Saturday, 6 February 2010

Reminisces of the Nigerian Jazz Club

BY BENSON IDONIJE
I RECEIVED a phone call, followed by an e-mail a couple of weeks ago from Naiwu Osahon, expressing a strong desire to resuscitate the defunct Jazz Club of Nigeria of which he was Secretary General.
He did not say which the club would come back into existence, neither did he discuss the logistics of its resurrection. Information was scanty.
However, knowing Naiwu as a man of action––with the success of Roots Festival as proven ability, we can be sure that a Jazz Club will soon launch into action. But while we wait for this to happen, it is pertinent to flash back to the genesis of the club its remarkable activities of the 80s–– in remembrance of Taiwo Okupe, the club’s indefatigable President who was a also a jazz musician. His death in 1999, at the age of 65 robbed the Nigerian jazz scene of one of its prime movers especially in terms of promotion.
He was not a practitioner of the art form as such, not in the sense of professional accomplishment. But he played the alto saxophone as an instrument of pleasure–– to the best of his ability. He carried the instrument everywhere he went and was ready to blow at the slightest opportunity –– even though, by profession, he was an automobile engineer.
He devoted all his energy to the promotion of jazz through selfless service, which cost him money and time. The evolution and development of jazz in Nigeria benefited from Taiwo as a moving spirit and driving force.
Chief Okupe earned himself the nickname Awo, which means plate in Yoruba–– a popular reference by the Yoruba speaking people to the musical disc of the 33-vinyl type.
And because he had a good sense of humour, and an imaginative turn of mind, he often generally referred to good music as Awo. He was very sensitive to the quality of music, for which he had good ear.
The genesis of this nickname is traceable to 1963 when, in company of Austin Emordi, a jazz devotee and an insurance manager at the time with African Alliance, Broad Street, Lagos; the late Kunle Maja; Fela Anikulapo Kuti (then Fela Ransome Kuti); we listened to Blue Note records together for the finest in jazz.
Whenever he heard a good jazz number, especially by Jimmy Smith, Dexter Gordon, Jackie Mclean, Horace Silver, Lee Morgan, and all the early Blue Note recording stars, he reacted by shouting Awo! And that was how he began to earn himself that name.
Okupe was always around to give the Fela Ransome-Kuti quintet moral support on inception in 1963 and l964 at Kool Cats Inn, Apapa Road, Lagos, where the band played. He was always on hand to play the alto saxophone, especially on Charlie Parker’s blues compositions such as Billie’s Bounce and Now’s the time, which were in the medium tempo; and the slow, soulful blues standards such as Parker’s Mood and Funky Blues
And because of the admiration he had for Parker and his revolutionary style of improvisation, Okupe often did not only attempt to adopt the virtuoso’s approach, he also tried to play note for note, phrase for phrase Parker’s solos –– on a brand new expensive alto, which he treasured highly.

WHEN Fela’s jazz quintet eventually transformed to the Koola Lobitos in 1965, Okupe still tagged along and embraced the bands highlife because it still retained jazz as a mainstay in terms of structure, arrangement and improvisation.
Consequently, he was always a member of the scanty audience to which the band p1ayed in, those early years of its development. He gave the Koola Lobitos support and encouragement even helping to transport the musicians home whenever they were stranded.
As a measure of his support for jazz and his commitment to the artform, he undertook to service and repair the band’s early vehicles of Opel Kadett LH 2600 and LK 402, which Fela always overflogged as they were on the road 24 hours day.
Fe1a loved adventure; he was a fantastic driver. But Okupe’s workshop at Aje Street, Yaba, often took care of the cars; and the bills most of the time, were written off.
Okupe was the brain behind the inauguration in 1980 of the Jazz Club of Nigeria, of which he naturally became president He took care of registration processes and fees; and even when the club lacked funds because members were not forthcoming with their monthly and membership dues; Okupe bankrolled the activities to put it on sound footing.
Attempts were made to divide the club in order to destroy it, but because of Okupe’s good leadership, the Jazz Club survived several intrigues and almost overwhelming odds until Naiwu Osahon was elected co-ordinator and Secretary General in early 1987.
With Okupe’s cooperation, Naiwu immediately set about trying to put the club on the world map of jazz music by instituting the first ever international award for jazz music. He called the awards Roots.
Roots was designed to do for the world of jazz music what the American OSCAR is doing for the cinema. The catch phrase of the Roots Award was: “If you haven’t got roots, you aren’t playing jazz”
Naiwu believed that Nigeria being the big brother of the black world had a responsibility to identify with jazz, which is one of Africa’s brilliant legacies to America and the world.
For him, Roots for jazz is part of what Pan-African scholarship and crusade are about. Roots carries the same responsibility as the anti-apartheid struggles to established respect for worth and contributions of the Africans.
The success of Roots has since put Nigeria on a high pedestal, earning it international recognition in jazz. This feat was achieved through awards indefatigable efforts. But he would not have succeeded without the good leadership, cooperation and encouragement of a president as Taiwo Okupe.

FROM inception, the Roots award was assisted and sponsored by the Federal Department of Culture, the French Cultural Centre, The Netherlands Embassy. British Council, Nigerian Tobacco Company, United States Information Service, Nigerians Airways, Sheraton Hotel, Ikeja, Goethe-Institute, Lufthansa Airlines and the African Continental bank, Okupe facilitated all the planning for eventual execution.
The winners of the Roots Award, which ran for three days in 1988 at the National Theatre main bowl were Albert Mangelsdorf Germany who receives the Best Trombonist of the World award, Randy Weston of America received the Best Pianist in the World award. Miles Davis’ award was as the Best Trumpeter in the World even though he could not fly in to receive it.
Toshiko Akiyoshi from Japan was the Best Band Leader in the world. She was on the spot, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, led by trumpet player, Lester Bowie, received the Best Jazz Group in the World award.
Featured during the Festival were Itchy Fingers, winner of the 1987, British Jazz and new music award, Randy Weston Trio, one of the leading exponents of African rhythms and music in jazz, the Didier Lockwood Band, which in 1987, received the Best Jazz Violinist in the World award and Alvin Queen Jazz Sextet from USA, which performed a week before the Roots festival to help whip up publicity.
The second Roots Award festival took place on January 22, 1989 at the National Theatre main bowl, Iganmu Lagos. One of the awards recipients was the late Dizzy Gillespie who brought his sextet to perform. He was honoured for being the most innovative exponent of jazz music and for helping to set jazz music on it current dynamic course.
The other 1989 recipient of Roots award for jazz was James Moody, a tenor saxophone player of repute who was honoured for his versatility, doughtiness, dedication, unassuming longevity and for putting the world perpetually in the jazz mood for love.
Trophies were presented to Dizzy Gillespie and James Moody for their awards by His Royal Highness Oba Joseph O. Ogunfowora JP, the Alaperu of Iperu, Nigeria, an event that was made possible by the late Jazz Club President, Taiwo Okupe.
According to Naiwu, “we needed chieftaincy titles for the musicians in respect of the Roots Award. Okupe readily arranged all that for us.
“He approached the Oba of his village (Okupe himself was a chief), his Royal Highness Oba Joseph O. Ogunfowora, JP, who made everything possible. He was deeply committed to the promotion of jazz.
“He realised that the Roots award was a great achievement for the club and noted.
“The greatest achievement for us was Roots. We focused entirely on Roots. We wanted to be the first group of people to give out the first international awards in jazz. We felt this was our birthright as Africans. But they have copied us now. We have a Danish group now that gives international awards to musicians. They picked it up from us. They did not want to join us but wanted to go their own separate way. Their funds are readily bankrolled by a leading tobacco company in Denmark.
“However, as a measure of the impact our own festival made, many people are now talking to us from various parts of the world. For example, Dizzy Gillespie’s manager recently wrote to us from his Charismatic Production Centre in Washington D.C. asking us to establish further contact for further negotiation.”

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