Jazz Epistles alumnus Abdullah Ibrahim performs in a rare tribute concert to the work of The Jazz Epistles
Jazz Epistles alumnus Abdullah Ibrahim performs in a rare tribute concert to the work of The Jazz Epistles

The Jazz Epistles were South Africa’s first black jazz band to record an album and break onto the world stage. Half a century after the release of their groundbreaking Jazz Epistle Verse 1 album, band alumnus Abdullah Ibrahim will revisit the legendary repertoire of this historic ensemble in a February 18 concert at UBC’s Chan Centre.

Formed in the early 1950s, The Jazz Epistles included pianist Dollar Brand, later known as Abdullah Ibrahim, alto-saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi, trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, trumpeter Hugh Masekela, bassist Johnny Gertze, and Early Mabuza on drums.

Coming together for late-night jam sessions in Johannesburg as young artists, the seven-member band built fame and notoriety, by blending the sound of township dancehalls with American jazz.

In 1959, The Jazz Epistles recorded their first album. Though only 500 copies of Jazz Epistle Verse 1 were initially distributed, it was later recognized as a groundbreaking recording.

Following the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa, the country’s racist apartheid government forced The Jazz Epistles into exile and the sextet fled separately to Europe and North America. Two members – Abdullah Ibrahim and Hugh Masekela – became music giants in their own right.

Discovered by Duke Ellington, Ibrahim was signed to Frank Sinatra’s record label and quickly achieved international recognition. Going on to release an impressive discography, many of Ibrahim’s works addressed a defiance to apartheid and oppression.

Settling in the United States, Ibrahim played with many of the biggest in jazz. Following a more than 50-year hiatus, in June 2016 several members of The Jazz Epistles reunited in two concerts in Johannesburg, their first gig together on African soil in almost six decades.

“Abdullah Ibrahim is one of the world’s great jazz pioneers and an important figure of hope and perseverance in the face of oppression,” says Joyce Hinton, co-managing director of the Chan Centre. “While apartheid divided South Africa, a brave group of black artists, The Jazz Epistles, were creating brilliant jazz at a time when it was forbidden.”

Ibrahim will be joined on stage for the February 18 concert by four-time Grammy Award-winning trumpeter, Terence Blanchard. Considered one of the most prolific jazz musicians of our time, Blanchard’s career spans more than four decades and 30 albums.

For this historic homage to The Jazz Epistles, Ibrahim and Blanchard will be backed by Ibrahim’s band Ekaya featuring: Noah Jackson (cello and bass); Will Terrill (drums); Cleave Guyton Jr. (alto saxophone, flute, clarinet, and piccolo); Lance Bryant (tenor saxophone); Andrae Murchison (trombone and trumpet); and Marshall McDonald (baritone saxophone).

In addition to the February 18 concert, Ibrahim will also talk about his career, journey as an artist, and decision to re-visit the iconic Jazz Epistles catalogue in a conversation with CBC Music’s Michael Juk on February 19. Admission to this event is free, although space is limited.

The Jazz Epistles: Abdullah Ibrahim with guest Terence Blanchard plays the Chan Shun Concert Hall at The Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on February 18. For more information and tickets visit https://chancentre.com.