Ezra Ngcukana, one of South Africa's finest musicians, passed away this morning, in his home in Gugulethu, Cape Town, South Africa. His was only a few weeks away from his 56th birthday.
Ezra was an extraordinarily versatile player, comfortable in settings as diverse as African jazz, mbaqanga, jazz-rock fusion, and rock 'n' roll. He was happiest, however, blowing mainstream and avant-garde jazz. He'll be sorely missed, by family and friends as well as by fellow musicians and countless fans.
Ezra Ngcukana, tenor sax, Wesley Rustin, bass, Gugulethu, Cape Town, South Africa. January 2010. (Photo copyright John Edwin Mason, 2010. Click directly on the photo to see a larger version.)
Ezra was a member of one of South Africa's great musical families. His father, "Christopher" Columbus Ngcukana, was one of the godfathers of jazz in Cape Town -- no one could out-play him on the saxophone. Just as importantly, he trained several generations of younger musicians. Ezra's brother, Duke, was and still is one of Cape Town's best known trumpet and flugelhorn players.
Ezra was born in Port Elizabeth and moved with his family to Langa, a segregated so-called African township in Cape Town, when he was still an infant. Jazz "was the culture of the day," in Langa, he told me during a lengthy interview in 2007. As a child, he absorbed its sounds almost every day. On Sundays, in particular, musicians from all over the city would descend on Langa's community center for hours-long jam sessions. It wasn't just Africans who participated. Whites, like Chris McGregor, and Coloured musicians, such as Dollar Brand (now Abdullah Ibrahim), would sneak into the township for a chance to play with the best.
Although his first instrument was the trumpet, Ezra soon switched to the sax. He joined his first band when he was still in his early teens, playing "simple tunes" -- blues, mbaqanga, African-American soul, and easy jazz standards. He quickly out-grew that band and began to play with Roger Kaza, a fine jazz pianist in the McCoy Tyner mold. "That's the band that groomed me," he said.
Kaza's band played a mix of originals, standards, and the new, challenging music of John Coltrane. Township audiences, easily the most sophisticated in South Africa, liked what they heard. The band was hugely popular. While playing with Kaza, Ezra first encountered the music of Pharaoh Sanders, and he fell in love. "I would play the sounds," he said, "screams and all." That was enough to earn him the nickname "Pharaoh."
Ezra left Kaza to join Cups Nkanuka, who led another Langa-based group. This was new musical territory for him. The band played Nat King Cole-style pop, as well as standards. It was a first-rate band that, beside Cups, who was a monster sax player, included Victor Ntoni, on bass. "I learned a lot there, too," he told me.
Despite this terrific training, Ezra said that he "never thought of being a professional musician. I wanted to continue with schooling. ...You can have one profession and still play music." Speaking of the situation that African musicians faced, he said "That's how it was in Cape Town -- nobody was a professional musician. They had two careers -- the 8 to 5 one and the evening." If you were black, there were few opportunities to earn a living in Cape Town solely as a musician. "Everything was in Johannesburg," as far as recording and studio work was concerned.
After high school, Ezra left Cape Town to attend the University of Fort Hare, but in 1973 the entire student body was expelled, after a Black Consciousness-inspired protest over conditions and the quality of instruction at the segregated school. He eventually earned two degrees from the University of South Africa, and worked for over a decade for British Petroleum, in Cape Town.
But, of course, Ezra had two careers. During the evenings and on weekends throughout his life, he could be found on stage, playing jazz with groups like the Four Sounds or jazz-rock fusion and pop with, say, Pacific Express. Unfortunately, as the years went by, he found fewer and fewer opportunities to play the avant-garde jazz that remained his deepest love. In part, this was because the audience for that music had fallen away. But it was also due to the aparthed-era restrictions that African and Coloured musicians faced.
The last time that I heard Ezra play, he was rehearsing with Tete Mbambisa, a terrific keyboard player, for an up-coming gig. That's when I made the photo above. I hope that I never forget his warm, breathy sound. I know that I'll never forget his friendship and generosity.
Hamba khale, Ezra. Go well.
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I've received some comments on this post that add tremendously to what I've written.
From Paul Sedres:
Thanks for a beautiful tribute, John.
The gig with Tete's Big Sound band at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival at the end of March for me was memorable for two things in particular: Ezra's appropriate and beautiful embellishments of Tete's authentically African inspired jazz compositions (he's another of the unsung heroes of SA jazz and one of its major composers); and the fact that two junior members of the younger generation of musicians, trumpeter Lwanda Gogwana and trombonist Steven Roodt played along and stood next to an elder like Ezra on the bandstand at such a prestigious occasion.
Ezra's role as an educator is less well known, for instance the role he played in building and mentoring the Little Giants band with George Werner and others since 1999, which continues to spawn numerous graduates now operating in professional music and other disciplines in SA and internationally. He was my comrade in music education, and teacher (as is the wont with musical icons in South Africa) to many on different levels, mostly without having to try or do it knowingly!
He knew good style, his gentleness was without peer, and he knew music like few of his contemporaries.
Hamba Kahle, Bra Ezra!
Paul Sedres, Paris, France
One of my many memories of the affable Ngcukana is the graciousness and forbearing he displayed one night at the sometimes kitschy Mannenberg's when a young woman from Texas insisted on sitting in with the band and couldn't seem to find the right key. Ngcukana patiently followed her,covering up her considerable inadequacies with long vibrato rich phrases and eventually nudging the performance away from the trainwreck it could have become. It was a master lesson in how to deal with with less than adequate talent at a jam session.
I received an email from Temba Nolutshungu, one of Ezra's closest friends and the man who introduced me to him, many years ago:
Ezra was such a fine person and gifted musician from a musically endowed family. Of the many saxophonists in South Africa, he and the late Mankunku Ngozi were a cut above the rest.
Besides that, he was a gentleman's gentleman. A soft-spoken person, he got along well with anyone who met him. He was of such affable character that I could not imagine him having enemies at all.
There are quite a number of saxophone players who try to imitate John Coltrane and they end up dishing out stuff that has no melody whatsoever. Ezra was the exception because you could get a feel of Coltrane coming to the fore and yet with Ezra's unmistakable imprint oozing through his horn. It would sometimes be like listening to Coltrane and Ezra simultaneously, the turbulent and then the soft caressing tones. A remarkable ability.
The one consolation is that we still have his brother Duke, a trumpet player extraordinaire, in the music scene and also like his late brother a fine person.
Another brother, Fitzroy is worth mentioning as he is more of an organiser (by choice I believe) than a musician having organised an event in Langa township that featured many musicians who had hung up their instruments and had given up on their voices. Fitzroy resuscitated them, took some of them out of drinking dungeons of hopelessness, rekindled their enthusiasm for music, got them to rehearse for the concert and hey presto. What a memorable occasion! So successful that it earned him some enemies among the envious, jealous and lesser mortals. But wait, there is still more about this family.
The youngest sibling Claude, equally conversant with the alto saxophone as well as the piano, is blazing the trail in the Eastern Cape where he is based. It is said that when he joins his brothers in a gig it is something to mesmerises one.
A truly gifted family indeed. It is nevertheless sad when you see a cohesive family that seems to have had a mission to make the world a better place by using their demonstrably natural gifts, lose one of their own. In the same vein it is true that their loss is not only the Langa community's loss but also the music fraternity's loss and the country's loss as Ezra's departure leaves us so much poorer, musically and spiritually. I am singularly privileged to have known Ezra as a true friend and equally pleased about the fact that I enjoy the same profound relationship with his surviving brothers who are such fine people.
Here's a blog comment, from Wayne Goezaar, one of Ezra's former students:
I remember Ezra stopping songs in band practice to sing out Bass lines for me to play (doom daaa doom daaa)...lol. He was an awesome teacher and a brilliant musician and i was just a "lil Giant." It was truly an honor to have learned from the legend himself...RIP Ezra.