Reflecting on South Africa’s National Youth Jazz Festival

It was a great honor, over this past week, to participate as a performing musician and as a teacher at South Africa’s National Youth Jazz Festival. The youth portion of the jazz festival runs for the first six days and involves a large number of daily performances and educational workshops. The underlying concept of the festival is to create an environment where people from a variety of different backgrounds come together to inspire each other so that everyone involved will grow in a musical way.

When the festival’s director, Allan Webster, spoke of this concept in the meeting on the first night of the festival, it reminded me of a video Nancy Hanks featuring Yo-Yo Ma. In that video, Ma points out that the greatest potential for creativity exists where two or more cultures meet. He compares the overlap of the cultures to areas on our planet where two or more ecosystems meet. That place is where new life forms are created. The same is true in music and other types of art. Creativity is born in that overlap.

Click HERE to see the video with Yo-Yo Ma talking about culture and creativity.

South Africa’s National Youth Jazz Festival brings together jazz musicians from many different parts of the world. I was one of only three Americans participating. Other artists were brought in from places like Norway, Switzerland, the UK, and Brazil. Fourteen different countries were represented this year.

Of course, most of the participants, both students and performers, were South Africans. There is a rich tradition of creative excellence in jazz in South Africa. That was extremely obvious to me on this trip. The musicians I worked with and those who I had the privilege of seeing perform have all the right qualities that I try to teach my students. They are genuine musical artists who’s music touches your heart.

Expressive Music at All Technique Levels

Afrika Mkhize Big Band Trumpet Section

Let me spend just a little time writing about what I mean here. I am constantly telling my students that they can express themselves now. The technical things we work on in the lessons are not prerequisites to expressive musicianship. The ability to express yourself through music is something that is available to us at all skill levels. And in fact, I truly believe that musicians who wait to be expressive only after they feel they are ready, in terms of technical ability, are musicians who tend to sound cold and “technical” in their performances. The South African musicians I worked with and heard perform last week sound to me like musicians who have been expressing themselves since the first day they began playing their instruments. When you put expression ahead of technique in your musical priorities, your music touches lives.

This is not to say that musicians who touch people’s hearts this way don’t have enough technique. I know that some people will take what I’m writing that way. Not at all. What it means is that when you listen to these musicians, these artists, your focus is on the message, not on the craft. Who looks at a beautiful painting by a famous artist and says, “what wonderful brush technique”? True art really doesn’t work that way. An expressive musician uses technique as a tool to deliver his or her message. In fact, it is the message that dictates just how much technique is necessary.

Afrika Mkhize Big Band

And that’s what I see in the South African jazz musicians I heard this week. It was a pleasure for me to hear such fine music that touched my heart.

My involvement in the festival was mostly centered on a couple of performances with the Afrika Mkhize Big Band. Afrika arranged a set of compositions by Bheki Mseleku for full big band, some of them also featuring vocals. The band was comprised of mostly South African musicians, but also had a tenor sax player from the UK (Dave O’Higgins), a trombonist from Switzerland (Andreas Tschopp) and yours truly on trumpet. Here is the full personnel list:

Marc de Kock, Mthunzi Mvubu, Dave O’Higgins, Sisonke Xonti, Justin Bellairs on saxes. Sydney Mavundla, Sakhile Simani, Eddie Lewis, Lwanda Gogwana on trumpet, Andreas Tschopp, Kyle du Preez, Murray Buitendag Justin Sasman on trombone, Afrika Mkhize on piano, Bokani Dyer on piano, Benjamin Jephta on bass, Ayanda Sikade on drums and Siya Makuzeni.

Educational Participation

On the teaching side, I gave workshops on jazz history, how to learn the jazz language, and two workshops on general trumpet technique. I also worked with the students who have been performing one of my compositions and gave a couple of sectionals, one for the top band and one for the B band.

My teaching was very well received. Not all of my workshops had great attendance, but sometimes that worked out for the better. It gave me the opportunity to really connect with the students. It is always a pleasure to see the students’ faces light up with understanding and that happened many times throughout the week.

My only regret was that I failed to heed Allan Webster’s warning in his welcome to everyone on that first night. He told us all to pace ourselves, but on those first two days, I was so eager to see and hear everything I could that I ended up spending the rest of the festival trying to catch my breath.

Expressing Gratitude

As the festival progressed, I attempted to express my gratitude to as many people as I could. My career is not like most of the people who do this sort of thing. My last trumpet teacher, Dick Schafer, used to refer to musicians like me as “grunts” (like Army foot soldiers fighting in the trenches). Other people call us “gig rats”. I make my living serving people through my music. For that reason, I am not well known as a performer – not at the level that the other artists featured in this festival are. I have past students who are considered some of the best jazz musicians in the world today, but I remain a humble servant. So I always have a great deal of gratitude whenever these sorts of opportunities present themselves along the course of my career.

So let me say it again… Thank you to Allan Webster, Donné Dowlman, and Matthew Boon for doing such a wonderful job hosting the jazz festival. Thank you Afrika Mkhize for your artistry and professionalism. It was a pure joy performing with you and the band. Thank you to my section mates, Syndey Mavundla, Sakhile Simani and Lwanda Gogwana. You guys made me feel like part of the family. A special thank you to my good friend, Leonard Brandt, who made me feel at home the whole time I was there. And finally, thank you to all of the musicians and students. You are special people and such interesting musicians. I learned so much in the short time we spent together.

I remember saying to a Kyle du Preez before I left something along the lines of:

“Jazz musicians are some of the friendliest people in the world but working with jazz musicians in the friendliest country in the world puts it way over the top!”