Monday, December 27, 2010

In Memoriam: Robbie Jansen & Tony Schilder

Tony Schilder Trio feat. Robbie Jansen: Montreal

(Album out of print)

The jazz scene of Cape Town, South Africa, is quite unique. A port city, it has consolidated the sounds of the Malays who once were imported as slaves by the Dutch with the jazz and soul music collected at the docks from visiting American sailors, the harmonies of Africa with the need to move impelled by the music from Brazil and Cuba, riding the influences of Stan Getz, Miles Davis and Hugh Masekela — and, above all, because it is jazz, the riffing with the collaegues on the scene. It is a scene like no other, a genuinely multicultural melting pot in which the artist is equally at home producing experimental jazz or fusion as he (usually it is a man) is with getting people to dance. Cape jazz has even produced its own form of dance, called the Jazz, which borrows from the Latin types of ballroom dancing. Though never really salacious, it can be very sexy indeed.

Few exponents of Cape jazz sought their fortunes outside their country, or even country. The few who did with success include Jonathan Butler and Abdullah Ibrahim (who before his conversion to Islam was known as Dollar Brand; the nickname acquired because he always had a stash of US currency to buy jazz LPs from sailors). Many of the jazz men who stayed behind became local legends; most have died in undeserved poverty, true martyrs for their art.

The ultimate Cape Town jazz song is Dollar Brand’s Mannenberg, named after the ghetto Manenberg, which is populated by the mixed-race people classified under apartheid as “coloured”, dumped there because their previous homes were located in areas declared “white”. Brand’s multi-racial backing band included the saxophonist and singer Robbie Jansen, a man of prodigious talent and bad habits. Like most of his peers a political activist, Jansen was known to be a generous man who encouraged young talent.

His recorded output was scant; a couple of LPs under his name, a few more on which he appeared (such as those by Pacific Express, Butler’s old band, and briefly Juluka). Above all, Jansen was a live performer. And as such, at a nightclub in ca. 1988, he delivered the greatest interpretation of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On I’ve heard (he later recorded the song; alas, I’ve not heard it).

Jansen died on July 7 at 60. Less than half a year later, on December 8, his frequent jazz collaborator and friend Tony Schilder died at 73, after a long illness.

Tony Schilder was known as the gentleman of jazz; always impeccably dressed with polite manners, he played the keyboard like few could. Dollar Brand wrote his jazz symphony about Manenberg, but Schilder made the place his trademark through his co-ownership of and residency in the 1980s at the stylish nightclub Montreal, incongruously located in the rough township. The club’s theme song, a lovely slice of music (with, it must be said, pedestrian lyrics), was recorded twice: in 1985 with Robbie Jansen on vocals (it is that version featured here) and in the 1990s with Jansen and Butler sharing the microphone.

Like Jansen, Schilder built a reputation as a live act. As far as I know, he recorded only three albums, the first of which, titled Introducing Tony Schilder (1985), was produced by Jonathan Butler, who also sang and played guitar on it (and had a song, JB's Back In Town, named after him). That set, with great vocal tracks and Latin-flavoured instrumentals, remains one of my all-time favourite jazz albums – objectively so, even if that preference may be clouded by the nostalgia for my younger, more handsome nightclubbing days...

After Jansen died, a trade unionist proposed that the city of Cape Town name a street after him. I believe a whole district should be named after the greats of the Cape Jazz scene.

Read an excellent post on Schilder at this outstanding blog.

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