Pianist Abdullah Ibrahim reflects on life before and after apartheid, and how Duke Ellington and Thelonius Monk helped shape his career

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The eminent pianist Abdullah Ibrahim was born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1934, which means he was born into apartheid.

It also means that by now, at age 85, he has seen his country transformed and understands — as few of us can — the role music played in liberation.

“As you know, jazz music is community based — it’s something that we lived,” says Ibrahim. “It’s a legacy. It’s an ongoing expression of our individual and communal experience.”

As a result, simply playing and composing jazz and traditional South African music “was quite challenging for them,” adds Ibrahim, referring to the white power structure of his youth. “They thought it might be — they considered it subversive, let me put it that way. Because it went contrary to what they suggested that we should do individually and socially, because it brought people together.”

Which, of course, was the antithesis of apartheid. So though the celebrated Ibrahim, who now lives mostly in Germany, doesn’t claim that jazz brought an end to official oppression in South Africa, he believes it was a powerful voice against it — a unifier that foreshadowed apartheid’s inevitable and necessary demise.

“It was on a daily basis,” he recalls of apartheid’s burdens. “Your movement was restricted. And, of course, because all the communities were isolated from each other, you couldn’t move. You had to have permits to move from one place to another, even if it was up the road. And the idea that you couldn’t so-called ‘mix’ with other racial groups.

“But we (had) young people who (were) very resourceful. They could help us negotiate through all of those barriers.”

Ibrahim — born Adolph Johannes Brand and known as Dollar Brand early in his career — moved to Europe in 1962 and quickly won the admiration of a jazz giant: Duke Ellington. The master championed Ibrahim via the 1960s album “Duke Ellington Presents the Dollar Brand Trio” and helped him win high-profile American bookings, including at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1965.

Why did Ellington become so deeply involved?

“In our tradition, in everybody’s tradition, there’s something called ‘transmission’ — information and knowledge are transmitted for us on another level, not just physically,” says Ibrahim. “For me, Ellington was never an African American. He was the old wise man in the village that you went to when you needed problems solved. So Ellington, for me, I feel every time I write something or compose something, when I check, Ellington already has been there. There is no way to escape him.

“And I think when he heard us with my trio, perhaps this is what he sensed was mutual.”

In other words, Ibrahim surmises Ellington heard in him something timeless that linked them, a transmission of cultural traditions from one generation to the next. Indeed, it’s not difficult to imagine Ellington being moved by the African impulses that coursed through the younger man’s music.

Perhaps it was inevitable that a pianist of Ibrahim’s originality also eventually would find his way to one of the most iconoclastic and idiosyncratic of jazz pianists, Thelonious Monk.

“As soon as I started composing, I was hearing things that were supposed to be not normal, and there was a lot of flack, especially in (South African) dance bands, that I should not include what they called those ‘false notes,’” remembers Ibrahim. “But when I heard Monk, that was inspiration, because his whole approach of writing, and also harmonically and rhythmically, resonated with me.”

Monk, too, long was ridiculed and misunderstood for the sharp dissonances, rhythmic peculiarities and harmonic quirks of his music.

“I went to a concert, and I went to (Monk’s) dressing room, and I introduced myself: ‘I’m from South Africa, and I’m a pianist, and thank you so much for all this wonderful inspiration,’” says Ibrahim. “And he looked at me very quizzically and walked away, and then came back, walked away, came back again, walked away, circling me.

“And then he came up to me and said: ‘You are the first piano player to tell me that.’

“And up to today, it resonates very deeply with me. Because then I understood why there was such negative comments about Monk: that he couldn’t play, that he didn’t know anything about harmony.’”

In effect, Monk gave Ibrahim permission to be himself — to play what others called “false notes.”

But that was long ago. Like South Africa itself, Ibrahim inevitably has changed.

“When we are younger, we want to say everything,” observes Ibrahim, who last year was named an NEA Jazz Master, this country’s highest jazz honor.

“We know everything, and we want to say everything.

“When one gets a little more mature, hopefully, one understand that perhaps a pause for effect is effective. … The power of a whisper.”


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