HERE’S WHY THEY CHOOSE JAZZ

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Nigerian promoters of jazz music have a similar story. They all caught the jazz bug as children, influenced by parents. Sustained by love for a music genre that often ensured they were kept away from the bubbly crowd of giddy rhythm of the times, they consoled themselves in the slow, albeit, steady growth of the class; and the influence they command. To celebrate the International Jazz Day, Nseobong Okon-Ekong and Vanessa Obioha profile some contemporary organizers of jazz events

Arguably, Jazz music had some prominence in Nigeria before UNESCO set April 30 as International Jazz Day in 2012. The late jazz legend, Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong, toured some West African countries including Nigeria to resounding applause in the 50s.

It was during this period too that the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) formed a Dance Orchestra, a semi-big band, which played and featured jazz. Members of this Orchestra included Steve Rhodes, Fela Sowande, E. C. Arinze, Chris Ajilo, Mike Falana and Ghanaians Sammy Lartey, Stan Plange. That same era also witnessed the pioneering Voice of America Jazz Hour programme on radio which further converted most Nigerians to jazz fans. It was anchored by Willis Conover and reached 30 million listeners globally. However, it was the music aficionado Benson Idonije that took the gospel of jazz to most Nigerians when he kicked-off his weekly jazz show on Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) known as Jazz Club in the early sixties.

By this time, the late Afro beat legend, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, was back in the country and formed the first jazz band called Fela Ransome-Kuti Jazz Quintet.

Another interesting timeline in the promotion of jazz was the 1970s. This period saw the establishment of the Jazz Club of Nigeria.
In the 80s, Tunde Kuboye organized his Jazz 38 outfit that featured his dentist-singer-wife Fran Kuboye, while Doye Agama hosted a Port Harcourt Jazz Festival that featured his jazz band using water-pot drums, Peter King, The Preachers and the Port Harcourt based singer Maude Meyer. The 90s witnessed Muyiwa Majekodunmi’s Jazzville Club which was home to young jazz enthusiasts. The 21st century saw the rise of a new crop of jazz promoters-an eclectic mix from different walks of life. They reinvented the way jazz was appreciated, mostly in line with UNESCO’S mandate to use jazz as a universal language of peace.

Every April 30, music conferences, concerts and seminars are held to create awareness and promote jazz in over 190 countries in the world. The global host city for this year’s event is St Petersburg (Russia Federation) where the day will culminate in an extraordinary all-star concert at the historic Mariinsky Theatre.

Notable Jazz promoters in Nigeria include:

Oti Bazunu: Lagos Jazz Series
Bazunu’s encounter with jazz music is an interesting narrative. He quickly points out that the first time he listened to jazz music was when he was seven years old. He remembers his father taking him and his brother to a barber’s shop in Warri where they listened to the famous Dave Brubeck’s jazz piece ‘Take5’ playing from the jukebox coming from Radio Warri. There was also a time in the early 1980’s in New York City when he was driving in one of his first cars and was fooling around with the radio dial.

“I stumbled on to a station (WBGO) 98.7 FM and there was a familiar music from my childhood days – just like all good memories, I quickly locked-on to it. I still listen to the station today – streaming it on my PC.”

Jazz music stuck like glue in his consciousness. Often times, he found himself entertaining his friends in his garage which he had converted to a jazz den. Along the line, he learnt to play a few notes on the guitar. But it was during one of his return to New York City that the idea of having a jazz festival started forming in his brain.

“I remember travelling to NYC after a couple of years back in Nigeria. I was sitting in a restaurant waiting for a friend-Phil Roc. My mind was running through living in Lagos with all the stress, then I suddenly thought to myself that the city could use an outdoor, music-in-the-park type of fun to release ourselves of the stress. I then picked up a napkin on the table and sketched an outdoor music festival. Two years later, we started the Lagos Jazz Series. Incidentally, I had forgotten that napkin on the restaurant table, however, my friend had taken it with him. When I invited him to come and document the festival two years later, he found it in his jacket pocket as he was travelling to Lagos from Los Angeles. He gave me that napkin as a gift.

“The Lagos Jazz series is one of the most anticipated jazz events in the country today. The festival holds at three-to-four different venues depending on funding and artistes we have chosen for the year,” said Bazunu. It has paraded artistes like Marcus Miller, Bob James, Roy Hargrove, Hugh Masekela, Tiwa Savage, M.I. Orlando Julius and the Lagos Jazz Series Quartet.

A distinguishing trait of the Lagos Jazz Series is the ability of the organizers to bring pop musicians to perform their popular songs in a jazzy tone. For example in 2012, the festival themed ‘Under the Influence of Jazz’ witnessed Burna Boy and 9ice – with the help of Cobhams Asuquo, reconstruct their popular songs ‘Like to Party’ and ‘Gongo Aso’ in jazz.

“They came on stage and sang the songs with a full jazz orchestra,” enthused Bazunu. Scheduled to hold its ninth edition in November this year, Bazunu declared that he has a fantastic line up of events for fans and audience.

For Bazunu, the utmost challenge of jazz promotion in Nigeria lies in changing the perception of jazz music.
“Firstly, we have to try and uplift the musical consciousness of our Nigerian audience to include jazz music and that it’s not music for just older folks – it is music for all – for fine and civilized people. Of course, there is that almighty challenge of money – sponsorship. The idea of sponsorship has been fully abused in this country. It has become like a hand out/fused with corruption – so the idea of quid pro quo doesn’t seem apparent anymore. This has to change especially when there is genuine and authentic platform by which sponsors could come out with their brands and showcase to a meaningful audience.”

Sarah Boulos: Society for the Performing Arts in Nigeria Fest/Runway Jazz
Boulos does not teach or perform jazz music but she has been in love with the genre from her teen years. She used to listen to students playing jazz while in boarding school and of course, Louis Armstrong’s songs. However, through her Society for the Performing Arts in Nigeria which she presently chairs, she set up the SPAN Academy of Jazz and Contemporary Music in 2012. She is also one of the supporters of Runway Jazz spearheaded by Afolabi Oke. According to Boulos the jazz pendulum in Nigeria is swinging upwards, “Jazz awareness is on the rise. There are jazz festivals popping-up all over the country, tapping into the UNESCO recognition of jazz music.
I have decided to support Runaway Jazz because it gives the light to the performing arts and it is our vision to build a performing centre with an academy where such events like Runaway Jazz will promote our valuable artistes by empowering them and educating them and presenting them for the world to see.” She attributes her increasing appreciation of jazz to bassist, Bright Gain. “He always speaks of African fusion jazz, a mixture of African rhythm and jazz harmonies and melodic vocabulary like the music of Hugh Masekela.”

Dolapo Ajayi: Satchmo’s JazzFest Lagos
A trained lawyer, Dolapo Ajayi’s interest in jazz was spurred at an early age. He recalled growing up in Lagos, where his mother occasionally played albums by Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong, “whilst Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’ and Stan Getz’s ‘Girl from Ipanema’ ruled the radio airwaves. But I didn’t classify all of that music into the group called jazz. However, whilst attending St. Gregory’s College in the 70’s, jazz songs had found their way into the pop consciousness of my contemporaries and I. Best-selling hits like Grover Washington’s ‘Mr. Magic’, George Bensons ‘Breezin’’, Herbie Hancock’s ‘Chameleon’ were actually played as party songs that we slow-danced to. It wasn’t seen as anything intellectual. It was just good music,” he wrote in an email.

By 1978, Ajayi had the rare opportunity to watch George Benson play in what he termed ‘a very moving concert’ in Oxford, England. That singular experience provided a window to Ajayi to see the power of jazz music. He was so taken by the fact that Benson had to beg an audience before he could leave the stage after three standing ovations.

By 2014, he incorporated Satchmo’s Live Events. The next year saw the birth of his first Jazz Day event in commemoration of the fourth edition of UNESCO’s International Jazz Day.
“The mandate of the annual UNESCO International Jazz Day is to encourage ‘Jazz Awareness’ so that we can raise funds for the affiliated Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz and other institutions that teach Jazz. This is an initiative that we see as vital to the sustenance of the future of jazz music and we are developing CSR possibilities that allow corporate bodies and individuals key into our programmes. Our close Satchmo’s associate, Bobby Ricketts has come up with a ‘Band Doctor’ concept which helps jazz groups sort out areas where they could be doing better and helps them on the path to growth.”
For this year’s edition which will take place tomorrow at MUSON Centre, Ajayi is throwing all in the ring to make it an unforgettable experience.

“This year, we commenced an in-house Jazz Boot-Camp which will help teenagers and young adults who are interested in jazz meet, work and play with major national and international jazz players. We also have an agreement with Cloud 9, which is a brand-new club venue for only 60 lucky guests at a time, to host a monthly Satchmo’s Lagos Jazz Cafe with the brightest of jazz luminaries. We hosted our first event there on Friday to welcome Rikette Genesis who will be playing at our event tomorrow.”

Perhaps, the most important significance of this year’s event is underscored in the theme of his fourth edition. Called the 6th Degree of Sound, Ajayi believes it is the best way to show the world that all styles of jazz have a common African hybrid root that was created at Congo Square in New Orleans.

“This was where all the forced black emigrants from all over Africa, particularly West Africa, would gather on Sundays to create music to salve their weary and lonely souls. So, when we listen to the Nigerian music of Ebenezer Obey, Fela, Osadebe and Rex Lawson for example, and we hear elements of Jazz, it’s because African music is part of the DNA of authentic jazz. That will never change. The 6th Degree of Sound is a clear response to the fact that a lot of people, both young and old, can’t make the connection between Nigeria and jazz and see us as promoting foreign music which is a certain income category. By asking our very best artistes to create this tribute event to legends like George Benson, Grover Washington, Carlos Santana, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis, whilst bringing them up to date, we want to further reveal how truly African these songs are. This builds on the Jazz 101 project we started at our 3rd edition last year.”

If anything, Ajayi strives to see the audience begging for more from his performers like the George Benson concert he witnessed in London. Thus, he made it a duty to choose only the best artistes in the jazz sphere.

The artistes of his choice must “have a mastery of his instrument and have the ability to move the audience, and when called upon by the audience, proceed calmly to take the roof of the venue off.”

Jonathan Butler, Norman Brown, Rick Braun, Cleveland Watkiss, Carlo Rossi and the Organic Jam, Tunde Jegede and the Nomadic Mystics, Etuk Ubong, Imole Balogun and Femi Leye are some of the jazz musicians who have headlined his shows.

Ayoola Sadare: Lagos International Jazz Festival
There is no way you will discourse present-day jazz in Nigeria without mentioning the name, Ayoola Sadare. Long before UNESCO had an official day to celebrate the genre, Sadare was at the centre of jazz promotion. He organized the first Lagos International Jazz Festival in 2008, consulted for the Bayelsa International Jazz Festival that was headlined by the late Hugh Masekela, organized the MUSON Jazz Festival from 2009-2013, as well as created other platforms to promote jazz and related activities such as NAIJAZZ through his Inspiro Production Limited.
Shaddie Bobo as he is fondly called didn’t really set out to be a jazz promoter, although he was heavily influenced by his late dentist father’s robust collection of jazz music.

“My interest in music and jazz in particular started at an early age and was largely influenced by my late dad, Dr. Martins Abimbola Sadare who had an active love for music evidenced by his very huge collection of records of all genres of music, Jazz being prominent amongst them. My father also owned an indigenous record label, Asoremaseka Records. He promoted bands. He would send me to bring him a certain record and I will have to read the artiste’s name and title to get it for him to play on the turntable. He would play the songs loud on his system and sing to them enjoying himself thoroughly. Because I loved my dad, I started loving what he loved. From then, the names and songs which he played also stuck. Louis Armstrong, Art Blakely, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and a host of others.”

The decision to promote jazz however came later in his life when he attended the Cape Town International Jazz Festival and met its convener, Mr. Rashid Lombard in 2005.

“Meeting with Lombard changed the entire game for me. That was when I decided to go into jazz music promotion full-time and attempt to do a similar festival here in Nigeria hence the Lagos International Jazz Festival and other events of that magnitude. My meeting with Lombard was facilitated by a respected Nigerian journalist, Nseobong Okon-Ekong. Rashid’s festival showed me the potentials of jazz to help contribute to one’s country through tourism. It was a great motivator for me to do the same for my country Nigeria with the same type of events.”

Three years later, Shaddie held his first gig in Nigeria to a large audience. The venue was his former office ground, Studio 868 at Aboyade Cole Street, Victoria Island, Lagos. Being the first-of-a-kind in contemporary jazz, the audience came from different walks of life to witness the headline acts, South African group, Freshly Ground and Courtney Pine from United Kingdom. Through his various platforms, he had also brought artistes like Nigerian Grammy-award winning percussionist, Lekan Babalola, Bright Gain, Victor Masondo, Soweto String Quartet. Femi Kuti, Yinka Davies, Herbert Kunle Ajayi, Jimi Dludlu, Hugh Masekela, Somi, Gerald Albright, Richard Bona, Mike Stern, Angie Stone, Kenny G, Kunle Ayo among others on stage.

One of the goals which Shaddie has achieved through his jazz promoting vehicles is to create platforms for local jazz artistes. According to him, it was important to highlight jazz music that is intrinsically Nigerian.

“Over the years, my choice of artiste has evolved. I started with home-based acts, then started booking a few international acts. It got to a point where I realized that I have a duty to discover, recognize, nurture and encourage local, regional and continental acts. That’s the only way our own local and continental industry can grow. I had to create platforms to establish our own stars. They have what it takes to go global and be worthy cultural ambassadors. Inspiro places a premium on growing our home based talents. We present international platforms that give them the confidence that they can perform anywhere in the world.”

He argued that Nigerians in a way have developed their own indigenous sounds which are fusions of juju, highlife, fuji, afro pop, afrobeat and more with very distinct and strong jazz influences. This year, Shaddie is dedicating his IJD gig to the late icon Hugh Masekela.

Shaddie believes that there is a promising future for contemporary jazz in Nigeria.
“Radio stations are playing a large percentage of jazz and jazz related music and the genre has been moved from the ‘graveyard’ or midnight belt to more prime-time belts. More stations around the country are playing the music and its fused forms on prime time belts of their programming and there is a listenership for the music. Our jazz festivals and concerts are promoting more original Nigerian jazz musicians.”