A month or so ago I got an email via my website from Simon Ndlovu. He was upset by the plaque alongside the seated bronze sculpture of Kippie Moeketsi in Newtown, outside the old Kippies club.
“This narrative that he was the sad man of jazz, is tiring. There is a very important reason for that state, he got cheated by record labels, they made millions out of his work, yet he died a pauper,” wrote Simon.
He goes on to say that Kippie was a legend, “even Bill Clinton recognised his influence in South African Jazz”.
But we don’t need Clinton or any foreigners to affirm for us that we have and had talented musicians. Kippie was a mentor to jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (I knew him as Dollar Brand when I was growing up, but he changed his name when he converted to Islam), trumpeter Hugh Masekela, and trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, among others.
Kippie was, according to jazz lover Simon, “equivalent to Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, and them”.
Jeremiah Morolong (his clan name) “Kippie” Moeketsi was born in Joburg in 1925. He came from a musical family. His father played the organ for the church choir, and wanted his six children to learn instruments, according to learnandteach.org.za.
He got his nickname "Kippie" because he used to skip school, and go and play on the mine dumps. His mother used to go looking for him, calling "kippie-kippie-kippie", and the name stuck.
The eldest son, Jacob, played the piano for the Jazz Maniacs. He gave Kippie, the youngest, a clarinet.
“I played that thing until 2 0’clock in the morning,” said Kippie in a 1982 interview with Learn & Teach Publications. “On weekends I played for 12 hours a day. The neighbours complained about the noise. But I did not stop playing. I loved music too much.”
He moved on to the saxophone, and made that his instrument, as an alto saxophonist. He started playing in the Band in Blue, and in 1948 joined the successful Harlem Swingsters.
“The Harlem Swingsters mixed American music with marabi. And they mixed it well. Music fans followed them all over the country.”
But after six years Kippie left the group, and started a band called the Shantytown Sextet, which played with the Manhattan Brothers, “the best singing group in Africa”. They were “famous all over the world”, and sold thousands of records.
“Those were the days. Our shows were always full. I always had money in my pocket. We ate well in those days,” reported Kippie.
In 1954 the group toured to Cape town, and recruited Brand.
“Dollar knew nothing about music at that time,” said Kippie in the interview. “He was just a skollie. He followed me around everywhere. I taught him a lot. Now he is a big man in music.”
Back in Joburg they met Masekela, Gwangwa, bassist Johnny Gertze and drummer Makaya Ntshoko at the legendary Dorkay House in downtown Joburg, and formed a new band, the Jazz Epistles. They cut one album, the Jazz Epistle Verse 1, described by music writer and teacher Gwen Ansell, as "the first all-black modern jazz album in South Africa”.
But by then apartheid had seriously started to bite.
“The Jazz Epistles was the best group I have played with,” Kippie indicated. “We played at four or five nightclubs in a week. Sometimes we played at two nightclubs on the same night. Then the white musicians complained. They stopped us playing at white nightclubs.”
In 1959 Kippie got a role in the hit musical King Kong, which toured to London. “But Kippie was boozing a lot. He got very sick in London. He went to hospital for two months,” reports Learn & Teach.
He returned but found that his friends had moved on – Masekela, Gwangwa and Brand were in America. Kippie had no work, but played with Brand again when he returned from America. Apparently Brand had arguments with Kippie about his drinking.
“That was the end,” recounted Kippie. “I have not played with a band since then. In 1977 I made a record with Pat Matshikiza. But that is all.”
But it didn’t work out for Kippie. Simon says it wasn’t so much the drinking, as the record companies that ripped off any royalties Kippie should have got.
“I’m not bitter,” said Kippie. “But I’m angry about one thing. The record companies didn’t give me a fair deal. They made a lot of money from me. The record companies are now very rich. And I have nothing.”
Marc Latilla, the business development manager at Warner Music, and in the music business since 1994, says that in those days, a lot of musicians didn’t have managers to negotiate decent contracts for them with the record companies, so it was easy for the latter to rip them off.
Ibrahim, Masekela, and Gwangwa did well in the US, but always regarded Kippie as the father of South African jazz.
“So surely he stopped school at standard 5 (grade 7), he drank a lot and he was a bit of a delinquent when he was young, but his influence and stella contribution to South African Jazz cannot be subverted,” concludes Simon.
“This man is a true giant and father of South African jazz and that is undeniable.”
In 1964 Becky, the mother of his two children and the woman with whom he lived for 13 years, left him.
Kippie died in 1983, destitute, at the age of 58.
Whatever the reason – whether he should have joined his friends in the US; whether he had a drinking problem or not; whether the fact of Becky leaving him; whether he was done out of his royalties by ruthless record companies, Kippie was clearly a huge talent who died way too young.
· Eric Itzkin, head of immovable heritage in the City's department of arts, culture and heritage, says the plaques in Newtown are due for renewal, and the Kippie plaque will be rewritten.
· Come along on my Newtown walking tour, and we’ll pay our respects to Kippie Moeketsi.