BY BENSON IDONIJE
PROFESSOR John Collins of the University of Legon, Accra Ghana, had been waiting to converse with me on a number of issues of historical relevance. We eventually discussed at length, the impact of contemporary trends on highlife as it affects Nigerian and Ghanaian musicians. But, in particular, as if he was researching into the history of jazz in Nigeria, he wanted to know all about its evolution and development, including the key players. The answer to this broad question gave me the idea for this story.
IT was not until 1963 when the Fela Ransome-Kuti quintet committed itself to the music head-on that we began to have groups existing essentially for the purpose of playing the music. Hitherto, bands mixed jazz with other music forms–– to give audiences varieties of entertainment treats and dance steps.
Bobby Benson, Willy Payne, Sammy Akpata, Consul Anifowose –– all played jazz in the same session with highlife, fox trot, jive, mambo, chacha, waltz and the like.
Bobby Benson called his outfit ‘Jam Session’ out of his love for jazz –– even though it was obvious that his band was not an ad-hoc one for the purpose of jamming. Jam sessions were fashionable in jazz in those days as the vehicle for bringing musicians of varying capabilities together to blow and pull their musical resources together in the same showcase. It was also an opportunity for grandstanding and demonstrating their individualities side by side. The Bobby Benson Jam session was a permanent outfit, a solid one which featured the likes of Zeal Onyia, a great trumpeter, along with Eddy Okonta and Chief Bill Friday. It also had Jibril Isah, one of the greatest saxophonists in West Africa in those early days.
Benson just loved the term ‘Jam Session’ –– that was why he named his outfit after it. Besides, his very signature tune was a jazz classic called Soft Winds, which the ensemble played with relish to open their night stands and shows. Benson played blues guitar even though he was a great saxophonist.
Willy Payne, Sam Akpata and Consul Anifowose played jive and jazz along with their repertoire, but the band that intrigued me in this direction in the ‘50s was the one led by Tunde Amuwo, a saxophonist with great swing and jazz feeling. His signature tune was a freewheeling big band sound called Eleven-Eleven, which even gave members of the band solo opportunities.
As the years passed, musicians such as Chris Ajilo and Sammy Lartey from Ghana got together to play jazz, apart from the fact that most of Ajilo’s repertoire with his Cubanos were jazz-inspired. He operated a combo, which gave young musicians such as guitarist Don Amechi, and saxophonist Lekan Animasahun and others the opportunity to express themselves freely.
THE Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) dance orchestra played jazz scores by Glen Miller, Benny Carter, Benny Golson among others. Directed by the late Fela Sowande and Steve Rhodes at various times, the band was training ground for soloists and musicians with the talent for arranging. Former leader of Uhuru Professional Dance Band, Stan Plange always refers to his tutelage with the NBC Dance orchestra as most rewarding in that the experience taught him to arrange for the big band sound for which Uhuru was immediately recognisable.
The NBC Dance orchestra had several soloists including Appollos Fiberesima, E.C. Arinze, Chris Ajilo and the young Michael Falana, who, in fact pioneered modern jazz trumpeting on the instrument long before the emergence of Fela Ransome-Kuti.
Falana’s solos, most of which were muted came across beautifully in the mould of Miles Davis –– in terms of tonal conception. And because he had a lot of imagination most of which reflected in his phrasing, Falana was often allowed to extend his solos beyond what the scores allowed. But it was around 1962, when he began to record with such small groups featuring Joe Nez on vocals in highlife songs as Okwereke dikara; and You cheat me vocalised by Godwin Omabuwa of the Casanova Dandies that Falana’s trumpet began to come into full focus.
Falana recorded jazz-inspired highlife with Ghana’s Arthur Benny on guitar –– with saxophonist Olu Idienuma of Roy Chicago’s Rhythm Dandies on the one hand; and also recorded with the same guitarist playing with Etim Udo on alto saxophone on the other. Check out his trumpet solos on You cheat me and Okwerekedi-kara, which were recorded in 1962. They remain classics that can compare with Lee Morgan, Clifford Brown and Thad Jones.
JAZZ however took on total patronage in the hands of Fela Ransome-Kuti who came from London in 1963 to form a quintet. With base at Cool Cats Inn, Olaiya’s former residency, the band played every Monday night as Fela doubled on piano and trumpet with the late Emmanuel Ngomalio on fiddle bass; Don Amechi on guitar; and John Bull, drums. The late Sid Moss, Taiwo Okupe, Zeal Onyia, Steve Rhodes and others came in as guest artists on regular basis. But perhaps the most regular of them was Sid Moss who was sometimes made to rehearse with the band. He was a blues player with the influence of Oscar Peterson eloquently displayed in his phrasings and solo lines.
The Fela Ransome-Kuti quintet transformed into the Koola Lobitos with completely new personnel; and bass player Ngomalio who had now become a pianist went solo and performed at Eko Le Meridien while guitarist Don Amechi travelled abroad for greener pastures. The drummer, John Bull died in mysterious circumstances.
However, before the exit of the quintet, another jazz aggregation came into existence in 1964. Called The Jazz Preachers, the group featured Art Alade on piano, Ayo Vaughan who was a solid member of the NBC Dance Orchestra, played bass; Zeal Onyia was featured on trumpet; Chris Ajilo, tenor saxophone; Bayo Martins and Femi Asekun, drums.
The appearance of the Jazz Preachers provided a contrast to the strict modern jazz of the Fela Ransome-Kuti quintet. While the quintet thrived on well rehearsed tunes such as But not for me by Cole Porter, Errol Garner’s Misty, Milt Jackson’s Bags groove, Charlie Parker’s Billie’s Bounce, The Jazz Preachers, often claiming to “get together and blow,” played such classics as C Jam Blues and Perdido. The texture and structure of their jazz clearly showed that they were playing the mainstream type, which brought Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, Count Bassie, Ben Webster, Glen miller and all to the limelight.
However, the band soon disbanded but was taken over by the pianist and singer Art Alade, who, in fact, used it to accomplish a number of sessions. Before his death, he was popular on the university circuit, especially Yaba College of Technology where he had a good understanding with the college’s Jazz Club President, Greg Odua who is now a sports analyst and broadcaster with Africa Independence Television (AIT). Together with Zeal Onyia and Etim Udo, Art did a number of shows at the Yaba College of Technology campus.
THE eighties ushered in a dynamic jazz experience with the coming into existence of Jazz 38. Perhaps the first female jazz singer in Nigeria was Mud Meyer who sang in the mould of Billy Holiday and Bessie Smith –– from the ‘50s to the ‘60s with various bands in Nigeria. But Fran Kuboye brought in a dynamic experience with a warm voice like Ella Fitzgerald and the new generation of female singers. With her husband Tunde Kuboye on bass guitar, Fran took jazz singing to a new level of creativity in Nigeria, later reaching its peak at this venue when the likes of Ngomalio and Fela Anikulapo-Kuti began to sit in and blow in the ‘80s. That was jazz at its best. After came Jazzville in Iwaya area of Lagos, founded and managed by Muyiwa Majekodumi. The period also had the weekly Jazz et al session at the former Bread & Butter at Allen Junction in Ikeja Lagos; where The ITAN Band and later Colours led by Bisade Olugunde performed.
The ‘90s saw the emergence of Kayode Olajide and the Weavers, playing at Art Café, Ikeja and the French Cultural Centre, Ikoyi on regular basis. Olajide provided an interesting menu for jazz devotees who loved jazz with African interpretations, playing flute, alto, tenor and soprano saxophones.
Peter King has always been there, fusing jazz with highlife and rock; but he was featured for almost two years monthly with his College Band at Ojez Club, Iwaya from 2002 to 2004 – on a programme called Jazz Alive. And his stint really kept jazz alive.
One of the female singers who has continued to keep jazz alive in Nigeria is Yinka Davies. Even though she has not performed on a particularly regular basis, whenever she finds herself in a jazz setting, for her, it is often a challenge.
There is now a crop of young jazz musicians most of whom have travelled to South Africa in search of more challenging jazz activity and opportunities. Guitarist Ayo Odutayo is one of them. But perhaps the most promising is Ayo Solanke, a saxophonist whose technical skill has become remarkable and outstanding. With the group, Uncommon, Ayo did a lot of creative things four years ago, culminating in a concert at Eko Le Meridien.
There are pockets of guitarists and saxophonists on the scene today. Most of the guitarists are looking up to George Benson and Earl Klugh as their idols, but highly impressive are trumpeters such as Nathaniel Bassey, Taiwo Clegg and Biodun Adebiyi whose debut, Harmonious Blacksmith is in the market.
Bassey appears to be the greatest of them all, with a trumpet technique and sound that have reached high levels of performance, but he has often refused to come out of the church setting where his bread is heavily buttered.
Jazz still exists in Nigeria. All that is needed today is for them to come together for a common cause. The Ayo Shadare led Nigerian International Jazz Festival is outstanding in this direction.