Hugh Masekela Makes Jazz History At Eubie Live!
by Andrew Zaleski
The scariest thing about Hugh Masekela is that he almost gave up the trumpet. He had been playing for four years when he first listened to Clifford Brown, a trumpet king in the 1950s, and thought there was no hope for a boy from South Africa to blow a horn the way Brown could.
Of course, more than half a century later, Masekela was the reason for more than a hundred people to crowd into the fourth floor of the Eubie Blake Center the evening of Oct. 21st, taking seats in overflow rows made up of metal chairs. He was joined on stage by good friend and legendary Charm City pianist, Larry Willis; the two of them, one trumpet, one piano, played a fifteen-tune set.
As Masekela told showgoers early in the night, the music he and Willis were playing was what they had learned in the 1960s and 1970s. The duo first met at the Manhattan School of Music in the first half of the 1960s—where Willis had originally been a voice major singing opera and wearing powdered wigs that made him look like George Washington, so Masekela says.
It took little time for Masekela to convince Willis to stick to his other talent, playing piano, and by 1963 they had formed their first quartet, a group that played at the Village Gate in Greenwich Village. “We were so scared,” Masekela told the crowd as he ticked off the names of women singers for whom they opened: Gloria Lynn, Aretha Franklin, Buffy St. Marie, Nina Simone.
Much of Masekela’s life since his time at the Manhattan School—and, understandably, his Sunday-night show at Eubie Blake—unfolds in this way. An experienced jazz music listener could probably meet all of Masekela’s friends just by thumbing through his collection of vinyl albums. Dizzy Gillespie introduced Masekela to Thelonious Monk. Masekela met Ella Fitzgerald once he started playing shows where she was on the bill. New York City introduced him to the likes of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. And before Masekela even set foot inside the Manhattan School, he was ordained by Louis Armstrong, who sent his trumpet to South Africa where Masekela and his musician friends became important overnight: black boys in a white-dominated country famous for what a black jazzer shipped their way.
The set list Masekela and Willis played was filled with the history these two men have lived. A rendition of “Monk’s Mood” demonstrated Masekela’s range, as he played drawn-out notes layered among quick crescendos that stammered along to the music from the piano. Masekela took on the Robin/Rainger standard “Easy Living,” no longer the dejected boy from long ago, and made his trumpet croon and cry like Baltimore’s Billie Holiday.
They played a blues song from Swaziland that Masekela said South African singer Miriam Makeba taught him 52 years ago. Eight songs into the set, this was a climactic moment in the evening. Willis punched his piano keys as Masekela dropped his trumpet to his side and started chanting into the microphone, stomping his right foot twice in between measures, snapping just to keep time. Shouts of “all right!” came from the right side of the room. When the tune was done, and cheers filled the room, Masekela and Willis locked right hands together in what’s considered a standard South African greeting: the “snap” handshake, where opposing middle fingers interlock and snap as you pull your hands apart.
Masekela sang “Until the Real Thing Comes Along,” stomping his foot at the beginning of the song’s final chorus before his voice dropped into a baritone. He also sang tunes written by Tom Bell and Louis Armstrong, as well as “You Must Believe in Spring,” to close out the first set of eleven songs.
In something of a typical Baltimore fashion—or, at least, it’s something I’ve observed at jazz shows I’ve attended in the city—a fair number of people left when the first set concluded around 6:45 p.m. While the break was good, as it allowed people to pose for photos with Masekela and purchase Friends, the four-CD set recorded by Masekela and Willis in South Africa, it was too long. Once Masekela and Willis resumed around 7:40, there was time for three more tunes, not including the encore: Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man.”
But the night, on the whole, was a triumph. Not only were some of the city’s past and present jazz greats on hand—Camay Calloway Murphy, John Lamkin, Robert Shahid—but we were reminded that Baltimore remains a draw for popular, world-renowned jazz musicians.
During the first set, Masekela cavalierly chided the crowd for being “greedy” and “pushy” when they responded that they had not had enough music. For the time, in a place like Baltimore, in a genre of music like jazz, being greedy and pushy are beautiful things.