Originality was not expected from the first couple of generations of European musicians who learnt to play jazz. They congratulated themselves simply on absorbing the component parts of the idiom with sufficient thoroughness to produce an efficient copy of their American heroes. Any display of genuine and sustained stylistic individuality by a European was usually ascribed to some special ethnic element in the player’s background: Django Reinhardt’s Sinti roots, for example, or Joe Harriott’s origins in Jamaica. It was not until the South Africa’s Blue Notes arrived at the Antibes Jazz Festival in 1964 that Europeans were introduced to the idea that the aesthetic boundaries of jazz need not necessarily be determined by Americans, and that its aesthetic climate could be allowed to vary according to geography.

The Blue Notes who performed in Antibes were a six-piece band. The tenor saxophonist Nikele “Nick” Moyake, 31 years old, was their most experienced member. The remainder were the 19-year-old trumpeter Mongezi Feza, the 26-year-old alto saxophonist Dudu Pukwana, the 27-year-old pianist Chris McGregor, the 17-year-old bassist Johnny Mbizo Dyani and the 24-year-old drummer Louis Moholo. Like their European contemporaries, they had begun their careers by copying their idols, such as Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and Horace Silver. But the environment in which they grew up ensured that their music, even in its mimetic stage, could not help but drenched with its own special flavours. These were musicians who had grown up listening to kwela, the joyfully melodic street music played on pennywhistles, to the swing-influenced dance music called mbaqanga, and to the hymns sung in the churches of their townships. And while their American contemporaries in modern jazz were reaching for a new relationship with African rhythm, these musicians had grown up with African polyrhythms in their blood and bones.

So the unique flavour was there from the start, as can be heard on the recordings of McGregor’s first big band, made in 1963, and of the Blue Notes themselves, captured the following year, shortly before they took themselves into exile. Already proficient disciples of a modern jazz movement headquartered in New York, they were showing signs of having something of their own to offer: at first, to European ears, most marked in the emotional generosity and openness of their playing. Although their technical proficiency was beyond dispute, they seemed not to be preoccupied with the sort of precision that most Europeans then regarded as crucial to establishing a credible jazz voice. They could play, in the technical sense, more than adequately, but that was just a start on the road to the music they wanted to make.
In their exhilarating rawness and willingness to stretch and bend the conventional structures and tonalities, they seemed to be in tune with what Charles Mingus had been doing a handful of years earlier in such albums as “Tijuana Moods” and “Blues & Roots”. Although a thoroughly schooled musician, Mingus had taken to teaching his musicians their individual parts by ear, believing that the absence of written scores would encourage them to recreate the sort of spontaneous interplay heard in the very earliest jazz. But the Blue Notes’ very different intonation and rhythmic sense set them apart from any American precedent.

They had come from all over South Africa – Pukwana from Port Elizabeth, Moyake from the Eastern Cape, Feza from Natal, Dyani from East London and McGregor, who became their de facto leader, from the Transkei — but it was in Moholo’s birthplace, Cape Town, that they played their first gigs together. The conditions could hardly have been more difficult, given that their mixed racial make-up (McGregor was white, the others black) made them immediate targets of the laws — such as the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act, the Native Laws Amendment Act and the Group Areas Amendment Act, all of which came into force in the 1950s– specifically designed by the apartheid government to keep the races apart. When they travelled around South Africa in search of work they had to keep, in the words of Maxine McGregor, Chris’s wife, “one step ahead of the police” as they travelled from gig to gig in a dilapidated VW Kombi.

So Europe provided a refuge, where they imagined that they would receive a warm welcome and be able to make a living without hindrance. That did not turn out to be exactly the case. After their appearance at Antibes, where they spent some time in the days following the festival playing on the streets, they moved to Zürich. This was at the urging of Dollar Brand (the pianist later known as Abdullah Ibrahim), who had left South Africa in 1962 with the touring company of the musical “King Kong” and settled in Switzerland. Brand secured them occasional gigs at the Africana Club in Zürich and the Blue Note in Geneva, while they spent the winter living together in the basement of a student house. There is a story from that time of an uncomfortable exchange between Moyake and Wayne Shorter, when Brand hosted a party to which he invited the Blue Notes and the members of Miles Davis’s quintet. The exchange ended with Moyake accusing Shorter of playing nothing that he, Moyake, had not played before.

Moyake had fallen seriously ill and returned to South Africa by the time the band moved on the following spring. In London, their next destination, they had been offered a two-week engagement at Ronnie Scott’s Club, where they attracted considerable interest from critics and listeners who were surprised by the very idea of South African musicians playing jazz. The common language and the existence of a community of South African expatriates helped to persuade them that this was the place to stay.
The authorities, however, were not inclined to treat them as refugees from an oppressive state, escaping the racist laws that prevented them from playing together in public. Britain’s Musicians Union, more concerned to protect its members’ short-term interests than to increase the opportunities for cultural enrichment, made the Blue Notes wait the statutory 12 months before accepting them into membership, thus unwittingly perpetuating the restrictions they had left their homeland to escape. Among the few gigs they were able to play was one at a pub called the Duke of York in central London, conveniently located opposite the headquarters of the exiled African National Congress. Despite the difficulties, their presence in London began to exert a powerful effect on a new generation of young British musicians, who responded to the special warmth and immediacy of their approach to the business of playing jazz.
For the South Africans themselves, however, there was one more evolutionary step to be taken. In 1966, with opportunities scarce in the UK, they were invited to play at Copenhagen’s famous Montmartre Club, which had already hosted the likes of Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler. Exposure to the “New Thing”, as the avant-garde of the ’60s was known, stretched the boundaries of the South Africans’ music still further, offering them permission to make the fullest use of their already highly vocalised instrumental sounds and the passionate extroversion that went hand in hand with a special gift for yearning lyricism.

Coming back to London with a new outlook, they found two venues offering a chance of regular exposure to a small but highly committed audience. At the Little Theatre Club in Covent Garden, run by the drummer John Stevens, and at Ronnie Scott’s Old Place a few streets away in Chinatown they could take advantage of an environment which encouraged regular groups to intermingle and form new combinations. It was in these informal laboratories that young British musicians such as the pianist Keith Tippett and the saxophonist Evan Parker heard the Blue Notes at close quarters and began musical relationships that would be significant to their careers. McGregor also assembled a big band, adding British musicians to the line-up alongside the South Africans, although the expense of running such an ambitious project quickly put an end to its activities.

More a while, too, those same economic factors forced the core group to head in different directions. Feza married a Danish woman and returned to Copenhagen. Dyani and Moholo joined a quartet with the American soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy and the Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava, playing first in Italy and then in Argentina, where the two South Africans were stranded in Buenos Aires for several months until McGregor managed to get them back to London. They returned in time for the reconsituted Blue Notes – with Ronnie Beer taking Moyake’s place – to record their first album, “Very Urgent”, for the producer Joe Boyd (best known for his folk-rock work with Fairport Convention, Nick Drake and the Incredible String Band).

In June 1970 McGregor reformed his big band under the name Brotherhood of Breath, including Parker, Mike Osborne and Alan Skidmore on saxophones, Marc Charig on cornet, Malcolm Griffiths and Nick Evans on trombone, and other local musicians. From its very first gig, at the Notre Dame Hall just off Leicester Square, from which Chris gave the proceeds to the ANC, it was apparent that this would become one of the most unusual and exciting large ensembles in the entire history of jazz, one in which the Ellingtonian tradition was quite brilliantly extended to make room for the expressionism of the avant-garde – as the audience at the Berliner Jazztage learnt during the band’s concert at the Philharmonie in 1971. This time a recording contract with RCA, a major label, helped sustain it. The other Blue Notes, too, formed their own groups: Pukwana’s Zila and Assegai, Dyani’s Witchdoctor’s Son, Moholo’s Viva La Black. Feza contributed to the solo albums by Robert Wyatt, formerly of the Soft Machine.

And then, one by one, they began to disappear. Moyake died in South Africa in 1969. Beer moved to Ibiza, where he makes boats. Feza died in 1975, prompting Wyatt to exclaim that he didn’t think he’d been able to make another record without his friend. Harry Miller, the bassist who moved from Cape Town to London in the late ’60s and often took Dyani’s place, died in 1983, followed three years later by Dyani himself, and by McGregor and Pukwana in 1990. Of the originals, only Moholo is left to maintain the tradition, leading his own groups and collaborating with friends old and new, contininuing to play some of the familiar tunes, such as Feza’s “You Ain’t Gonna Know Me ’Cos You Think You Know Me” and Pukwana’s gorgeous ballad “B My Dear”, while retaining even in his eighth decade the ability to transfix an audience and bring his fellow musicians to life with a single sudden whipcrack.

Newer generations carry the essence of their approach into the 21st century. Loose Tubes, a big band formed in London in the 1980s by young musicians heavily influenced by the Blue Notes, reformed for a series of concerts and a new album this summer; their pianist and composer Django Bates has passed his love of the South African musicians’ spirit on to his students at the Rhythmic Music Conservatory in Copenhagen, the Royal Academy of Music in London and Bern’s Hochschule der Künste. The Dedication Orchestra, containing some original members of the Brotherhood of Breath, reconvened in London in 2014 to present to a new audience the arrangements by Tippett, Mike Westbrook, Kenny Wheeler and others of the Blue Notes’ compositions that they first recorded in 1992.

The saxophonist Julian Argüelles, also a founder member of Loose Tubes, released an album called “Let It Be Told” this year, featuring his arrangements for the Frankfurt Radio Big Band of pieces by Pukwana, McGregor, Feza, Dyani, Abdullah Ibrahim and Miriam Makeba. The music of the South African exiles, Argüelles says, “always had a wonderful balance between something accessible, melodic and grooving, and something challenging, a little bit crazy. There was the township thing on the one hand, and free jazz on the other. When they moved to freer music, they kept the accessibility. Maybe Sun Ra and Mingus were others who could do that, but the Blue Notes’ music had its own character, and it influenced a lot of people.”

When Enrico Rava first heard them in Antibes in 1964, on their first appearance outside South Africa, he experienced “as big a shock to my system as the Miles Davis Quintet with Tony Williams had been during the previous year’s festival. I’d never heard anything like it before.” He was immediately struck by what he later described as the music’s “purity and originality”. Those qualities continue to resonate down the years with an undiminished vibrancy, a legacy of illumination and inspiration available to all who care to listen.

Deutsche Übersetzung in der taz-Beilage vom 17. Oktober 2015 auf unserer Website.

The article has been published in German translation in a supplement to taz. Die Tageszeitung on 17 October 2015. The full publication is available on our website.

The Jazzfest Berlin 2015 takes place from 5 to 8 November 2015. On 8 November 2015, 19:00 Louis Moholo-Moholo Quartet featuring Alexander Hawkins will perform at Haus der Berliner Festspiele.