Abdullah Ibrahim: A Focus on Spirituality

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Pianist Abdullah Ibrahim is making plans for the future and looks forward to recording with a pair of orchestras.

(Photo: Tom Mesic/INNtöne Jazz Festival)

I realized that it was serial music and there’s this formula. So, why not crack the formula? All of this music was composed by other people, so you bow to it, of course.

I studied with Hall Overton in New York [circa 1965], and he gave me Bach preludes and fugues to study. Then he said, “OK, play it to me.” Because Bach was not recorded, it had to be my interpretation. So, then I realized, “Bach’s phrasing is how he breathes, but that’s not my breathing.” I had to find my own voice.

You recorded one album with the Epistles. Is that what led you to be viewed as incendiary by a government that didn’t understand or trust jazz?

The music can be very political in a bigger sense than you can even think. Here’s someone who is breaking the rules. Did they really understand what we were doing? We knew it was subversive beauty. But a big thing for me was being asked to play on a significant broadcasting corporation radio show by this woman who had a weekly show. I think she was one of those musicologists. I’m sure she thought that she would keep what I played for posterity without us getting paid, of course. So, I played Monk’s “Crepuscule With Nellie,” and the government banned it. They thought it was insurgent; they didn’t know what “crepuscule” meant.

This was right after the Sharpeville Massacre [1960], a violent protest against the pass laws. Soon after, they clamped down. It became awful for all of us, painful even. At four o’clock in the morning the police knocked on my door at my house and brought me to the police station. They claimed that I hadn’t paid a speeding ticket in Free State, which was the equivalent of the deep South in the U.S. then. I remembered that some years earlier, I got a ticket, but the officer tore it up when we gave him cigarettes. The police in Cape Town said I had a violation there and wanted to take me there to fix it. I said I’d pay for the violation, but they wanted to take me there. But I didn’t want to because I could be disappeared. I left the country right after that.

How did you get out with a clampdown going on?

There was a commercial artist living in Cape Town who was into the music. He said, “You’ve got to get out of here.” I said, “But we don’t have any money.” So, he withdrew money from his bank and had us buy tickets on a propeller plane. After a few attempts to land first in the Congo, then Algeria, then Paris—which were all going through political issues—we ended up in Zurich. Somebody introduced us to the owner at Club Africana, where we played every month. When we weren’t playing we went to see American artists touring, like Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane.

Was your music accepted in Zurich?

Not really, but later I heard that small groups of students used to come and listen for hours and sip on one Coca-Cola. We did have a lot of support from the musicians there. We were playing as a trio of fellow exiles with Johnny Gertze on bass and Makhaya Ntshoko on drums. The funny thing is we lived in Zurich on the second floor of a student’s house. I didn’t have a piano. One day, there was a knock on the door and a piano was delivered. To this day I don’t know who did this for me.

Then, in 1963, Duke Ellington gave you a lift up.

The club owner wouldn’t let us go to see Duke and his orchestra, who were [on tour in Zurich]. So, my girlfriend, [the singer] Sathima [Bea Benjamin], went and met Duke. She told him he must come to hear us. I don’t know what she said to him, but we were just about to close when Ellington and some of his band came. The next day, he met with us, and three days later had us come to Paris to record an album for Reprise Records, where he was an A&R representative. That was Duke Ellington Presents The Dollar Brand Trio.

Then you moved to New York because of the album.

The reaction to the Dollar Brand record was good. I felt like I won the election, even though I was still a fledgling. Coming to New York [in 1963] was like living in the golden ages. I met everyone. I hung out with Coleman Hawkins an entire day, just listening to him play “Picasso.”

And then I met Monk. I liked his music, but I thought, “This guy is crazy.” I introduced myself. I said, “I’m from South Africa. I think you’re great and thank you very much for inspiring me.” He looked at me quizzically and walked around the room a couple of times and came back again and said that I was the first piano player to tell him that. At the time, many people were talking negatively about him, how he couldn’t play, he didn’t know the scales. I wanted to study with Monk, but I knew that was impossible. But I met Hall Overton, who arranged the music for Monk’s big band, and he said he would teach me. But I had no money.

How did you take the next step?

I went through the Yellow Pages to look for philanthropic societies. There were 120 of them, so I hand-wrote letters to each of them. They all came back negative. But then one came back from The Rockefeller Foundation. I had said that I wanted to study, and they gave me a grant to study with Hall Overton. That’s how I got to understand Monk better. Of course, I got a lot of flack from the local musicians. “You come from Africa, and you get this money. Why did they give you this?” And I replied, “Because I asked for it.”

So, you and Sathima stayed in New York?

We went back and forth from New York to Zurich, and then at one time back to South Africa. In New York, we lived in the Chelsea Hotel for ... years. We needed a place to stay when we first arrived, so Don Cherry introduced me to Stanley Bard, who was manager and part-owner. It was quite a place, known as an artists’ hotel. It was really incredible. You didn’t care about neighbors playing music at 2 o’clock in the morning, and it was just a walk away from all the clubs in the Village.

Let’s talk about your new album, The Balance. Originally it was going to be titled “Jabula,” which means “rejoice.” Why the change?

“The Balance” is an older song that we retitled; it’s upbeat. It’s about the concept of joy after this arduous trip that we all embark on individually. You get to a point after you think that you’ve accomplished all this, and you get this brief respite of joy. But you know that the road is ongoing, and that there will be more of these moments.

It’s a balance between all of these different moods or modes. It’s like the album. There’s Ekaya on many of the tracks and three solo pieces that are totally improvised. They start from scratch and can never be played the same way again.

What does your future look like?

I’ve formed two philharmonic orchestras of young musicians in South Africa and Milan, and we’ll be doing my songs with their words. Every song I’ve written has lyrics, but they never come out in an instrumental setting. A long time ago, I wanted to record an album with Johnny Hartman singing, but that never happened. So, the words will finally come out. These young players are unbelievable. This is a new generation. We’re calling it the AI Pops Philharmonic, and Gearbox is totally into recording this.

That sounds like a major challenge.

It’s like anything else. It’s a mental exercise where sometimes we paint ourselves into a corner. But it is very simple and profound at the same time. It is the profundity of simplicity. That’s been my career. DB

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