Salute to a star: Morris Goldberg and all that jazz

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Salute to a star: Morris Goldberg and all that jazz

Old chum of Masekela and Makeba is back to play at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival

Dan Meyer

In New York circa 1958, three young South African men brave the east coast cold and head towards an old friend’s apartment. Strapped for cash, hungry and freezing, Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa and Morris Goldberg are greeted by their host, Miriam Makeba, who has cooked a hot meal  for them.
“We shared an apartment for about six months,” says jazz veteran Goldberg, now 81, remembering the early days of his career and friendship with some of South Africa’s and the world’s most beloved and colourful musicians. “At that time, we were just poor students and Miriam used to cook for us a couple times a week. She was an excellent cook and her star was rising.”
Now based in New York, Goldberg has recently returned to his city of birth, Cape Town, to perform in a series of intimate concerts paying tribute to Masekela, who died two months ago aged 78.The Cape Town International Jazz Festival at the weekend also included a performance in memory of Masekela by some of the country’s most celebrated jazz artists.
Goldberg and Masekela met in 1955, shortly before they both moved abroad. Masekela had been a member of the band that performed one of the early versions of the hit musical King Kong and Goldberg was working as a pharmacist, mainly to appease his parents.
“Musicians were looked down upon,” he says. “If you made it and you were successful, only then would they talk about how great you were. When Hugh first came back to South Africa, his grandmother was like 100 years old and he walked off the plane and she asked him: ‘Have you got a real job yet?’ ”
He describes the sour note of political hostility that hung over them when they first moved abroad, first to London then across the Atlantic. 
“We were young, we had a lot of political discussions with the locals,” says Goldberg. “South Africa was very unpopular in the US at that time. We were afraid to say we were from here at that point. But we got by.”Masekela formed his first band in New York with Goldberg and they played their first gig at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. “We played more traditional jazz than African-style music,” he says.  “It was only later that we really became aware of our roots.”
Goldberg and Masekela crossed paths in music and life over the next few decades. They attended school together in New York before going their separate ways in the early 1960s – Goldberg began touring with “the king of calypso”, Belafonte, while Masekela traveled to Los Angeles where his fame “went over the top” with hits such as Grazin’ in the Grass. Both began to flavour their sounds with a more than a hint of Mzansi.“It was just natural,” Goldberg says of the gradual incorporation of South African character into the pair’s music, which was being produced on either side of the American continent yet still managed to derive sounds from their shared home.
“I realised that you grow up in a place and you just feel its sound and you write about things that you know … fish carts, or the ‘Cape Doctor’ for example.”
If the fierce south-easterly Cape Town wind had inspired Goldberg’s “Safrojazz” sound, it was the political tumult back home that stirred Masekela.“We didn’t see each other for some time until a Unicef concert in Zimbabwe,” says Goldberg. “We hooked up in 1988 and toured for three months. Hugh, Miriam, myself … we toured the Caribbean and the US. Miriam brought her pots I think, and the hot sauce she used to make.
“Following Mandela’s release, Mandela came over to the States for a gratitude tour. We played for him in these huge stadiums in Chicago, LA and New York for 70,000 people. We also played a private show for him.”
Goldberg says the gruelling rehearsal schedule he still commits to on nearly a daily basis “takes it out of him”, but the music keeps him passionate, so much so that the prospect of hanging up his sax seems absurd.
He now plays with a group of South Africans including his nephew David Bravo and bassist Bakithi Kumalo, who performed with Goldberg on Paul Simon’s Graceland.
“None of us ever really quit, man,” he grins. “You’ll have to carry me out.”

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