Hugh Masekela, a trumpeter, vocalist and composer who was known as “The Father of South African Jazz,” died early Tuesday morning in Johannesburg, South Africa, after a long battle with prostate cancer. He was 78 years old.
“A loving father, brother, grandfather and friend, our hearts beat with profound loss,” his family said in a statement confirming his death.
Masekela was one of the last instrumental jazz musicians to have crossover pop success; his recording of “Grazing in the Grass” was No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks in the summer of 1968, and is a staple of the oldies radio format. He also appeared at the Monterey International Pop Festival the previous year, and in the 1980s toured with Paul Simon on the latter’s Graceland tour.
However, his popular fortunes had little to do with Masekela’s broader career. He had been a member of the groundbreaking South African combo the Jazz Epistles in the late 1950s, and in the 1970s and ’80s gained acclaim and influence for his anti-apartheid recordings. He also spent a great deal of time collaborating with musicians across genres, within and without sub-Saharan Africa. He was recognized in 2010 with the National Order of Ikhamanga in Gold, the highest honor that the government of South Africa bestows on its citizens.
“The nation mourns one [of] its most recognizable signature talent[s] in the person of Bra Hugh Masekela,” said South African President Jacob Zuma in a statement on Tuesday. “It is an immeasurable loss to the music industry and to the country at large.”
Ramopolo Hugh Masekela was born April 4, 1939, in KwaGuqa Township, Witbank, South Africa. He began singing and playing piano at a very young age, but was inspired to switch to trumpet at 14, when he saw Kirk Douglas in the 1950 film Young Man With a Horn. He convinced the chaplain at his secondary school, anti-apartheid activist and future Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, to buy him a trumpet in exchange for a promise to stay out of trouble. Quickly mastering the instrument, Masekela joined a jazz ensemble that Huddleston had formed—the first youth jazz orchestra in South Africa.
By age 17, Masekela was a professional musician, touring with bands around the country and working in local dance bands in Johannesburg. At 20, he founded the Jazz Epistles along with pianist Dollar Brand, trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, alto saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi, bassist Johnny Gertze and drummer Makaya Ntshoko, most of whom would also become important solo artists. The band made South Africa’s first album by a black jazz band, Jazz Epistle, Verse 1.
The following year, when South Africa’s Sharpeville massacre led to apartheid government bans on performances by or broadcasts of black musicians, Masekela went into exile, going first to London and then to New York, where he studied at the Manhattan School of Music from 1960 to 1964.
In the United States, Masekela formed important friendships with trumpeters Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, along with bassist Charles Mingus and vocalist Harry Belafonte, who helped Masekela establish himself on New York’s jazz scene. He also married vocalist Miriam Makeba, with whom he had been working as a trumpeter and arranger for several years. The marriage ended in 1968, the first of five marriages and four divorces for Masekela.
Having gained a following in America with his blend of bebop and South African rhythms, Masekela next scored a minor pop hit in 1967 with Jimmy Webb’s “Up, Up and Away,” recorded live at Hollywood’s Whisky a Go Go. He also performed on two singles by the California rock band the Byrds, and performed a set at the Monterey International Pop Festival in June.
A year later, “Grazing in the Grass,” with its relaxed groove and distinctive trumpet tone, became a surprise No. 1 pop hit. However, unable to duplicate its success, and saddled with cocaine and alcohol addictions, by 1973 Masekela had left the United States for Africa.
Still not returning home, Masekela settled in Nigeria, where he worked extensively with Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, and toured through sub-Saharan Africa, often as the leader of a Ghanaian funk ensemble called Hedzoleh Soundz. In 1974, he co-organized (with Stewart Levine) the Zaire 74 music festival in Kinshasa, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo). In the mid-1980s he moved to Botswana, where he built a studio for himself as well as founding the Botswana School of Music, where he also taught courses in jazz.
In 1977, Masekela’s song “Soweto Blues,” recorded with ex-wife Makeba, became an anthem of the worldwide anti-apartheid movement. Ten years later, he created another such anthem with the South African hit “Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela),” dedicated to the jailed anti-apartheid activist. Upon Mandela’s release in 1990, Masekela finally returned to his home country. However, he continued performing and touring around the world, and recorded over 20 more albums of his unique fusion of jazz, funk, pop and traditional South African music.
Masekela did not allow a 2008 prostate cancer diagnosis to slow down his career. He maintained a regular recording and touring schedule. In 2010, the same year he was awarded the National Order of Ikhamanga in Gold, Masekela performed at the Johannesburg opening ceremony of the FIFA World Cup tournament.
“His contribution to the struggle for liberation will never be forgotten,” said President Zuma in his statement of condolence. “May his soul rest in peace.”
Masekela is survived by his wife of 18 years, Elinam Cofie; a son, sportscaster Selema Mabena “Sal” Masekela; a daughter; Pula Twala, and two sisters, Elaine and Barbara Masekela.
Read this interview with Hugh Masekela by Carlo Wolff. Originally Published