The record library was huge by my eight-year-old standards; my father’s job was to receive music from record labels, he would then catalogue and sort it for the (public) broadcaster. I must have been sick on the day that Pa picked me up from school early and let me put my head down at his desk – while he worked. That was the first time I truly became aware of what it is that he did at work. ‘My father works with music and he knows a lot about it.’
Now that I knew that Pa was a musical genius, I wanted to absorb his knowledge and like the same music as him. Every time he pulled a shiny silky vinyl out of the sleeve and put it on the turntable, I put everything down and made sure I was somewhere near him – close enough to hear his thoughts on songs. The silence between songs was when he would declare his love for a certain drummer or song. Sometimes I would be lucky enough to hear him and Ma reminisce about songs or artists that were banned. To be quite honest, most of the songs sounded the same to me; banned and otherwise.
Did I grow up knowing who Carmen McCrae, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Art Blakey were? Absolutely! Even as a teenager, I would sometimes wake up to Miles Davis weaving sharp notes through the house. Ella was safer territory for the family because Ma would hum and I wouldn’t complain as much.
Notes make up cords. A party of cords and notes makes a song. Sometimes this party has guests who didn’t RSVP so room is made for improvisation and or solos. For many, Jazz is a party of refined songs best enjoyed in moody rooms accompanied by your drink of choice.
Jazz is not smoky rooms, gin and genius for me. It is long drum solos and Pa reading the newspaper; it is songs about heartbreak while Pa sings along (badly) hands wet from car washing, songs that never seem to end while I did my homework after lunch. My father is Jazz. He didn’t create any memorable songs nor did he sing pitch perfect notes that would make a reviewer single him out. Instead, he hid special little memories and conversations in songs that I otherwise would never listen to. When he is gone, I will search for him in Miles Davis’s Tutu on Sunday mornings and tell my kids that I am listening with my heart because my ear was never refined enough.
It really doesn’t matter that I do not have a refined ear. It matters that Pa thought I was important enough to share his love for those songs and albums with as a child. Those Sunday afternoons were the school holiday trips other children took with their families. The sofa was the bus or car ride and, often, there was a temptation to ask if the song was ending yet. ‘Are we there yet?’ As the other children’s parents bought fancier cars, we upgraded from vinyl to cassette tapes and CDs. When holidays destinations kept changing, the songs began to feel familiar; I was humming along with Ma while we made Sunday lunch. The other kids had relatives to visit but we had Mama Ella visit us and sometimes she would bring iskhokho se game: Satchmo.
My father is Jazz and he took us on holiday weekly. The food was always tasty, drinks cheap (all you do is add water after the Oros) and the mood peaceful. Homework was an unfortunate addition, sadly.
Mohale Mashigo is the author of the novel The Yearning