July/August 2004 By Christopher Porter
From JA to SA and Everywhere in Between
As we do every year in the July/August issue, we have focused much of our coverage on guitarists, including John Abercrombie, Charlie Hunter, Russell Malone and more. But there’s a greater theme at work in this edition of JazzTimes, one that addresses the jazz-informed music of regions outside of North America, Latin America or Europe—namely Jamaica and South Africa.
In 2000, Gwen Ansell and two other South African journalists, Phumzile Mlungwana and Peter Makurube, conducted more than 50 interviews for an eight-part radio series, Ubuyile/Jazz Coming Home. These 20 minute programs were well-received, but Ansell soon realized that she had important material that would never be aired, so she set about to write a book on the history of jazz in South Africa. We’re very happy to be able to run an excerpt from Ansell’s forthcoming book, Soweto Blues: Jazz and Politics in South Africa, during the country’s 10th anniversary of democracy. If you’ve never heard the township-informed grooves of South African jazz, this article is a fantastic primer.
Another anniversary—and a new CD—inspired our other big story.
Guitarist Ernest Ranglin was a constant, important presence at many recording sessions in Kingston during the late 1950s and early 1960s, a time when jazz-savvy musicians adapted Jamaican folk music, the jump blues of Louis Jordan and Bill Doggett, the Latin rhythms from nearby Cuba and the big-band swing and solos of Duke Ellington and Count Basie into a style that emphasized the afterbeat and became known as ska. As ska morphed into rock steady and then reggae, the world came to know Jamaica as a nation of incredible musical talents, most popularly personified by Bob Marley.
A teenaged Monty Alexander was present at some of these Kingston studio sessions in late 1950s and early ’60s, sometimes sitting in on piano with the older guys, sometimes just soaking up the vibes, before he moved to Miami with his family in 1962. But Alexander never lost his love or interest in Jamaican music, following its progression from afar as well as on frequent return trips to his homeland. Whenever he returned to Jamaica, Alexander would seek out his friend Ernest Ranglin, and the two have maintained a personal and professional relationship ever since.
Alexander and Ranglin fete their homeland’s popular music on the new
Telarc CD, Rocksteady, and it’s with these two that we begin our investigation into the role of American music, and especially jazz, in the creation of a sound that is so distinctly Jamaican.
In the early 1960s the Skatalites were the house band for Clement Dodd’s legendary ska and reggae label Studio One as well as for a number of other producers such as Duke Reid, King Edwards, Randy Chin and Justin Yap. The Skatalites peg their debut under that particular rubric to 1964—even though they were making hit records together and developing a sound that would later evolve into reggae several years earlier. While original tenor saxophonists and prime movers Tommy McCook and Roland Alphonso died a few years ago, and trombonist Don Drummond passed away in 1969, bassist Lloyd Brevett, drummer Lloyd Knibb and alto saxophonist Lester Sterling are carrying on ska’s hyper beats and honkin’ horn solos 40 years later with a younger crew. (Original guitarist Jah Jerry and trumpeter Johnny “Dizzy” Moore are alive, but they no longer play in the band.)
Ranglin, Alexander and the Skatalites are the popular faces behind the jazz-to-ska story, as they’ve all had successful careers outside of Jamaica. But we also chronicle the numerous musicians—now somewhat forgotten by all but the most dedicated fans of Jamaican music—who made invaluable contributions to a sound that is known and loved the world over.
Just like jazz.
Originally published in July/August 2004