him, we would go to the libraries and we would go in these little boxes. He listened to Debussy. Whatever we have, we somehow taught ourselves, because there was no school. Now you can go and study jazz up at the University. But when we were growing up, they didn’t have that.
S.R: That is exactly the point around which I have a hard time wrapping my head, because it is so powerful and it is so amazing. It just completely knocks me out. When I heard the first Jazz in Africa recording, recorded in 1959, that features Hugh Masekela.
S.B: The Jazz Epistle?
S.R: The Jazz Epistle. Yes. That record is so unbelievable.
S.B: That was the first really jazz record. I do believe it was done by Gallo or something like that. I had the love of the musicians. Listen, I used to sing in what I call the bioscope, in the cinema, when I was 19. I think I was 11 years old when they had a competition. You didn’t win money. But you would win eight free tickets to the movies. We would go in a whole gang from the street. We were just all go on a Saturday afternoon. They pushed me up and they said, “You go up and sing, because you can sing and you are going to win these tickets. And we’re not going to tell. We are still going to get our money to go to the movies and we’ll just buy more sweets.” So I went up and I sang, a cappella, I Wonder Who’s Kissing Him Now. Of course, I won the eight free tickets. But that was my first time, because I was pushed up there by all the kids from the street saying, “Oh, you can sing. Go up there. You can do this.” I won the tickets and we didn’t tell and we had all this candy now, because we didn’t tell. If, for instance, Ma Benjamin knew that I had gone on the stage that would be just disgusting to her, because nice girls don’t do that. But that was my first time and I got a thrill out of that. I realized, “Hey, I can actually do this and people like it.” It went on and on like that as I met musicians. Then what used to happen is, I was a schoolteacher, so I was school teaching during the week. Then somebody told somebody. There was this guy. I was trying to play the piano and pick out something. This guy was saying, “Hey, you’re a jazz singer.” I said, “Really?” He said, “Yeah, come with me. Tomorrow there are some jazz musicians and they’re getting together. They’re planning to put a concert on in our own area – a jazz concert, one of the first.” I went there and I was just embraced by the musicians. One thing led to another. At that time, we could play in the white areas. But we couldn’t mix with the audience. When it was intermission, you would go to the back to the kitchen and they would bring you some food.
S.R: The Scullery Department.
S.B: The Scullery Department. Then after that, the musicians used to go down to the port when the ships would get around. They would get long playing records – the vinyl. Then the guys would go to [another schoolteacher] Henry February’s place and listen to all these long playing records. They would say, “Let her come with. She can come with.” I was always the only girl with all these guys. I got an education like that. They said, “Let her come with, because she loves the music.” That was fine. But then I had to go back into the township, where I lived. Henry did not exactly live in the township. He lived in a sort of area, which was – I don’t know. But it wasn’t a so-called ‘colored area’. It was mixed. So somebody had to take me home, because I was hanging out with these guys. They would say, “Don’t worry. Let her stay. She loves the music. She can listen.” Then they would take me home. But when they took me home, they would want to sleep with me. I said, “Oh no. I don’t want to sleep with anybody. I just want to hear the music.” So I decided I wasn’t going to do this anymore, because this was not going to end. So I was at this point where I said, “I’m not doing this music anymore.”, when one day there was a knock at the door and it was this Swiss guy, Paul Meyer, who said, “They are putting on this huge concert in the Cape Town City Hall for the mentally ill.” He had heard that I was the best jazz singer around. I said, “Well, I don’t care what you heard. I am not singing there. I would like to do that, but all these guys want to sleep with me. Just go away.” I had run away from my grandmother’s house and went to live in another area with my mom, a so-called ‘much poorer’ area. Meyer came there. He had a racing car, a Triumph something or whatever. Everybody was looking and saying, “My God. Look now. She’s running around with white guys.” So I just stayed in trouble. I said, “No. No. Go away. I’m not singing anymore. Guys want to sleep with me. I don’t want to sleep with anyone. I just want to sing. So I don’t do this.” He said to me, “Look. Please, we need you to be a part of this big concert in the Cape Town City Hall. This guy, who is playing, he will not want to sleep with you; I know. He’s not interested in women.” That was Abdullah Ibrahim you know. So I went there. I saw all the other people. There was a guy with rubber shoes, who went up to Abdullah just before me and said, “I want to tap. I want to tap.” I could see Abdullah sitting at the piano – it was an upright piano – in a little rehearsal studio called Ambassadors. I could just see, “Oh my God. Now the next person who has to go up there is me,” and Abdullah was disgusted with this guy, who was saying he wanted to tap with rubber shoes. So anyway, it came my turn. Abdullah was just sitting there. He didn’t even look up. He was looking straight ahead. He knew someone was standing there and he said , “What is it that you want to sing?” So I said, “Well, I happen to be doing a Duke Ellington song,” which was true. Then he turned and he looked. He said, “Really? What song?” I said, “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good.” He said, “I don’t believe this. I’m working with the same song.” That’s a true story. It was Duke Ellington actually – now, you’re going to go later on in my life – that actually brought Abdullah and I together, because then he said, “Well, I have to find your key.” All the musicians will tell you I sing on the black notes mainly. Buster Williams – I have to laugh – he says, “Sathima is a musical racist,” as a joke. But I don’t do that on purpose. It’s where my tone lies. It’s my sound. Just automatically my voice goes to the black notes.
S.R: Now, we’ll talk later about Duke Ellington. We’ll get to that session in a moment. But just tell our audience, what was the point where you decided, “I’m out of here.”?
S.B: Oh, out of South Africa? I think it had a lot to do with the Sharpeville Massacre.
S.R: How did that affect you? What do you remember?
S.B: You couldn’t live in South Africa without being politically aware of what was going on. That was really, really terrible having mowed those children down. Then you couldn’t go into the white areas anymore. There were no places to perform, because you could not have a mixed audience. Whenever we did perform, it was in a club. They were opening up some clubs in the so-called colored areas. But white people would come there. There was no place to work. First of all, we could no longer go into the white areas. They imported Portuguese musicians, Greek musicians to play in the white areas. Colored people couldn’t play there anymore. So the venues disappeared, the places to perform. You could sing at your local cinema, which I did for a while on a Saturday afternoon and stuff like that. But people would throw things at you and they would tell you [to sing] Somewhere Over the Rainbow – I was famous for this song and I got to hate it so much. They were not interested in anything else. So it just got so bad. There was no place to perform, no money. So what was the question?
S.R: So basically the Sharpeville massacre occurred and you couldn’t perform anywhere. So you just had to leave.
S.B: We had to leave. We knew this guy Paul Meyer, who was in Zürich. He said, “Okay you guys. I can find Abdullah a place to play here. Do a concert. Collect some money. Say you’re leaving.” Then that’s how we did it. We ended up in Zürich. [Abdullah, his bass player and his drummer] were playing in this club called the Africana. The guy didn’t care whether I sang or not, but I just forced myself to sing, so I could keep growing and stay in touch with myself. Then I heard Duke Ellington was coming into town and that he had some connection – I don’t know if I read this in the Downbeat – but anyway, I kind of knew some of this, that Duke Ellington was dealing with Frank Sinatra and Reprise Records. Frank Sinatra wanted to record with Ellington [and allowed Ellington to record six acts in Europe]. I don’t know how, I think it was Paul Meyer, who got me backstage. It was just marvelous. I was standing there. I don’t know, somehow Ellington caught my eye and at a certain point, with all these people waiting to get in, he said, “Let her in.” Then I got into that room. He said, “Who are you?” I explained I was from South Africa and that I had heard about Reprise Records and that if he finds six acts that he likes, he can record for Frank Sinatra’s company and asked if he would come with me to this club. I said, “There is this trio. It’s my boyfriend [Abdullah].” “I’m sure you would love them. Could you just come with me?” He said, “Oh, okay. Just hang around. Hang around.” So after the thing, he comes out. He said, “Oh sweetheart, you’re still here?” I said, “But Sir, you said to wait for you and you would come with me, because I want you to hear this trio.” “Okay,” he says. So he comes with me. I think that’s really remarkable, because he didn’t know me. He says, “Okay, let’s go. Can I bring my barber with me?” I said, “Yes sir.” He pulled up at the Africana. The guy was putting the key in the door, because it was 12 o’clock [and the club closed at 12]. But, when he saw me getting out of the cab with Ellington, he put the key back in the door.
S.R: When Duke Ellington showed up to Abdullah Ibrahim’s gig, what did he do?
S.B: So he listened. He said, “My goodness. This is wonderful.” He heard the trio. He said, “But tell me. How old are you?” Well, I was 22 or 23 I think. But I looked maybe 18 or so. He said, “Well, what do you do? You cannot be a manager. You’re just a baby.” I said, “Sir, sometimes I sing.” He says, “Oh, then go sing.” Actually I didn’t sing an Ellington song. I think I sang I’m Glad There Is You. He said, “I can’t believe what I’m hearing. Listen, I have to leave tomorrow at three o’clock with my band. We are doing a whole tour of Europe. Can the two of you be at my hotel at 10:30 in the morning? We need to talk.” We couldn’t wait for 10:30 to go to the Baur au Lac Hotel. We went up to Ellington’s room. He said, “Alright. When I’m done here you go and talk to my accountant. He’s going to give you guys money and you get on a train and in five days someone will meet you at the station. In five days, I’m going to meet you in the Barclay Studios in Paris.” So we did just that. I just remember someone met us at the station and took us to this hotel on the Champs Élysées. I had never stayed in a hotel like that; it was so grand. You just walked in and they came to you with champagne glasses and things. I thought, Then, from there, someone picked us up and took us to the Barclay Studios. Duke Ellington walked in with a very beautiful lady, who he said was the Countess. He had Billy Strayhorn with him. Really they called him Sweet Pea; he was just so tiny. [Ellington] said, “Okay Bea” – then I was known as Bea – “Bea, this is Billy. You go over here.” He sent us over to this little upright. He lifted up the top of the piano. He put matchsticks in between the hammers and he said, “So, the two of you will get together and whatever. I’m the producer. I’m going into the recording studio.” or whatever you call that.
S.B: The booth. He went in there. Strayhorn had a Highball and a cigar. He said, “Hi sweetheart. So what are we going to do?” Well, I had never met him before. Instead of me saying, “I’m going to sing an Ellington song.” I said to him, “Oh, I’m going to do A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square.”, which of course is one of the songs that Abdullah had so beautifully written out. But coming from South Africa, being the Union of South Africa and all, Abdullah had written gorgeous changes to this. So Strayhorn said, “I don’t know this song.” So I was trying to teach it to him. Strayhorn was struggling. Finally Ellington said to Abdullah, “Listen, do you know that song?” He said, “Yeah.” He said, “So you go and you write those changes down for Strayhorn.” Strayhorn said, “I don’t know it. But it’s so beautiful. I want to play it.” Many people think, when they hear that CD, that it’s Abdullah playing there, but it isn’t. It’s Strayhorn, but he’s playing Abdullah’s changes and it sounds like Abdullah. Then Duke Ellington comes running out and he says, “Oh, okay. Stray – do you remember the song that we wrote for Ivie Anderson some 45 years ago or something? Well, it didn’t take off. But you know what? I think she can go in that room and in 20 minutes she can learn the song.” If anyone had told me that I could go in a room and in 20 minutes learn a song that I’ve never learned before, I would say you had to be crazy. But you know what? It was the magic of Ellington. So I went in the next room and I learned the song, called Your Love Has Faded. I learned it in 20 minutes and I came back and I did it with Strayhorn. Then, after doing that with Strayhorn, Ellington said, “Okay, now you record with your regular trio.” So Abdullah sits down. I decide I’m going to do I Got It Bad. So Ellington says, “Hold it. She’s singing my song.” He comes running out and he says to Abdullah, “Move off. Move off.” I thought, “Oh my God. I could just drop dead now or I could sing like I never sang before.” He started. He said, “Let’s find the key. Okay. D flat. Alright. Give me a minute.” You can hear how the first bar he is tentative, because he said, “Nobody ever sang it in that key. But this is surely so beautiful.” He wanted to play it in that key. There I was singing with Ellington, because he told Abdullah, “She’s singing my song.” Then he asked me after that, “Do you know Solitude?” I said, “Sir, I know the melody. I have never sung it before.” Of course, I Got It Bad I had sung before. But I had never sung Solitude. So he said, “Okay, somebody write the words down for her,” which Strayhorn did. “Come on sweetheart, we’ll find a key.” He found a key and he said, “Let’s go.” Then I did Solitude for the first time. But I’m telling you again, if anyone else had said these things to me, said, “You can do this.”, I would have said, “You have to be to be crazy. I need to rehearse. I need to get this together. I need a couple of days.” But Ellington said it. When he said something, you did it.
S.R: What did Ellington think of Abdullah’s playing?
S.B: Oh, I think he was just blown away. After that he said, “So now you’re going to do some stuff that you normally do with Abdullah.” We did “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year.” We did “Love A Man.” I can’t remember all the songs that I did with Abdullah. But no, Ellington was just blown away. We kind of knew he was going to get this stuff to Frank Sinatra. I had no idea that he wouldn’t get my stuff to Frank Sinatra. I thought that was going to happen too. So eventually he did send Abdullah’s stuff and Frank Sinatra put out on Reprise Records Duke Ellington Presents – well, then he was known as Dollar Brand – The Dollar Brand Trio. I’m telling you, if he had just said The Dollar Brand Trio it would have been one thing. But when it came out on Reprise Records, Duke Ellington Presents – I don’t know what Abdullah thinks or what he says or what anybody says, but I know it changed. We just got more work in the whole of Europe. We got decent fees. We went to play at Antibe, the Jazz Festival, Montreux. It just changed.
S.R: Your life changed like that.
S.B: Well, not mine. Now I’m waiting for my stuff to come out. I’m waiting and waiting months and years. Eventually I met Ellington again. I said, “Sir, how come? What happened?” He said, “You know, I knew you were going to ask me that. I feel so bad. All I can tell you was that Frank gave the stuff you and I did to the Mafia. And we can’t get it back.” So I said, “Oh, okay. I will still tell people I sang with Ellington, because you know what? I did. I know I did that.” So I will just continue to say, all these years, all 40 years after, I recorded with Ellington. Abdullah once told me he went to Palermo. They said, “Hey Abdullah, listen to this.” And they played that. So Frank did give my stuff to the Mafia. But I can’t go to the Mafia and say, “Could you give me my stuff?” Neither could Ellington. Nobody could do anything and they really did have it. So I said, “Well, never mind. I don’t have the stuff. But you know what? I know I did that recording. So I will just keep telling people I did that.” You got a lot of reaction from people. “Yeah, right.” – you know. Duke Ellington Presents Dollar Brand – that came out. Now you say you did it. Where is it? Where is it? Where is it? So I didn’t have it. Miraculously, some 40-something years later, this guy was writing a book on Strayhorn.
“To me, it was you can take any song and you can just put your whole self into it and you can sing it the way you want. You can do what you want. It symbolized freedom.”
S.B: David Hajdu. A Professor of Music or what is he? Professor of English at Columbia? Well, I don’t know what he was doing there. But he was going to Paris.
S.R: The guy that recorded it, who used to be a Nazi, right?
S.B: Yeah, yeah. So he goes there. This guy says to him, “Listen, I know that Bea Benjamin lives in New York City. Unbeknownst to her, because I just fell in love with how she looked and how she sang, I made a secret recording. I’m 92. I don’t want to just leave it lying around here with my stuff.” I think he had somebody who was going to take care of his catalog. “Take this and when you go to New York you just find her and you give this to her, because now it is hers. Totally, it belongs to her, this secret copy.” That’s magical, because it’s 40 years later. Maybe God didn’t want it to come out at the time it should have come out. I have no idea. Now I do have it and it is mine.
S.R: Now you have the proof.
S.B: And I have my own record company and I just put it out myself. And I have the proof. Thank God. I really felt good. As I said, I still continued to tell people, “Now listen, I don’t have the proof. But I did that. I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t. But I know I did it.” I just think that’s a magical story.
S.R: It’s a story with so many nuances and curves and unexpected turns. It’s pretty remarkable.
S.B: That is remarkable. So I have it. It’s mine.
S.R: Now you are basically immortal.
S.B: And you know what? I did start my own record company, because, when we ended up here, I told Abdullah, “Okay, listen.” I had heard about Betty Carter. She started her own record company Bet-Car. I didn’t want to travel anymore, because I wanted my son, who was six, to go to school here in New York City. I had to raise this little girl. She was just a couple of months old. I just told myself, “You know what? I’m going to start my own record company.” I had no idea how you do this, and it was vinyl. So the whole idea was that you’ve got to get musicians. You’re going to have a rehearsal. Then you’re going to a studio. Somebody told me about Rudy Van Gelder out in Englewood and that he was absolutely the best. William said to me, “Look, if you’re going to be working with me, I have to introduce you to Rudy, because he’s the best. If you’re going to do anything, you have to go there.” So to this day I still hear – maybe Abdullah’s going to hear this. Because then I just kept going there and making more and more recordings, not CDs, just long playing records and going to Rudy’s and having Buster Williams and Kenny Barron and Larry Willis and all the best. Abdullah said, “I can’t believe it. You took all my money and you started a record company.” I said, “Yes.” But that is my legacy. Then I can leave that to the children. I can leave that in the Library of Congress. I can leave it in South Africa. It belongs to us. Abdullah is with Sony now. I even recorded some stuff of Abdullah’s.
S.R: So, I’m going back to Ellington really quickly, for one more question. Now, I know you had a relationship with him up until the early ’70s on and off. I don’t know how close you were to him, but you knew him pretty well over the years.
S.B: If we were in Europe, we would go see him and say hi.
S.B: At a certain point he said, “You know honey? You know, if you’re going to be doing jazz, if you’re going to be a jazz singer, listen and let me tell you, God gave you two of the greatest gifts. He gave you talent and he gave you imagination. These are two great gifts from God.” I’ll never forget that you know. I’ll never forget the things he said to me. He said, “You know, if you’re going to do anything, just remember 99% won’t do.” That’s so excellent. If you’re going to do something, you just have to do it with everything you have.
S.B: I think he was so absolutely happy and delighted, because I think he always wanted to go to Africa. One time he said he actually got invited there. But they told him he would have to play to separate audiences. He said, “Why would I do that? If I go to the South here, that is why I don’t go there, because they tell me I would have to play to separate audiences. So that’s why I never went to South Africa.” He was always asked to come there. That’s why he never went there. But he so wanted to go to South Africa and he was so loved there. He asked us. He said, “Is that true? Would I have to play one night to colored people and one night to African?” We said, “Yes.” He said, “So I have it absolutely right. I just said no.”
S.R: Would you say that, in terms of colonial exploitation in the continent of Africa, apartheid is the second worst thing that happened over slavery?
S.B: Absolutely. Yeah. Slavery was like black Americans were ripped away from the continent. You know, with apartheid, we had our continent ripped away from us. That’s as close as I can come to it, is to say it’s basically the same thing. It’s the same loss. It’s the same – what’s the word I’m looking for? I’m looking for a very special word here. Experience. It’s the same thing.
S.R: What did jazz symbolize to South Africans?
S.B: I don’t know about anybody else. I can only talk for myself. But to me, it was you can take any song and you can just put your whole self into it and you can sing it the way you want. You can do what you want. It symbolized freedom. Freedom to create on your own terms. Classical music – you can’t do it with that. When I went to college, when I was studying, I took an extra course in music just because I loved music. They would be singing light operettas. Mr. Ulster would say, “Listen, I’m letting you stay in this class, because I know you love to sing. That’s why you’re here. But you know what? You’re going to have to sit right in the back, because when you are doing Opera, you have to sing on the note. You have to sing how it’s written and you are scooping all over the place.” Little did I know that scooping is actually jazz. That’s what you do. You take a sound and you – who was it said, “I can take one syllable and I break up the syllable into three or four notes. And I do that. But I’m not doing it deliberately.
S.R: Intuitively. Do you think jazz then almost takes on more powerful meaning and is even closer to South Africans than say jazz in Senegal or jazz in Ethiopia, because you had the oppressive forces of apartheid?
S.B: Absolutely, yes. Yes. Yes. That you connect that – that’s absolutely true. Of course.
S.R: Which is why you would say maybe jazz took firmer root in South Africa than in any other place on the continent.
S.B: Yes, that and the background of when the Dutch came. The singers, who come after me, have a very guttural sound. It’s in the throat, because when the Dutch came – there are still jazz singers coming from there. But if you listen to them, they have to work really hard to get rid of the Dutch thing in there. But with me, coming from parents and grandparents coming from Saint Helena with the English thing, that’s why I can sing jazz.
S.R: So let’s move a little bit ahead around the era of the Soweto uprising. You were going back to South Africa periodically until that moment, until that time.
S.R: So tell me about that incident and how that really affected you.
S.B: Well, that was – I think if you are involved with jazz, you are automatically involved politically. It has political implications. Not like political political. But it’s there. It’s about that. It’s also very nuanced and very subtle. When the Soweto thing happened, that’s when we knew.
S.R: Can you say just ‘Soweto uprising’ for the radio?
S.B: Soweto uprisings. We had a house there in that area – was it Claremont? I forget where. Athlone or something. It moved from Johannesburg to Cape Town. The school kids were not rioting, not exactly rioting. What were they doing?
S.B: Protesting. They would run into the house. I would be hiding them. I said to Abdullah, “No, no. We have to get out of here.” You couldn’t really do anything, except hide them in your house. It was too political. You could do that thing and hide them in your house, hide them hiding in the back. We did all of that. But this was just too puny. You couldn’t do anything about it. That’s when I said to Abdullah, “Now we have to go. We have to get out of here. We can go to Europe and we can alert people in Europe as to what’s going on.” We would get arrested, go to jail. It didn’t make any sense.
S.R: What was the worst thing that ever happened to you under that government? Is there a specific story?
S.B: You know, I can’t remember this. Everything was horrible. Everything was against the grain. Everything was against your own humanity. I can’t remember if we were physically tortured. I just knew it was impossible at that point. Why? Because you couldn’t really do anything to change what was happening, except hide the children in your house and get arrested. What was the point of that? What about the music? The music always we could do, because we were expressing ourselves. At that time I wrote a song called “Nations in Me, New Nations A Coming? Children of Soweto.” I started writing these and getting involved politically, musically.
S.R: Didn’t you write these songs in the late ’70s or some of these songs? You wrote Liberation or something.
S.B: “Liberation Suite.” Yeah. “Nations in Me, New Nations a Coming.” Actually, we had gone to the African National Congress. Well, when we came here we got involved with the African National Congress. We said instead of us making statements, we should do concerts. That’s when I went to, then it was called Lourenço Marques. Now it’s called Mozambique. Having dinner there with these people, we did some concerts there, liberation concerts. I sat at the table with all these people, different people. We weren’t able to do that in South Africa, sit with colored people, Portuguese, white, all different nations of Africans. I felt so good sitting there with these people. On the way back, that’s when I wrote Nations in Me, New Nations A Coming, because I envisioned sometime we were going to get there, where Mozambique was. We are going to be free. That’s how and when I wrote that song.
S.R: Do I have that song?
S.B: No. I recorded it on vinyl. There is this guy, Professor Daniel Yon, who has all my stuff. He took it all with him to Toronto and he hasn’t sent it back to me. Even my son was asking about it the other day. He said, “That’s a brilliant song you wrote mom. Mom, you’re a genius.” I said, “No, I’m not a genius.” But whatever I write, because I can’t sit down and say I’m going to compose a song. I told you that I can’t do that. Sometimes I get words. I get lyrics. Other times I’ll get a melody. Sometimes I’m walking in the street and I think, “Hey, wait a minute. These lyrics go with that melody.” Everything with me is completely inspirational. I will get it or I won’t get it.
S.R: Why did you say to me earlier that this is the first South African jazz recording?
S.B: Because it was. It really was where you had all jazz musicians. It wasn’t mixed with pop or with any of the other kinds of music that was around there, like traditional or anything. It was the first jazz recording done by Gallo’s. They were not interested in me. I couldn’t get anything done. You know South Africa was never interested in me. [40:00] Recording me – never. I could do my shows and things, because I forced to do that. I just said, “I’m doing this.”, and then I would do it.
S.R: You listen to all the other jazz influenced South African music around that time and you listen to this record. There is nothing that sounds like this.
S.R: It sounds so modern.
S.B: Yes, but it was called Jazz Epistles Verse One. Then came Sphere Jazz. There was another thing – Sphere Jazz. Is that true?
S.R: I’m not sure, but yeah.
S.B: That was number three. Then there was Jazz Epistles Verse Two. I don’t have these things. Because you are showing to me on a CD, I have never seen this. I just remember the long playing record Jazz Epistles Verse One, with Kippie Moeketsi, Abdullah, Hugh Masekela.
S.R: So why is this record so important in the history of jazz in South Africa?
S.B: Because Gallo’s finally let them just play jazz. They didn’t say, “You have to mix it up with this, a little of that, traditional or whatever.” It was the freedom. It was the freedom that Gallo’s gave them to do Jazz Epistle Verse One.
S.R: Now you have a book coming out.
S.B: Now we have this book. Dr. Carol Muller – we became friends. She actually wanted to come and interview Abdullah and he wasn’t here. He was in India or something. I said to her, “Why don’t you come and interview me?” So that’s how we got to know each other. Then she just saw this whole wealth of stuff. We had many, many interviews. She’s a very dear friend. Then she said she was writing this book on jazz from South Africa. I said, “Okay, good.” She said the first half is jazz from South Africa and the other half is my story. I’m telling you, it took me about two weeks going to the park, separating myself out of the house to write my story. That means I had to go back in my life, how it all started. You have no idea. I cried. I was so overwhelmed just going back and writing that story. I asked Carol, after I presented her with the whole thing. I said, “It is done. I’ve done it. Can you tell me why I was so overwhelmed? Why did I cry so much?” My whole life and what I did just resonated so within and I realized how far I’ve come and all the sacrifices I’ve made. I’m looking for a very special word here. My whole experience, my whole experience as a jazz musician, singer, composer – I’m just a sometime composer. But I was very overwhelmed writing that book, because I had to go back. Like I was telling you, when you asked me, “When did you first start?”, I had to really think and go back. And all of this goes back to 1963, when I went to that concert and I met Duke Ellington. He plays such a role in my life, even though he’s long gone. Even though I think in this country, honey, they have not fully recognized [his contributions] in the jazz world – or let’s not even call it jazz, because sometimes I do believe Ellington went beyond jazz.
S.R: Well, let’s just say this. Duke Ellington is probably one of the most important artists of the 20th century the world has ever seen.
S.B: Thank you for saying that, because that’s really true. But I don’t think that – do you think the jazz world recognizes fully the importance of this man and his music? Not only his music, just the man and his sheer humanity and that he was the ultimate gentleman. His personage, his whole being – he was magnetic. I have been blessed to have him in my life, because one thing led to another and now I’m here talking to you. And we are citizens of this country. All of this would not have happened if, in 1963, I didn’t go backstage and say hello. I don’t know if Abdullah agrees with all of this. I don’t know and I don’t care. All I know is this is the truth. Ellington is long dead. He is long not here anymore. But what a magnificent human being. The fact that he told me that he brought me here, he said, “Survive. God gave you two great talents. I bring you here. You want to be a jazz singer? Okay. You have to compete. You have to be here to compete. You can be in Europe and be the greatest. You can be in Africa and be the greatest. But you need to be here. Otherwise you will think you are a somebody.” You know what I mean? So this is good to have competition. It is good to put yourself against so-and-so. I think, in my case, sometimes some people have a problem in accepting that I’m coming from Cape Town and I’m singing jazz. But you know what? Jazz went right around the world. I’m not saying it comes from Cape Town. But I heard it, for whatever reason that I was supposed to catch on to it.