Learning to Play Again: The Soapbox Jazz Jam Session & Open Mic
The Soapbox Jazz Jam Session & Open Mic (which I curated at Cafe Art every week from September 15th to this past Sunday) has come to an end. A big thank you to the owner Lizelle Rautenbach for allowing us the freedom to use her venue despite the lack of turn out on many occasions. I would also like to thank the resident band (Keenan Stevens – guitar and Thielman Janse van Vuuren – keyboard) and the drummer regulars James Lombard, Roelof ‘Versa-style’ Fuls, Ronny Siegelaar, Gemayel Kroukamp and Annemie Nel for offering up their time to see this initiative through. Also big thanks to Sam Petersen (mostly for putting up with all of my crap, taking videos and manning the door), Cara & Riana Delport, Adrian Different, Adrian Rogowski, Uncle Owen and Ramon Alexander (the guy who started it all). What follows is reflective of what it was, why it was important to me and others, and why we need more of this type of thing.
In successful musician David Byrne‘s nearly 400 page semi-autobiography/music reference book How Music Works (which I read in two weeks – and which I highly recommend), the author dedicates a full chapter to the workings involved in starting a music scene. Many of his points were in implementation even before I re-established the jam session or even before I picked up the book. In it, he cites a few main prerequisites for starting a scene (which he implemented in New York’s Bowery punk scene in the 1970s).
– The artists should be allowed to play their own material
– There must be a sense of alienation from the prevailing music scene
– Social transparency must be encouraged
– It must be possible to ignore the band when necessary
Point three is part and parcel of what makes jazz tick. Let’s face it, jazz is a niche genre and will probably always exist on the periphery or fringe of society’s musical palette (that is of course if the hipster culture does not adopt it as another of its surface appropriations – which I doubt, since jazz has always been and always will be about the music…period). It entails little fronting, is unpretentious and states itself plainly. Globally, the psychedelic and electronic idioms are at the top of what’s hip – but for how long? Jazz to me, is like good alcohol – it matures and takes its time, grows on you and then bites you. At the turning point, there is no going back!
I was surprised to find that at the Soapbox sessions, all of the above points found a crucial home upon which I could base the core of the project.
The Soapbox project had its heart primarily aimed towards cultivating an atmosphere for creative, musical experiments within the pliable idiom of jazz improvisation. I have mentioned before on this blog, that jazz lends itself to experimentation much more readily than rock, hip hop or other genres. The reason for this is simple, jazz is defined by creative play – in the moment. By play, I don’t necessarily mean the word ‘play’ as related to one’s ability to command an instrument – I mean play – that innate gift that everyone has to experiment, devoid of inhibition. We all used to play at some point, for most this occurrence was common place in our earlier development – which in passing has been lost, giving way to a performance art of another kind: daily, modern life. I find that with growing up, people expect to lose that childlike affinity for zoning in on their creativity so that they can become cogs in a money-making machine, blindly following orders – even to the detriment of their own humanity. Most of us have now lost that ability to play, for some that’s forever!
With the Soapbox project I wanted to create a free, artistic, non-judgemental space where both professional and amateur musician/artists could collaborate and learn from one another. At best, many participants DID find their creativity again by reading their poems to a live audience for the first time, or singing against all feelings of self-doubt for the first time outside of the shower. Many musicians found a regular spot where they could experiment, succeed and fail without the evil scrutiny of the jazz police (that common trait of many who’ve graduated from the Miles Davis Boot Younger Musicians Who Play Shit Off the Stage school of thought). One common thread that was shared at all the sessions, was that you could do what you want as long as you respected the other performers. For old times sake, I’d like to single out a few of the success stories (even if the subjects don’t regard themselves as deserving a mention, or being a success for that matter – we are fighting against many years of social conditioning here!):
I first saw Caitlin perform one of her poems something like five years ago at a poetry reading. I remember being very impressed by her confident use of metaphor. Having attended many of the sessions afraid to step up to the mic, she finally gave into our peer pressure and performed a beautifully crafted poem about the Creation – so fitting in a space and time dedicated to unashamed creativity. I hope she takes her poetry further!
Juju Van Wyk
Juju has been singing in worship teams her whole life and is no stranger to the mic. The Soapbox sessions were her first foray into the world of secular music (not that such crude divisions mean anything). She soon became a weekly favourite at the sessions, with many attendees praising her smoky voice, French murmurings, grounded spiritual evocations and reggae infused adlibbing. She is contributing vocals to my Brightly Clothed Boy EP.
Liezle’s affinity for presenting her own jazzy renditions of pop songs by Rihanna and the Backstreet Boys soon became a staple of the weekly set. Even if she forgot the lyrics most of the time, her easy nature and playful attitude warranted all round fun from many an onlooker. She told me she wants to go deeper with singing and songwriting – by all means, you should Liezle! Here’s a singer to look out for.
Michael is a dancer by trade (something he also associated with play) but is also an avid singer, who I think is also just beginning to find his voice. It also took a lot of prodding to get him to take to the mic, but when he did – it was executed with aplomb. Each time he did, it just got better and better. Well done bro!
Another ‘social conqueror’ was Nuschka – who took the plunge and read her poems and sang at many sessions. At the last session, her little boy encouraged her to go up and sing because he loves to hear her voice. He is very proud of his mom. For many people, this type of thing takes a lot of courage and for most of us – unfortunately, our families are to us the harshest and most inconsiderate critics. I admire Nuschka for going the distance, this is just the beginning!
Roelof ‘Versa-style’ Fuls
Roelof attended the first jam session and just ended up staying indefinitely. I was very taken back by his commitment to learning more about the jazz idiom and throwing himself into the deep end like that. I believe it should be every musician’s prerogative to pursue their craft with earnestness, looking for every opportunity to better their playing and sound – which Roelof has. It’s good to know that you can never stop learning.
If you were not able to attend any of the sessions, I compiled this short video that details what it was all about:
With so many fledgeling artists stepping forward on the first step to their own holistic creativity, it was disheartening to see so little interest from actual music/arts students – those who take for granted opportunities like these, thinking that life is going to hand them a silver spoon upon graduating. So many individuals I thought would attend, simply did not – it makes me wonder why our arts industry is in such dire straits! On several occasions people told me that a project like this, which accommodates all forms of artistry can be found nowhere else in Cape Town – nowhere! I even had someone call me from Kommetjie asking to establish a project like this in their restaurant. There are opportunities for artists to create something special, but most of us are living in perpetual cultural apathy.
Big love to everyone who attended the Soapbox Jam Session & Open Mic. ‘Til next time!