South Africa: Playing Is All – Artist-Led Jazz Concerts in Joburg

Covid has starved musicians and fans of live music, but jazz nights in venues across the city are banishing that blues bringing the blues back.

As saxophonist Sisonke Xonti tears up a steamy solo on the Jazz Room stage, trumpeter Lwanda Gogwana smiles. On a Friday evening in the brand new jazz hall in Johannesburg, Gogwana leads his quintet through his composition Blues from the Top. While the band plays in upscale Rosebank, Jazz Room punters sip red wine and strawberry daiquiris, and tuck into vegetable moussaka or steak smothered in shitake mushroom sauce.

The Jazz Room hosts one of many jazz nights that have sprung up in Johannesburg over the past year. It feels like jazz is leading the charge in bringing live music back to the city after the various lockdowns and restrictions of the pandemic.

Kabelo Mlotshwa, head of programming at the Jazz Room, explains that the venue was once a smoking area for the Doppio Zero restaurant. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the owners decided to do something different with the space, and on March 14, 2021, trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni’s performance launched the Jazz Room. Since then, the hall has hosted some of the greatest lights of the genre, including Carlo Mombelli, Madala Kunene, McCoy Mrubata and Bokani Dyer on its stage.

As a jazz fan, Mlotshwa says it’s great to see live music again. “It’s a question of chemistry, of energy transferred between the musicians and the public.”

The rise of jazz evenings

Sandton has eDikeni, Rosebank has the Jazz Room, Doornfontein has the Marabi Club and Midrand has 250 On Cedar, while Braamfontein has the Mangrove and the Leano Stage. Additionally, March will see a few more jazz nights hit the stage for the first time. Monarch Restaurant in Sandton is launching one on Thursdays and Bertrand Jazz Lounge in Maboneng will soon be launching its Church of Blues night on the first Thursday of every month. Saxophonist Teboho Moruti Mokoena said the Church of Blues will explore the blues in all its forms, with guest musicians joining every first Thursday to explore the genre that gave birth to jazz.

“There’s so much going on,” says jazz and classical music promoter Aymeric Peguillan. “Jazz is coming back stronger than before Covid.” He was involved with the now defunct Johannesburg jazz club The Orbit, which was the city’s first venue but closed in early 2019. South African jazz fans listen when Peguillan speaks – and he still promotes music sessions in Johannesburg. “Maybe that’s what Johannesburg needs, not one main jazz club, but lots of different jazz nights,” says Peguillan.

He says what’s fascinating about most new nights is that the artists drive them and direct them. “Musicians want to perform and jazz needs an audience,” says Peguillan. “It’s easy for them to go up to a venue owner and say I can add value to your venue.” He also points out that ticketing companies like Quicket have made a huge difference, making it much easier for artists or venues to organize and manage a party.

Examples of what Peguillan talks about include Mlangeni’s curation of the Thursday Night Jazz Party at the Mangrove in Braamfontein, the curation of bassist BandaBanda (real name Sam Ibeh) of the Leano Stage and Mokoena’s Church of Blues party. Mlangeni says live music has been slow to emerge from the pandemic, but as it begins to return to Johannesburg, musicians cannot just sit and wait for gigs to roll out. They must be active in creating their own spaces to perform. He says partnering with the Mangrove to launch a jazz night was a win-win situation, as it allowed an artist-led jazz night to grow over time.

Lereko Ntshona, owner of eDikeni, agrees that these new forms of partnership and collaboration between musicians and venues could go a long way towards creating a sustainable live jazz circuit. “The days when a musician could just wait for a fee are over,” he says.

Jazz in confinement

Ntshona says running eDikeni during the pandemic has been “quite a journey”, admitting the restaurant started live concerts at the “worst possible time”, just before Covid-19 started to spread. “We launched it with a series of pop-up events in December 2019,” he says. “And then in March 2020, lockdown hit.” Ntshona says the closure of restaurants and the stopping of live events has affected a large number of jobs in different sectors of the economy. “A lot of people have been laid off,” he says. Without an obvious way forward, the uncertainty created by the pandemic had to be carefully managed, Ntshona said. “It was really hard, you couldn’t plan ahead. You had to figure out how to be agile enough to survive the change.”

eDikeni got its live music offering back on track in October 2020, but Ntshona says audiences balked. The venue, which offers indoor and outdoor dining, began with shows for 50 people in a space that could seat 200. “Safety has become a priority,” he says. “At the time, we were the only ones doing shows.”

Other venues such as Tshepo Riba’s 250 on Cedar in Midrand also tried to hold jazz and Afro-pop sessions in late 2020 – around the same time eDikeni restarted its live music offering – but found the environment too difficult. 250 on Cedar did not get their live music offer permanently until the following August.

Ntshona says musicians were thrilled when live sessions started at eDikeni in 2020. “They kept telling me that playing ability was everything,” he says. Mlangeni explains that a live concert represents a litmus test for musicians, a place where they can craft their ideas in conversation with their peers and audience. Not only has the Covid-19 pandemic taken away this vital exchange from musicians, it has also usurped most of their income.

Trombonist Malcolm Jiyane, whose sextet played a New Year’s set at 250 on Cedar, found the lockdown traumatic. “An artist is like an athlete. You have to stretch,” he says. “Whether there’s a concert or not, you have to stay in shape. But it’s hard to stay in shape when you’re hungry.”

Mlangeni is quick to point out that the cancellation of live music doesn’t just affect musicians. “There are servers, bar staff, security, sound companies who have all been affected,” he says. “The Covid-19 pandemic has been very difficult. It has taken everything away.”

happy music

Fast forward two years and eDikeni is one of many venues where the public can watch live jazz in Johannesburg. Ntshona says he is not surprised. “Jazz has always stood the test of time,” he says. “It’s the sound we turn to when we need healing and joy. The pandemic has been a very difficult time…which has forced a lot of people to turn inward.” This has helped instill in many people a desire for a home and a sense of belonging, which jazz taps into.

Mokoena agrees that people have turned to jazz and blues for solace. “People need the blues right now to keep us going through these tough times,” he says.

BandaBanda believes that jazz allows audiences to imagine what could be, as it abounds with endless possibilities and improvisation. This makes it a natural fit for what South Africans have been through in recent years. “I see the excitement,” he says. “People are craving live music and musicians are really excited to play again.”

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