Louis Moholo-Moholo and The Dedication Orchestra in Vancouver
Bill Shoemaker
Legend: Its misuse in jazz discourse is rampant and approaches the odious. 99.99% of the time, it is wrongly attached to a person, as in: Charlie Parker, Jazz Legend. To the contrary, a legend is a unverifiable story or a group of stories that have nonetheless been handed down through many generations, and are now accepted not so much as literal truth, but as means to evaluate texts, artifacts and forensic evidence.

Additionally, Legend status has been so widely applied, particularly in the marketing of jazz, to have a permanently diluting effect. It is not even exclusively used to denote achievement. The musician who resisted the allure -- or the illusion -- of the big time, stayed in his hometown, raised a family and held down a day job, playing only occasionally in public, now qualifies. Nor does the term speak to current abilities. The sideman on a few sides of historical importance can turn up 40 years later and be hailed as the Legend de jour until it becomes painfully obvious that he is chops-less.

Louis Tebogo Moholo-Moholo should not be called a Legend, even though contemporary standards indicate that he towers as such. Employing jazz’s dominantly American lexicon in such a way would distort, if not diminish what Moholo-Moholo signifies. Hailing the drummer as “the last of The Blue Notes” has a romantic ring (it also has the marketing undertone of “buy it while it lasts”); but, it gauzes over the tragedy that his comrades died too young and far from home. Referring to The Blue Notes as an “integrated” band has resonance with Americans, particularly when it is pointed out that they were contemporaries of the slain “Mississippi Burning” activists; but, it does not address the African context in which the Blue Notes came together, or the unique horrors of Apartheid. And, Homeric characterizations of Moholo-Moholo’s current residence in South Africa idealize a complicated scene.

The celebration of the 65 year-old Moholo-Moholo must not reduce the complex historic and artistic forces of his life and times. And it won’t, if Moholo-Moholo has any input. That was certainly the case at his Blindfold Test, presented June 28 at the TD Canada Trust Vancouver International Jazz Festival as part of its Think Jazz series. Like many musicians, Moholo-Moholo thinks the set-up is contrived, a game of gotcha at worst. However, he liked the idea of hearing music that traced the arc of his career, and the idea that he could stop the music with a nod. Subsequently, Moholo-Moholo set the tone for the proceedings, and it was deep.

There were several moments during the event where Moholo-Moholo’s energy seemed to suddenly plunge and he sank into his wingback chair. It wasn’t jet lag or disinterest; the music was hitting him hard. The only point it surfaces vividly in the transcript is when he mutters, “Johnny, Johnny, Johnny” at the opening measures of the late Johnny Dyani’s heartstring-pulling “Song For Biko.” This also explains why his answers seem occasionally truncated. The English language was failing him.

In a way, these moments were even more instructive than his comments. For Moholo-Moholo, Dyani, Mongesi Feza and the others are not legend or history. They are at the core of his being. This partially explains why, to appropriate the title of the classic Blue Notes LP, Moholo-Moholo’s music remains fierce and joyous.
Louis Moholo-Moholo Blindfold Test
TD Canada Trust Vancouver International Jazz Festival
June 28, 2005
Vancouver Community College

(Note: Even though such recordings-activated exchanges are part and parcel of most jazz magazines, the term “Blindfold Test” is historically linked to Down Beat, who holds the copyright to the name. The decision to identify and advertise this event as a “Blindfold Test” was solely TD Canada Trust Vancouver International Jazz Festival’s.)

Louis Moholo-Moholo: Before we start, I must say this. I give you all regards from the people of South Africa. I told people that I was coming here and they all said I must greet you for them. Thank you very much.

Bill Shoemaker: Thank you, Louis. It’s a privilege to be here with you. If you’re ready, let’s begin.

Moholo-Moholo: I wonder what he’s going to play.

1. Charlie Parker: “Just One Of Those Things” from Bird: The Complete Charlie Parker On Verve.

With Walter Booker, Jr. (piano), Jerome Darr (guitar), Teddy Kotick (bass); and Roy Haynes (drums).

Recorded 1954

Moholo-Moholo: Great old Charlie Parker. Fantastic. “Just One Of Those Things.” I think at this time Charlie Parker was at his best. I think it’s Max Roach, who is something else.

Shoemaker: You first heard Charlie Parker through an unlikely medium -- British military radio. It’s ironic that you would discover this music of freedom through such a source.

Moholo-Moholo: I thank the British for that, but no thanks for the Apartheid when I was growing up. The British had a base in Simonstown, where they played all the stuff: Ted Heath, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, my greatest drummer, Big Sid Catlett. These musicians influenced us a lot. Charlie Parker influenced us a lot, as well as most Americans. So, thanks but no thanks to the British who were there.

Shoemaker: This recording was made in 1954, when you were 14 and just starting to play in jazz groups. At 17, you were playing with the Chordettes and later with Ronnie Beer’s Swinging Six. What was it like being a teenager in South Africa and trying to learn and play jazz in that environment?

Moholo-Moholo: We were under heavy manners in South Africa, as you know. After I started playing drums, I was arrested for being somewhere I shouldn’t have been, in a white area. I was busted and sent to jail for 14 days, man. 14 days in jail for just being in this area, coming back from a gig. I’ve never told this story, but at this gig, I played behind a curtain, because I was playing with white cats, and whites and blacks couldn’t play together. I played behind the stage, behind a curtain, man. When we finished and I was going home, that’s when I was busted. In those days, we played in places where even my mother could not go, places in Cape Town where we played for white people. My mother couldn’t go into these halls. That’s how bad it was.

2. The Jazz Epistles: “Scullery Department” from Jazz In Africa Volume 1 (Camden)

Kippie Moeketsi (composer, alto saxophone), Hugh Masekela (trumpet), Dollar Brand (aka Abdullah Ibrahim) (piano), Jonas Gwangwa (trombone); Johnny Gertse (bass); Makaya Ntoshoko (drums).

Recorded 1959.

Moholo-Moholo: Hugh Masekela. It’s The Jazz Epistles. This is Dollar Brand, no? Yeah, man. Makaya on drums? And Gwangwa? Bass, hmmm: I don’t know. And Kippie. Yeah, Kippie.

Shoemaker: What did it mean for young musicians like you to have a group like The Jazz Epistles actually make a record and have that type of recognition in South Africa at that time?

Moholo-Moholo: The Boers suppressed a lot of things like jazz, so not everyone knew about them at first. Only the people who knew jazz would buy records like this. It didn’t spread out at first. When the cats went into exile, then the record became famous. Otherwise, it would have been unheard of in South Africa. A lot of things were unheard of in South Africa. Some records like <<We Insist!>> by Max Roach were banned in South Africa. But, we used to get them.

Shoemaker: Then you’ll probably recognize the next track.

3. Max Roach: “Tears For Johannesburg” from We Insist! Freedom Now Suite (Candid).

Max Roach (composer, drums), Abbey Lincoln (voice), Walter Benton (tenor saxophon
e), Booker Little (trumpet), Julian Priester (trombone), James Schenck (bass), Olatunji, Ray Mantilla, Tomas Du Vall (percussion).

Recorded 1960.

Moholo-Moholo: Abbey Lincoln. Yes, I do know this. I told Max Roach about it, how his record was banned in South Africa, and how we heard it. He was sad about it. I met him at a festival when we first came over with the Blue Notes, maybe Italy. We were in the same bus, collected at the airport at the same time. I met Max in London as well. He was such a good drummer that I couldn’t stop watching him. He befriended me. I think he liked me because I was a brother from South Africa, not because I was a drummer. I don’t know what he thought of me as a drummer. He thought he was helping the situation in South Africa in a way.

Shoemaker: It was the first American jazz record to address the situation in South Africa, so it does have a special resonance with Americans for that reason.

Moholo-Moholo: That’s good. (At beginning of Booker Little’s solo) This cat reminds me of Mongesi Feza.

Shoemaker: What qualities in his playing remind you of Mongs?

Moholo-Moholo: The attack, man. So much power, you know?

4. Chris McGregor & The Castle Lager Big Band: “Now” from The African Sound (Teal)

15-piece ensemble featuring Chris McGregor (composer, piano), Mongesi Feza (trumpet), Nick Moyake (tenor saxophone), Dudu Pukwana (alto saxophone), Sammy Maritz (bass), Early Mabuza (drums).

Recorded 1963.

Moholo-Moholo: Aha! I was there at the festival in Johannesburg where this was recorded, but I wasn’t on the record. It’s Early Mabuza on drums. I was there with Sammy Maritz, Tete Mbambisa and Ronnie Beer, who was in The Brotherhood of Breath in London, as well. He’s disappeared now. He lives in Spain, I think. I don’t think he plays any more. So, I went with Sammy Maritz to the recording session and just listened. I was just hanging out. Dudu was there. One day, Early Mabuza had a problem with Chris (McGregor) in the middle of a tour. So, I got the call, because Early Mabuza wasn’t making the gig. I knew the music in and out, so it was no problem. I played the concert without rehearsal, nothing, and everybody was happy, and I was hired. From there, The Blue Notes started up. Then we got the call for the Antibes festival and we took off and never returned.

(During tenor solo) Shoemaker: Do you recognize the tenor player?

Moholo-Moholo: Yes. It’s Nick Moyake. We played in The Blue Notes with him. He left with us, but he got disillusioned being in self-exile in Switzerland. Being in exile is something else. He couldn’t stand it in the cold in Zurich. So, he went home and was called -- died of a brain tumor only three months after he split from us. It’s a pity that the West never heard this guy. He was our god. He was more advanced than us. He was beautiful. If you know Dudu; he was always dragging Dudu. This was how heavy he was. It was a pity that the West didn’t hear him. (Beginning of trumpet solo) There’s Mongesi Feza. Hmmm. But, this drummer is good, too, Early Mabuza. Very good. He died very young, too. It’s a pity the world didn’t hear this cat. Sammy Maritz was in The Blue Notes, too. Then, at one point, he couldn’t make the tour, so we got Johnny Dyani. That’s when Johnny joined the band.

Shoemaker: What were you doing at this point to get a personal sound, to distinguish yourself from other drummers?

Moholo-Moholo: It came pretty naturally. I didn’t think about what others sounded like. It’s just by luck, maybe, that you find something. It’s something that you can’t really explain. Something you have to realize: South Africa was really hard. You had to play yourself. It was difficult to come up in South Africa. A middle of the road musician can’t make it in South Africa. In South Africa: you play shit, they tell you. Straight away. Really, man. They show you. When the band is playing nonsense, the guys are proposing to the chicks or there’s some guy coming up with his bicycle -- in the hall. Because they’re bored.

5. Mike Osborne Quintet: “Molten Lead” from Mike Osborne Trio & Quintet (Border Crossing + Marcel’s Muse) (Ogun)

Mike Osborne (alto saxophone), Marc Charig (trumpet), Jeff Green (guitar), Harry Miller (bass), Peter Nykyruj (drums).

Recorded 1977

Moholo-Moholo: Good energy, man. Nice energy. Mike and Harry, man.

Shoemaker: Mike Osborne and Harry Miller were close associates of yours during the 1970s. The three of you played as the Mike Osborne Trio and you were all in The Brotherhood of Breath. Miller was also from South Africa, but was not one of The Blue Notes. How did you meet him?

Moholo-Moholo: He went to England with Manfred Mann, who was a pop star. Harry was hanging out in London and stopped playing with Manfred, who then made millions. Harry didn’t regret leaving Manfred to play with guys like Mike Westbrook. When we got to London, Harry was already there. He was already married to Hazel Miller. We happened to be playing at the old Ronnie Scott’s. We met Harry there.

Shoemaker: This is the only CD I could find with Mike Osborne and Harry Miller without you on drums.

Moholo-Moholo: (laughs). We played a lot, man. Maybe it’s better I’m not on this. Maybe I would have fucked it up. I don’t know this drummer, but he’s good.

6. Johnny Dyani Quartet: “Song For Biko” from Song For Biko (Steeplechase)

Johnny Dyani (composer, bass), Dudu Pukwana (alto saxophone), Don Cherry (trumpet), Makaya Ntoshoko (drums)

Recorded 1978

Moholo-Moholo: Johnny, Johnny, Johnny. Hmmm. Dudu. Is it Don Cherry? And Makaya. Johnny’s style always reminds me of Jimmy Garrison. When they play, they solo. Always soloing, with a very big heart.

Shoemaker: This is “Song For Biko,” a dedication to Stephen Biko, whose life and death I’m sure you followed.

Moholo-Moholo: Yes, yes.

Shoemaker: It must have been terribly frustrating to have been so far away from South Africa during episodes like this?

Moholo-Moholo: It was. They were shooting to kill then. The Boers were evil. Those days were very hard.

Shoemaker: Were you able to speak out at concerts or through other forums?

Moholo-Moholo: Yes, but the reporters went to Chris, so Chris became the leader of The Blue Notes. I’ll tell the truth, all right? Chris was a white cat and experienced Apartheid. We all left because we couldn’t stand it. When we were in Zurich, there was a special branch (of the South African government) that was after us, wanting us to talk about how bad South Africa is, all this sort of thing, and report back to the boss. We knew these guys. We didn’t talk to these guys. We were very suspicious of any reporter who came to interview us. But, Chris would talk to these guys and these guys would call Chris the bandleader. But, it was not his band. Everyone pulled his own. These special branches would do things to our mothers and our families back in South Africa. If you did say something about South Africa then, they would go to your parents’ place, you know?

Shoemaker: There’s something of a parallel here with Biko’s story. In the West, a mass audience knows Biko mainly through a movie that wasn’t really about him, but was more about his white friend. Often, the story is told with someone left out or it is told through the lens of a single person. That’s somewhat the case with The Blue Notes when Chris McGregor was put out front. If Dyani, Pukwana and Feza were still here, what do you think they would want to add to the record on The Blue Notes?

Moholo-Moholo: Hmmm. It’s such a pity that it makes me cry sometimes that South Africa got liberated without them, and that I’m the only one with the privilege of going to South Africa. They never saw the end of the Apartheid and never realized their dreams. And it makes me sad. I wonder ... It makes me sad.

7. Spontaneous Music Ensemble: “With Hindsight” from A New Distance (Emanem)

John Stevens (drums, mini-trumpet); John Butcher (soprano and tenor saxophone); Roger Smith (Spanish guitar); Neil Metcalfe (flute)

Recorded 1990.

Moholo-Moholo: I don’t know. John Stevens? Tony Oxley?

Shoemaker: It’s the last Spontaneous Music Ensemble. Getting back to this idea of the prevailing narrative, it is always written that Stevens, Oxley and a few other Europeans pioneered the use of unusual objects as percussion instruments in improvised music. Because there are no records of it, you’re not included in this part of the story, even though you started using things like pots and pans when you touring Argentina with Steve Lacy in 1967, if I remember correctly.

Moholo-Moholo: Yeah, this cat came on-stage in Argentina and smashes all my drums. The story behind it -- I would not like to tell you. But, that’s what happened: this guy smashed my drums to nothing. Later, I have to play with Steve Lacy. We were there with Enrico Rava and Johnny Dyani. I had to play, so I picked up some pots and pans and that’s how it all started. And I thought: OK, there’s something happening with these pots and pans. So, I came back to London and played with these pots and pans, and everybody was knocked out, actually. I influenced a few cats, perhaps. John Stevens was doing this, and Milford Graves was doing it in the States. I don’t know if Han Bennink was playing with pots and pans then or not. Tony Oxley started doing it.

Shoemaker: After you arrived in London, how long did it take for you to dive into the free improvised music scene created by Stevens and others?

Moholo-Moholo: Immediately. Immediately. We did this in Africa. You see, in Africa, you don’t count 1, 2, 3. You just dive in. Very strong guys like Dudu, Mongesi Feza and Johnny Dyani: they’re like crazy, you know? They just go. But, there were guys already there doing it, like Evan Parker, though we hadn’t met yet. We met later along the way, but early on. We got Evan to play with us and he did some beautiful work with us. We still play together today, on and off. And there was Keith Tippett: we still play together. Those were the days.

8. Charlie Haden and The Liberation Music Orchestra: “Nkosi Sikeleli Africa (Anthem of The African National Congress)” from Dream Keeper (Blue Note).

16-piece ensemble including Charlie Haden (bass), Carla Bley (conductor, arranger), Makanda Ken McIntyre (alto saxophone), Dewey Redman (tenor saxophone), Paul Motian (drums).

Recorded 1990.

Mohoho-Moholo: That’s my national anthem. Who’s playing it?

Shoemaker: Charlie Haden and The Liberation Music Orchestra.

Moholo-Moholo: OK.

Shoemaker: The sub-title of this version says it’s the “Anthem of The African National Congress.”

Moholo-Moholo: No, it’s the anthem of the entire people. The African National Congress was just an organization.

Shoemaker: Yes, but that is how it was widely known in the West back then. The narrative created in the West -- at least in the US -- was that the African National Congress was the vanguard of the struggle. That may or may not have been the reality. You now live in South Africa much of the year. Has that changed your view of the struggle and the liberation?

Moholo-Moholo: South Africa is so hard to explain. I think Apartheid is still in South Africa. There is poverty. People are still poor. The rich are rich. The white cats have the keys. But, everybody’s happy with the ANC. There are no more fights against the whites. The white cats are cool now. There will never be a Boer government that will repeat the same shit. It’s cool now for the white cats. It really is.

9. Stan Tracey: “Knuckle Shuffle” from the Stan Tracey/Evan Parker CD: suspensions and anticipations (Psi)

Stan Tracey (piano) (Note: This CD is largely comprised of duets with tenor saxophonist Evan Parker)

Recorded 2003.

Moholo-Moholo: I don’t know who it is.

Shoemaker: It’s Stan Tracey. You recently made a CD with him. You told me last fall that Stan and you just walked into the studio, sat down and started to play, without any discussion. When you’re playing with someone in this context, how can you tell, how soon do you know, that the other person is really there, creating with you in the moment?

Moholo-Moholo: The piano is not so difficult to play with, first of all. It’s percussion, so you can anticipate much closer to the drums than any other instrument. If you blow you have to start here (points to chest) and by the time you play, a drummer or a piano player can play a lot of notes. A piano is much faster. But, playing this way is not easy. I can do it with Stan because I knew him for a long time and liked his playing. I knew it couldn’t go wrong. I’ve been playing duets with piano players for a long time. I’ve played with Irene Schweizer, Keith Tippett, Misha Mengelberg, Alex von Schlippenbach, a lot of piano players. My chops are OK for it, so to speak.

10. Roberto Bellatella Quartet: “A Blessing In The Eyes” from Borrowed Time (Slam)

Roberto Bellatella (composer, bass); Claude Deppa (trumpet), Jason Yarde (alto saxophone), Brian Abrahams (drums).

Recorded 1998.

Moholo-Moholo: Is it Claude and Yarde?

Shoemaker: With Roberto Bellatella and Brian Abrahams. Bellatella, Deppa and Yarde were part of Viva La Black, the band you took to South Africa after the fall of Apartheid. What was that like? How were you received?

Moholo-Moholo: I felt lucky. You have to have luck. We were lucky when we went to Zurich. They liked us. They loved Dudu, who was such a sweet cat. Very, very funny guy that was full of music. He made people happy with his music. We would have a concert in Zurich and Dudu would play in the foyer, gathering everyone together. He’d be playing and playing and playing. We’d start playing on the bandstand and he would bring the audience in with him. And Mongesi: his horn was so beautiful. Very lyrical, very romantic, so much energy. You couldn’t avoid listening to him. And then Johnny Dyani, a Godsend, a very very good bass player. And Chris: a very good player who also wrote very nice music. A very good composer. Our stuff was genuine. A lot of people heard us -- The Art Ensemble of Chicago was listening. It’s a pity that we didn’t get together and record with The Art Ensemble of Chicago. Lester Bowie was after it early. He mentioned it again after Mongesi died. But, we kept on delaying it. And then Johnny died. And, Lester still wanted to do it. For some reason, we never got it together. But, Lester and me played as a duo. We did do that. So, many people knew what we played was genuine. That’s what people loved then and now.