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Jazz warrior who ‘had that swing’: RIP Don Albert

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JUST me and my horn: baritone sax player and jazz writer, Don Albert. Photograph by Mbuzeni Zulu, courtesy  Times Live.

THE INTERSTICES, RIFFS and possibilities of jazz, from this side of his baritone sax and that, were the central motivating energies of Don Albert, who gave South African jazz a voice in print, radio, television and the internet for over 50 years. He died on April 20, 2019 from pneumonia. He was 88.

Both Albert and the hated apartheid regime came of age in the late 1940s. And from the get-go, Albert was proactive in fighting the horrors of the racist ideology. He was the first white musician to play in Cape Town’s District Six in 1949-50 before it was legal or acceptable to do so. Thirty years later, he came head to head with an apartheid law that forbade black artists from appearing on white ‘liquor licensed premises’. It was here that he used his platforms in The Star, Drum Magazine and Polish-based journal Jazz Forum, to heighten general awareness of the situation. The apartheid heavies bruised his sense of safety by threatening arrest and putting his house under 24-hour surveillance. “In those days, if you did anything for black people, you were labelled a ‘communist’, and communism was banned,” he commented on social media. But his indomitable spirit and fierce pen won the day: this law was rescinded in 1985.

In the 1960s, Albert formed the Don Albert Combo, also known briefly as The Don Albert Band, featuring vocalist Joy Evelyn, where he was intent on giving old chestnuts new jazz status, reinventing standards such as Hello Dolly, Fever, Cry Me a River and more. In this capacity, Albert proved himself adept in several reed instruments and vocals, and released a number of delightful LPs. The combo was deemed by critics at the time as “the mightiest little band” to come to town and it remained active until the early 2000s, bringing in such collaborators as Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuzo on drums and Jack van Pol on keyboard, getting whatever gigs it could.

As a jazz writer, he wrote for a range of print publications, including the Tonight! section of The Star newspaper in South Africa, with which he was associated for a period of 12 years, from the time of its inception in 1976. And yet, Albert was not trained as a journalist. He was educated in the field by his colleagues and editors, including Roy Christie and Percy Baneshik and lovingly assisted in the messy art of writing by his wife Cheryl (nee Clabby). For many years, he ran a weekly Thursday jazz column on artslink.co.za, but he was also the South African correspondent for American jazz publication Downbeat, and Britain’s Jazz Journal International, enjoying other reviewing gigs over the years, such as a regular CD review slot for the Financial Times. He also had an ongoing commitment for a five year period to the SABC’s jazz tv programme, Jazz Studio. And radio was another platform to his knowledge and critical skills; he was a regular on 702 and Radio Today.

Jazz was his love and his lingo. He wrote about it in day-to-day parlance, but also on cruise ships and in festivals from France to Canada, South Africa to Finland. Jazz writer Gwen Ansell comments that his search for readers was genuine and though critical jazz coverage had existed in the historically Black press for some time, Albert’s mission was to create a place for informed jazz writing in the so-called ‘white’ media of the time under apartheid. He was seconded onto jazz festival judging panels including the Old Mutual’s Jazz Encounters and the Daimler Chrysler Award for South African Jazz in 2001. Indeed, with the power and the savvy to make the careers of young jazz performers blossom into professionalism, he took pleasure in touting George Bernard Shaw’s jibe: “Hell is full of musical amateurs” as one of his favourite quotes on social media.

The man who loved Duke Ellington’s quip that “it don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that swing”, was a generous peer, a gentleman, a competent music photographer and one who knew the industry inside out, and loved every bit of it from an intelligent and aware perspective. In 2011, he was awarded the Outstanding Patron Award of the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz festival. Born in Cape Town on October 30, 1930, Albert lost his wife in 1995 and his daughter, Dionne, in 2009. His beloved brother Edward passed away four years ago. He is survived by his son Blake, a Jersey-based hotelier, four grandchildren and a great-grandchild. He was often visited by his Johannesburg-based grandson, Jarred Albert, in the last years of his life.

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1 reply »

  1. Thank you. I saw him around but never spoke to him and didn’t ever see him perform, I don’t think, but I do know he deserved this obituary; he contributed a lot to jazz writing in SA. He was an institution.

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