April 30, is the International Jazz Day. Despite the Covid-19 pandemic that is causing havoc worldwide, there are several musical events that are being hosted through the virtual-media platforms in various cities.
Here in Nairobi, celebrations are on in full-gear courtesy of efforts by various institutions that include Standard Group PLC, who will be hosting a livestream of Ghetto Classics on from 12.10pm-1.30pm on Standard Entertainment, Standard Digital and SDV Channel. Nairobi Horns Project will also have a livestream with a special appearance by Jacob Asiyo and Shamsi Music 9pm on YouTube.
Unesco’s Division for Gender Equality is also featuring a series of performances with women artistes in action. Among those who are slated to appear for Kenya include jazz trumpeter Christine Kamau, who’s been at the forefront of using music as a tool for propagating unity in Africa.
Jazz is a piece of intensely creative music that has been evolving for over one hundred years now. But jazz music, just like any other art-form that thrives on poly-stylistics, is continuously being reshaped by, and benefit from, the steady rise of new talents, including some from the erstwhile perceived to be the so-called “non-jazzy” countries. The artistic spirit in the composer and performer is essentially supposed to be free to absorb all forms of inspiration one needs to produce a creative piece of work. Most of the jazz music we listen to today is a crossbreed of the various musical idioms derived from various parts of the world. In any case, jazz is essentially improvisational music. Jazz improvisation is not restricted to the trumpet, saxophone, clarinet, trombone, or piano.
Since the turn of the 20th century, when jazz arose in the United States of America, this music style has metamorphosed severally and has spread even beyond that country’s boundaries. Significantly, jazz is no longer an exclusive western world art form but rather a global artistic phenomenon.
Gladly, for almost seven years, Kenya has evolved into a truly jazz-appreciating country. This genre came to be identified as a much-loved style among local musicians and fans. This reality emerged in February 2014, when world-class jazz musicians were invited to perform in Nairobi at the Safaricom International Jazz Festival, Eastern Africa’s leading jazz event. This was through the sponsorship of Safaricom Limited, under the leadership of its former CEO, the late Bob Collymore, in partnership with several institutions, such as the British Council, General Motors, KLM, and Carnivore Restaurant.
Proceeds from the Safaricom International Jazz Festival went into charity projects, like the funding of initiatives geared towards improving health services, environment preservation, education and assisting the needy. One such project has been the sponsorship of the musical project, Ghetto Classics, now a celebrated orchestral musical group, a project of the Art of Music Foundation based in Nairobi’s Korogocho slum in the larger Kariobangi area.
The Safaricom International Jazz Festival hosted some of the most legendary jazz musicians, including the late jazz icons; trumpeter Hugh Masekela of South Africa and saxophonist Manu Dibango of Cameroon. Others have included saxophonists Sadao Watanabe (Japanese), David Sanborn, Kirk Whalum and Branford Marsalis (Americans), and Soweto Kinch (Briton); guitarists Romero Lubambo (Brazilian), Norman Brown, Marvin Sewell (Americans), Kunle Ayo (Nigerian), Jimmy Dludlu, and Jonathan Butler (South Africans); bassists Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten (Americans), and Richard Bona (Cameroon); singers Dianne Reeves (American), Fatoumata Diawara, Salif Keita (Malian), The Hazelnuts (Yifeat Ziv, Talya Amzaleg, and Shira Z. Carmel – an all-girls vocal trio based in Jerusalem, Israel); and pianists Roberto Fonseca (Cuban), Uli Lenz (German), and Ray Lema (Congolese).
Kenya has so far been ably represented by singer Kavutha Mwanzia-Asiyo, saxophonists Joseph Ngala, Juma Tutu and Noah Saha; pianist Jacob Asiyo; bassists Stanley Kyalo and John Uledi; percussionist Wakake Otieno; drummer Moses Njuguna; keyboardists Aaron Rimbui and James Jozee Gogo, drummer Amani Baya; and up-and-coming guitarist Kato Change, just to name a few.
But after Bob Collymore’s death on July 1, 2019, no major jazz events have been hosted. The festival, which hasn’t been hosted since early-2020, was a source of joy and, to a certain level, fulfillment for many to watch internationally renowned artistes performing live. Masses of people-packed venues hosting the concerts, a further testimony jazz music has a solid following in Kenya.
Grammy Award winner saxophonist Kirk Whalum dedicated his album, Humanite (released in September 2019), to the memory of Bob Collymore. In a very inspiring gesture, Whalum also featured the Ghetto Classics musicians on this recording. The American jazz artist has appeared twice at the Safaricom Jazz events.
Bob Collymore’s great love for jazz and appreciation of the musicians who perform this music in Kenya not only helped expose more Kenyan jazz musicians and fans to this genre, but his outreach also benefitted jazz musicians from beyond Kenya by availing them an erstwhile unknown audience, thus further expanding their artistic presence in this part of Africa.
His contribution to jazz music in Kenya, and Africa in general, is a legacy to be cherished by all.
In celebrating International Jazz Day, several Kenya jazz musicians and aficionados have offered their observations about how jazz music has impacted their lives.
One jazz enthusiast who also gave his best to promote jazz in Kenya was the now-departed Nairobi lawyer Jack Ojiambo, who hosted the Capital FM jazz show for over a decade. He was the son of the renowned scholar and legislator Prof. Julia Ojiambo, who had these observations to share about Jack aka Doctor Jazz:
“They used to call him the Jazz Doctor. His life was really in jazz. He loved it very much. That was his life and he promoted jazz. I believe he really was the promoter. When he took over the Capital FM jazz show the genre became more popular in Kenya. He had a lot of followers and it just picked up and he became a household name in entertainment.
“As a family, we knew Doctor Jazz, Doctor Jack. We did not know how to say more than that, except that he just liked jazz, and when we hear jazz, we always remember Jack.”
Additional reporting by Jacqueline Mahugu