“Jazz is the best music in the world!” – a businessman lets out an emphatic utterance as he exits his midday music lesson at the Jazz Workshop. Smiling from ear to ear and exuding an energy likened only to childhood excitement, that intuitive link most strongly connected with one’s curious discovery of the new and wondrous; that illusive mirror to the soul. Were it not for his straight cut business attire I’d say he’s about to go skipping down the street! For the last half an hour this gentleman has been taken through his violin paces to muffled sounds of the standard Autumn Leaves, from behind a large door. On the other side I hear the sparse and delicate piano accompaniment of one of Cape Town’s most integral and legendary jazz educators – Merton Barrow.
In 1965 due to an ever increasing demand for the study of jazz, Merton Barrow (then a driving force on the live music scene) and his wife Cynthia founded the Jazz Workshop, a music school at the Cape Town Arts Centre on the Green Point Common. Today it can be found in Buitengracht Street – a thin, tall and white three story building distinctively set apart in both architecture and position, from those adjacent. It is something in my mind as a metaphor for the universal theme of jazz – holding its own in the world of hustle and bustle, not fully understood but always imperative – somehow always relevant, always recreating itself, always available.
The availability of the Jazz Workshop is something that Cynthia assures me is what gives it longevity. Back in apartheid, its doors were always open to those who wanted to learn to play music, regardless of what racial group they were classified into. Cynthia recalls police sitting in on multi-racial big band rehearsals, probing for political dissension and leaving upon realising that these musical gatherings were nothing more than what they were – a bunch of people together, making music.
The Jazz Workshop’s existence to this day is no small feat and is testament to the resilience of the art form and those who champion it. “We never advertise, this is all word of mouth…people constantly enquire about learning jazz. We even find many classically trained musicians arriving, thinking they’ve learned all there is to know about music and coming away with more than what they bargained for.”
This of course bodes well for the future of jazz since both Merton and Cynthia agree that the art form has little to worry about in terms of continuing its heritage, “As long as people are inventive, the curiosity will go on for centuries…as long as music exists, there will always be jazz.”
As a music school, the Jazz Workshop boasts 23 instructors and 8 practice studios that cater to a large spectrum of music students of all ages and disciplines at a very affordable rate. In addition, it also acts as a music store that supplies any manner of instrument and requirement at a largely discounted price. Because the Jazz Workshop is an independent retailer managed by a handful of people, many of the overheads associated with the larger retail franchises are diminished. For the owners, making excessive profit was never in the cards – it was always about the music. In fact Merton still offers free lessons to students who are unable pay for their music tuition. After all, the ultimate goal is to teach music to as many people as possible.
3pm arrives and Cynthia ushers me into my appointment with Merton. He has a few minutes to spare before his next student arrives. His room is clearly somewhat of a workshop – arranged around a large window, next to it a piano, reams of manuscript paper, photographs, newspaper clippings, audio equipment and general music paraphernalia. In the window rests a huge, dusty poster for a gig he played at the Goodhope Civic sometime in the 70s – A Tribute to Cannonball Adderley. In the liner section is a who’s who of jazz – some of whom are very active today as jazz educators in various dispositions. I can’t help but ponder the role of apprenticeship in jazz, how the legacy of the art form is conveyed both orally and aurally – much like some of the world’s most ancient traditions.
It’s hard to think, considering the unlimited resources that students of jazz now have at their disposal, that Merton who is classically trained is a self-taught jazz musician (like so many legends), weaned on radio broadcasts of jazz, LPs and live gigs (and inspired at the age of 7 by the Vic Davis Band at Sea Point’s Pavilion). It’s even harder to think he’s had such a lasting impact on the lives and careers of so many of South Africa’s greatest jazz practitioners, who perform internationally and teach at institutions such as the University of Cape Town, Berklee College of Music in Boston, USA, and numerous other colleges. It’s also interesting to note that back in his heyday of live music playing; he was so popular for drawing crowds to gigs, that many promoters used his name to ensure a good turn-out, regardless of whether he was booked for the gig or not.
“Sit down” he says. I sit, almost falling into my chair. He’s working on some arrangement of sort. It is clear that after all this time, music is still his passion. We talk about jazz, tuition, life, history. Our time together is far too compressed and his wealth of knowledge an expanse. Limited, I am unable to offer a suitable platform for departure – so we keep it short and largely peripheral. I ask the usual questions, but a routine Q & A is of no consequence. I begin to think I’ve found what I came looking for, what all of the Jazz Workshop’s students come looking for – an answer to that gnawing desire to satisfy a curious, almost innocent compulsion to express some part of one’s humanity. I find in Merton a faithful steward of that compulsion – to explore music ferociously, while cultivating the same in others. The moment is both surreal and enlightening. I exit a few moments later to long stares and silence at reception. I realise that I am now smiling too.
For more information, contact the Jazz Workshop on 021 424 4956.