“He commends South Africa for producing some of the best jazz in the world.  Part of his studies at university included a course in South African Jazz.  This former producer, manager and publicist has written extensively about this country’s jazz scene and is adamant that without the artists, there is no music.  Through his weekly jazz slot on radio, he wants the American audience to develop an interest in S A Jazz”

Seton Hawkins is the Director of Public Programs at Jazz at Lincoln Centre (JALC), an Adjunct Professor at Rider University, and the host of a weekly South African jazz slot on SiriusXM ‘s Real Jazz Channel.  He was born in the South African city of Johannesburg.  His family moved to the United States when he was a child, and grew up in Minneapolis.  “I moved to New York at 18, and except for two years, I’ve lived in New York since then”, he told Jazz It Out.

At the age of 13, he joined the Middle School’s jazz band where he learned how to play the piano.  He remembers the wonderful band director they had who was passionate about jazz and wanted to get the students playing it.  This band director started coaching jazz bands in his spare time.  “His passion for the music was infectious, and many of his former students have remained involved in jazz”, he said.  He also played the cello and injured his hand at the end of high school and has very limited endurance in his hands these days.

Seton Hawkins. Picture by Frank Stewart

Even though he studied to be an orchestra conductor at one point, Seton’s love for jazz began while he was still at school.  “I think the constructs of jazz are especially amazing, and I think we can learn a great deal about ourselves, our communities, and our possibilities by listening deeply to jazz”, he asserted.  While some of his peers listened to other music genres which he never frowned upon, jazz became his firm favourite from a young age and didn’t know how it was going to impact his career in years to come.

After finishing high school, he enrolled for a BA in Music at Columbia University.  His thesis advisor was George Lewis, who was and is a brilliant musician, composer and thinker.  Learning from him was a highlight because he always encouraged his students to go deeper, learn more, think critically, and try to improve their understanding.  “He also loved music completely”, he recalls.  Seton believes some of the music professors are jaded and to study with someone like Lewis who is completely committed to music and joyous about it is so important.

He also found Columbia comfortable letting him do a lot of independent study projects, so he got to spend a lot of course time studying South African Jazz History which he found quite interesting.  “I did a thesis on Sathima Bea Benjamin and her music”, which formed part of his studies.  Most of the friends he studied with at Columbia where from the theatre group, and some of them have gone to do some wonderful work in television.  “From the music side, one friend named Ellen Reid won the Pulitzer Prize in 2019, which was very exciting.  She’s brilliant”, he added.  Seaton also holds an MBA from Babson College where he focused on social entrepreneurship and marketing.

An album by Sathima Bea Benjamin where Seton was involved in its compilation

Some of the work he has done include producer, manager, and publicist.  As a freelance agent, he served legendary artists including Buster Williams, Onaje Allan Gumbs, Sathima Bea Benjamin (whom his thesis was based on) and Michelle Rosewoman, and produced a wide range of concerts and recordings. He did mostly publicity work for their shows, driving them to gigs, help set up gigs and manning the merchandise table.  His involvement in albums was in some production support, or some logistical support.  The album he was most involved with was Sathima Bea Benjamin’s “SongSpirit”, which was a compilation album that he and Sathima put together in 2006.

As Director of Public Programs and Education Resources at JALC, Seton’s responsibilities are to oversee adult education programmes, give pre-concert lectures, lead corporate training workshops, and oversee the creation of the YouTube lesson library called the Jazz Academy.  “When our in-house ensemble, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra goes on a tour, I will coordinate their education outreach”, painting a picture of what he does at JALC.  The Jazz Academy media library at JALC (which is the largest free video library in the world dedicated to jazz pedagogy) was made possible by a donor who funded the project between 2012 and 2014.  “We went and shot about a thousand lesson videos.  It was a lot of fun, and there are some great South African jazz artists featured in the library”, he told Jazz It Out. 

Seton also leads JALC’s Swing University teaching initiative while also hosting all Listening Parties and public programmes at JALC and giving free pre-concert lectures before major shows in Rose Theater and Appel Room.  “This is an adult education programme.  We normally do them as evening courses at our facility, though lately we’ve moved them to Zoom.  Our flagship class is an overview called Jazz 101, which I teach”, he explained.  Normally they have specialist instructors deliver courses on a range of other programmes and topics (30-40 courses per year).  During COVID, he has been teaching the courses solo on Zoom, but is optimistic they will be able to bring back the full range of courses soon.

Ndududuzo Makhathini’s debut much celebrated debut album with Blue Note Records which Seton describes as a milestone

“Bringing JALC closer to South African Jazz is my proudest work and what I’m most happy about.  There have been a few different efforts”, beaming with pride.  In 2014 they received funding to assemble a supergroup of artists from Johannesburg that was called Uhadi (Sibongile Khumalo, Feya Faku, McCoy Mrubata, Paul Hanmer, Herbie Tsoaeli and Justin Badenhorst) who came to play at Coca Cola Dizzy’s Club in April 2014.  They then did a tour of educational and performance activities.  Uhadi returned in 2016 to play at the clubagain, and did a tour as well.  “We also brought McCoy and Paul back for duo shows and educational presentations in 2018”, he added.

The biggest event so far was is September 2019 which took about seven years to bring to fruition.  The show celebrated 25 years of democracy in South Africa by featuring Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra playing arrangements of South African compositions written since 1994.  Performing in collaboration with them were McCoy Mrubata, Nduduzo Makhathini, Thandi Ntuli, Vuyo Sotashe, Melanie Scholtz and Nonhlanhla Kheswa.  That show then travelled to Johannesburg for the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival.  In addition, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra did a side-by-side big band show with Marcus Wyatt’s ZAR Jazz Orchestra.  “That was a very proud moment for me seeing the results of many years of work”, he said.

Seton simply adores Mandla Mlangeni’s BirdSong Ensemble

His decision to become a jazz advocate was driven largely by the need to do something useful for the music.  “Ultimately, the musicians and the music are what matter.  Without the artists, there’s nothing.  Those of us who are in the support roles always have to remember that”, he told Jazz It Out.  Seton’s wish to promote South African Jazz saw him writing extensively for Hot House Jazz and AllAboutJazz.com and he thinks the American audiences are interested in the music and want to know more.  “The distribution and marketing pipelines that connect other countries’ music with the US isn’t as strong with SA, which I think is lasting damage from apartheid.  But American readers have usually been very interested”, he added.  He firmly believes that South Africa is hands-down producing some of the best jazz in the word.  “Any fan of the genre not listening to the music of South Africa is missing out”, without mincing his words.

Seton also hosts the “African Jazz Show” on SiriusXM’s Real Jazz Channel where he plays a lot of SA Jazz.  As the show is broadcast to the entire globe, he doesn’t know who hears it and what listeners make of it.  However, based on the feedback he receives through Twitter, there are those who have shown enthusiasm which is promising.  “I think the fact that Real Jazz channel took the chance on me to do the show is amazing.  I love their programming, it’s quite exciting that we have South African Jazz playing within in”, he said.  For American audiences, South African Jazz represents a musical history nearly as old as America’s own Jazz history, and one that has branched out into multiple different styles. He thinks that if one loves jazz, they should be interested in its full expression.

The jazz devotee did not want to divulge some of the projects they are working on involving collaborations between US and SA artists.  But broadly, he has noticed that there are artists who have been getting excellent notice internationally.  Nduduzo Makhathini’s breakthrough with Blue Note Records is a milestone.  Mandla Mlangeni’s Birdsong Ensemble rightly has drawn great praise.  Asher Gamedze’s new album titled “Dialectic Soul” has gotten extraordinary and widespread press, and the work the Spaza collective has done is also getting good notice. “South Africa’s Jazz history is so rich and extraordinary, but so much of its recorded history is unavailable”, he said.

Seton is not suprised that Asher Gamedze’s album titled “Dialectic Soul” is receiving positive reviews

He acknowledges that making jazz popular is a huge problem – not only in South Africa.  “When spots like The Orbit close, entire musical ecosystems die”, showing concern.  There are so many things to consider, such as finding ways to ensure artists are compensated for their work, ensuring that cover charges don’t leave this music in the domain of the elite.  “That balance would likely require the involvement of government or non-profit assistance”, he added. Seton advices jazz artists and promoters to start making plans for the post lockdown period.  “International touring takes time to arrange, visas take time to arrange, but that groundwork can be begun now”, he warned.

Without hesitation, he believes McCoy Mrubata and Paul Hanmer’s albums with Sheer Sound were hugely important, as was Moses Taiwa Molelekwa’s “Genes and Spirits” album.  He heard the albums while growing up as a teenager.  “I worked with Sathima Bea Benjamin, so I know that I’m very biased about my love for her music, but I think she truly was a brilliant singer songwriter”, he said.  Seton loves all the albums of Bheki Mseleku, Zim Ngqawana and Feya Faku.  He raves about all the younger artists who are coming up such as Nduduzo Makhathini, Viwe Mkizwana, Kyle Shepherd, Bokani Dyer, Thandi Ntuli, Siya Makuzeni, Mandla Mlangeni and many others.  “My favourite jazz musicians of all time are Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, though I’d also need to put Lester Young and Johnny Hodges on that list”, he concluded.  He loves cooking and is trying to learn the guitar. He and his wife do a lot of hiking with the dog.