Tony Schilder, the great South African pianist and composer, died, yesterday, at age 73. It's a devastating loss for his family and friends, of course. It's also another terrible blow to the South African -- and, especially, Cape Town -- musical community. Over the last two years, some of its brightest lights have passed on -- Winston "Mankunku" Ngozi, Alex van Heerden, Robbie Jansen, Jeff Weiner, Ezra Ngcukana, Hotep Galeta, and Vincent Kolbe.
Fans will remember Tony, first and foremost, for his brilliant piano playing, his magnificent songs, and for the Club Montreal, which for nearly a decade was Cape Town's hottest nightclub. I'll remember him for these accomplishments, too. But, for me, he's also a link to the music scene of the '50s and '60s, the golden age of Cape Town jazz.
Tony Schilder, piano; Gary Kriel, bass; Ivan Bell, drums.
I got to know Tony several years ago, when I began to do research for the book that I'm writing about popular music and popular politics, in Cape Town, during the struggle against apartheid. My interviews with him turned into conversations between friends. He was always happy to talk about music, the scene, and his long and varied career. Luckily for me, he was still playing when we met, and I was able to hear for myself the way he made Tony-Schilder-music, a very personal blend of jazz and bossa nova, with a dash of Cape Town.
Like so many Cape Town musicians, Tony came from a musical family. His mother, Hettie, was a pianist, who, Tony told me, could play "beautifully... anything, from Spanish music to pop stuff." (The song that Tony plays in the video above is dedicated to her.) His father, who was from the Netherlands, was a classically trained musician. For a time, he served as a church organist. He was better known, however, as a traveling musician, sometimes riding to gigs on a horse with his accordion strapped to his back.
Tony never studied music formally. Gifted with a magical ear, he learned by listening and imiation. Family gatherings were always excellent places to learn, he said: "When we had parties, family get togethers, everybody came along, and the music that you heard, if it could have been recorded, it would be classics, today." (Several of Tony's brothers -- Richard, Jackie, Philip, and Ebrahim -- have also had distinguished musical careers, as has his son, Hilton.)
By the time he was in his teens, Tony was playing with langarm (dance) bands and making jazz with other young musicians. His major influences, at the time, were the Oscar Peterson, the Afro-Canadian giant of the piano, and saxophonist Charlie Parker. Peterson, as far as Tony was concerned, was "The Man." But he was also "mad about the sax" and tried to transfer Parker's solo lines to the piano.
In the '50s and '60s, Cape Town was arguably the jazz capital of Africa, especially for straight-ahead swing and bebop. It produced many terrific players, several of whom went on to international fame. Tony gigged and jammed with them all, great and small -- Harold Jephta, Maurice Gawronsky, Morris Goldberg, Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand), Johnny Gertze, Cups Nkanuka, Winston "Mankunku" Ngozi, Erza Ngcukana, Chris McGregor (who came of age in Cape Town), and Hugh Masekela (a frequent visitor from Johannesburg), to name just a few.
I'd like to emphasize two things about the Cape Town scene. First, the level of playing was astonishingly high. When people like Gawronsky, Ibrahim, McGregor, and Goldberg got to Europe or the United States, they were ready to go. They could play with anyone. Second, it was an interracial scene. The musicians and the fans were white, African, and, like Tony, Coloured. In a South Africa that was rapidly descending into the hell of apartheid (the most extreme form of racial domination the world has seen), the Cape Town jazz community was a living contradiction of everything that the government stood for. And, so, the government attacked it.
As the government made it increasingly difficult for players of different races to play together and for Coloured and African musicians to earn a living, some musicians left the country. Others, like Tony, stayed on, often taking great risks to cross racial boundaries and keep the music alive.
Tony's approach to music changed radically, in the '70s, when he fell in love with bossa nova. His first exposure was through Stan Getz, but that was "the American version." When Tony heard the Brazilian musician Ivan Lins, he immediately felt that "this was it." Love led to travel, with Tony making three trips to Brazil, during the '80s, to study the music first-hand. He was a quick learner. By the time that he started sitting in at nightclubs, he told me, the locals "thought I was Brazilian."
You can hear Brazil in many of Tony's compositions, including songs like "Mitchell's Plain Samba" and "Obrigado Brazil," which have become South African standards.
Tony's best known piece is probably "Montreal," the theme song of the night spot that he co-owned in the '80s. For a time, it was the hottest club in town, attracting everyone from disco dancers to jazz devotees to celebrities. The song itself is built for dancing, with a strong beat and instantly singable melody, but it contains enough Latin and jazz influences to keep it interesting.
A few years ago, I was at a large outdoor jazz festival in Cape Town. The late, great Robbie Jansen was on stage, but the audience was distracted. So, Robbie and his band launched into "Montreal." The folks in the audience -- thousands of people -- instantly stopped whatever they were doing to sing and dance and cheer to Tony's marvelous groove. I told him about the moment the next time I saw him, but I wish that he could have been there in person.
Hamba Kahle, Tony, go well.
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A beautiful comment from Ekapa, 9 December 2010: Sunday brunch at South African winery restaurants is usually a staid affair with music serving as a pleasant background. One Sunday at a Constantia winery the Tony Schilder trio was playing quiet music for diners under the huge old camphor trees. When they segued into a gently heated version of "Ndi Thanda Ilanga" the children at the table of a small group of Swedish tourists wandered up to the front of the trio and started dancing. A couple of waitresses moved in to playfully dance with the children and were soon joined by the young mothers of the children. When the trio launched into "Montreal", several members of the staff started quietly bopping along off to the side and the Swedish mothers gestured for them to join in. The young restaurant manager who looked uncertain and hesitant finally shrugged and nodded permission for the staff to join in. For the rest of the set the trio served up dance music and Schilder's face glowed in mischievous delight as he temporarily turned sopoforic Constantia into a pale version of a township Sunday brunch.
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If you have a memory of Tony that you'd like to share, please leave a comment.