He is a very modest individual for his achievements.  “I am grateful to have been born and raised in a Christian family, and I continue to espouse the strong values which my late father, Prof Rev Leslie Peters espoused throughout his illustrious life’s journey”, he told Jazz It Out.  This reserved artist is passionate about life, and sets high standards for himself, not just music.  “I strive to make a difference in my community, country and society in whatever way possible”, he added.

Melvin Peters is a jazz pianist, pianist, composer, arranger, educator and church organist.  “I have travelled far and wide, however I love returning to Durban, which I consider to be home”, he said.  Sylvia Lawrence was his first music teacher who gave him classical piano lessons.  “I was a 6 year old primary school learner when I began my lessons.  My father played a huge role in my formative years”, he recalls.  He is eternally grateful to his father for the sacrifices he made for him to pursue his dreams.

At high school, he took lessons from Prof Hubert van der Spuy.  His father felt that he needed a teacher who would prepare him for possible tuition at tertiary level.  Isabel Stengel was introduced to Melvin with the intention of preparing him for studying music at the University of Natal, as it was known then.  Outside the piano lessons, he was listening primarily to pop music on the radio.  “I became a huge Whitney Houston fan.  On the other hand, I began to develop a serious appreciation for Bach and Beethoven, while taking piano lessons”, he said.  Around the same time, he began playing the organ at his church, invariably developing a strong connection for hymns.

He was fortunate to have a father who recognized his musical talent at a very early age.  “Despite being conservative, my father was quite prepared to embark on this journey of discovery with me”, he said.  When he matriculated, the obvious choice was for him to pursue music as a career.  Melvin enrolled for a Bachelor of Music Degree at the institution that is today known as University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).  He began jazz piano lessons under the tutelage of Darius Brubeck in 1983.  The young Melvin loved being part of the vibrant student community at Howard College.  He joined the Anglican Students Society.  Playing the piano made him popular and he made a lot of friends.

Melvin Peters

As a young student, he was not happy with the political status quo in South Africa.  “I remember attending many political rallies on campus, driven by my strong anti-apartheid stance”, he recalls.  There was a concerted effort amongst the students at the time to protest vociferously against any government policies related to separate development.  These protests were always disrupted by the police and invariably deteriorated into violent clashes.  On the musical front however, he enjoyed the rich cultural life at the tertiary institution.  “We were treated to a variety of concerts on campus, all of which were of high standard”, he said.  He became good friends with Victor Masondo and Feya Faku.

He did a lot of gigs while studying.  Melvin played in the Natal University Jazz Ensemble, a twenty-piece band which performed often on campus as well as at other venues, like Mitchell Park.  He performed in several musicals on campus, including “Cabaret” and “Black Messiah”.  “I had the opportunity to be Music Director for a few shows at the Cellar within Natal Playhouse”, he said.  This was an intimate supper theatre which opened in 1985.  He has fond memories of accompanying a few artists at the Hermit Restaurant in Durban.  “These included Miriam Erasmus, Garth Anderson and Darius Brubeck”, he added.

However, the highlight of his student days was undoubtedly gigs with two student bands, The Jazzanians and the Melvin Peters Quintet.  “My band, the MPQ won the Carling Circle Competition in 1989”, he recalls.  This was a national competition held at several venues around the country, where Cape Town hosted the final round.  The MPQ also performed often at the Rainbow Restaurant in Pinetown, and shared the stage with Barney Rachabane, Winston Mankunku Ngozi and Thandi Klaasen.  

Melvin formed a very good relationship with his lecturer Darius Brubeck which exists to this day.  “Darius Brubeck was more than my teacher.  He also became my mentor, role model and lifelong friend.  There was a remarkable musical synergy between us from the time I started jazz piano lessons with him.  I think of us as being kindred spirits”, he said.  Whilst he learnt how to improvise, he also learnt how to organize gigs, as well as how to represent himself as a performer at a Jazz concert.  Brubeck taught him how to develop a rapport with the audience, how to relate to the media, how to conduct interviews, and in general how to connect with people, especially jazz aficionados.

An iconic image of a young Melvin Peters and Thandi Klaasen taken by Rafs Mayet

He describes his involvement with The Jazzanians as a life changing experience.  The group was initially formed by Cathy Brubeck, after Darius received an invitation to take a student band to perform at the International Association of Jazz Educators Conference in Detroit, Michigan in 1988.  Whilst the performance at this conference was special, meeting Dave Brubeck was the real highlight.  “We were priviledged to stay at his home in Connecticut as part of this trip”, he said.  Appearing on US national television with the band was an absolute thrill.  Walking down Bourbon Street in New Orleans to attend a concert at Jazz Preservation Hall was a dream come true for Melvin.

In South Africa, The Jazzanians performed at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre at the Durban based university, the Feathermarket Hall in Port Elizabeth (now called Gqeberha), as well as the College of Music in Cape Town, as part of a national tour when they returned from the US.  Thereafter they recorded their debut album, titled “We have waited Too Long”.  Despite coming from different cultural and musical backgrounds, they experienced a strong sense of togetherness on and off the bandstand.  The memories they shared in this group are of a lifetime.

After completing a Master of Music Degree in Jazz Performance in 1989, Melvin was appointed lecturer in Jazz Studies at the then University of Durban-Westville (which has since become part of UKZN) in 1990.  “The ten years I spent at UDW gave me a great opportunity to apply what I had been taught at university.  This experience enabled me to understand and appreciate first hand, the challenges involved in teaching Jazz at tertiary level”, with a sense of fulfilment.  Most of his students did not come from strong musical backgrounds, which made music literacy the first hurdle.  A few of his students did progress towards becoming professional musicians.  The most successful is Dr Roland Moses, who is a brilliant pianist and currently lecturing at Tshwane University of Technology (TUT).

In 1998, Melvin was awarded a scholarship to study at Havard University, an experience he describes as seminal, defining moment in his life.  “In retrospect, it is still hard to believe that I was gifted this opportunity to study at this hallowed institution”, looking back.  His scholarship was to study in the General Studies Programme which essentially meant he could study for anything he wanted to.  He chose courses in Biblical Studies, Indian Classical Music, Afro-American History, Conducting and Arranging.  One of his favourite lecturers was Prof Cornel West, who taught Afro-American History.  He found West completely and utterly immersed in his area of expertise.

Debut album of the Jazzanians. Melvin is second from the left

He has performed with a wide variety of musicians in his career.  One of the memorable concerts he did was with great guitarist Herb Ellis in the early nineties at the Durban Music Festival.  “I also recall a gig with the legendary drummer Ginger Baker at the White Mountain Festival around 2001”, he said.  Some of the South African musicians he has worked with include Winston Mankunku Ngozi, Barney Rachabane, Jerry Kunene, Sandile Shange and Victor Ntoni.  The vocalists include Thandi Klaasen, Gloria Bosman, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Abigail Khubeka and Melanie Scholtz.  “I also had the opportunity to collaborate with Abdullah Ibrahim in the formation of the Cape Town Jazz Orchestra”, he added.

Melvin describes the feeling that one gets from receiving a standing ovation.  “For a musician, a standing ovation is the ultimate way for an audience to acknowledge and affirm the standard and gravitas of a performance”, he said.  The well travelled pianist finds a standing ovation deeply humbling and overwhelming. It represents the pinnacle of music appreciation and enjoyment from an audience perspective.  “Personally, if I am moved by the performance of an artist, I will definitely rise to my feet”, he added.  It is the greatest feeling for any artist, regardless of their experience, musicality and stature.  

He continues to perform regularly with the Melvin Peters Quartet.  In April 2016, he embarked on a national tour with his band.  It comprises Jeff Robinson on saxophone, Philani Ngidi on bass, Bruce Barker on drums and himself on piano.  “I use this band to explore a wide range of repertoire, including South African tunes, especially music by Abdullah Ibrahim.  I include my own compositions as well”, he said.  It has become an ideal platform for younger musicians as well.  Bassist Ildo Nandja played with the quartet for a few years before relocating to the Netherlands.  Another young drummer, Devon Hore, plays drums when Bruce Baker is not available.

The strong musical connection with his former teacher, Darius Brubeck, is quite evident in the Piano Passion Project which was recorded at Howard College in 2018. In this live recording, the mentor and mentee perform a piano duo in the album that features several pianists who studied music at UKZN.  “Darius and I are compatible in so many ways, musically and otherwise.  There is a strong musical connection between us.  Stylistically, we sing from the same hymn sheet and our pianistic touch and feel are both similar”, he explained.  The duo has mutual respect for each other’s style of improvising, therefore allowing for free expression in this context.

An album recorded as tribute to Nelson Mandela where Melvin is featured

Melvin has been featured on several recordings since the start of his professional career.  The most recent one is an album of jazz standards with Natalie Rungan, recorded in August 2021.  He was also featured on another live recording in Bremen, Germany in 2014 titled “Mandela Tata – 100 Years”.  This recording was done in tribute to Nelson Mandela and was essentially a collaboration between musicians from Durban (Melvin Peters) and Bremen (Tim Guenther) and special guests.  In 2011 he recorded an album with the band Quattro Fusion, featuring Melanie Scholtz and Samson Diamond.  He is currently working his own recording, featuring his own compositions, which he hopes to release in 2022. 

One of the things he feels very strongly about is giving back to the community by empowering the destitute, fragile and marginalized.  He has always advocated that the best way to learn Jazz is to have lessons with a teacher.  UKUSA is a community music school which operates at the Denis Hurley Centre every Saturday afternoon.  He is the Chairperson of the board of trustees at UKUSA.  Umthombo is a street children’s project which has been in existence for many years.  “My involvement in this organization is at the board level once again”, he said.  Melvin is also a board member of the KwaZulu-Natal Performing Arts Trust, which is an organization that funds various music projects in KZN.

The city of his birth has acknowledged his contribution to the musical landscape.  In September 2010, he was a recipient of the Living Legends Award from Ethekwini Municipality.  “This award was probably one of the more significant that I have received in my life.  It was a huge surprise.  I was deeply humbled and honoured to have been affirmed in this manner”, he said.  Melvin believes that as artists, the role they play in society is often undermined or taken for granted.  “In some respects, the artists have contributed to this quandary in which we find ourselves”, he added.  Throughout his life, he has ensured that what he does is taken seriously by the music fraternity, because he sees himself as someone who adds value to the craft.

He enjoys collaborating with artists, especially those who perform music from other genres.  The living legend is always seeking new ways to make this happen.  “Ultimately, I would like to perform more in other countries, especially in Europe”, he said.  On the educational front, he would like to give lectures and workshops on South African Jazz.  “I am extremely proud of our musical heritage and jazz landscape, and this needs to be shared with others, as a way of expanding our particular brand”, he emphasized.  It is of utmost importance to record what artists do, and he feels the best way to capture this is through recordings.

The Piano Passion Project where Melvin is featured

His musical hero is and will always be Lionel Pillay, a formidable Jazz pianist who inspired so many others.  “Sadly, because of the political situation in our country, he and so many contemporaries were suppressed, resulting in careers that were not allowed to flourish”, he said.  Melvin has always been a fan of Bheki Mseleku.  While at university, he began to develop a connection to the music of Abdullah Ibrahim.  He continues to perform tunes by these two icons at most of his gigs.  “My favourite saxophone players have always been Winston Mankunku Ngozi and Barney Rachabane.  He also enjoys listening to Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett.

Outside of music, he enjoys socializing with friends, as well as watching sport on television.  “I am a huge cricket fan and I wish that I could have had the opportunity to have played more sport at school”, he said.  As a result of sheer boredom caused by various lockdowns, he began watching the English Premier League matches regularly, to the extent that he is now an ardent Liverpool supporter.  “I love the outdoor life, and therefore appreciate any activity which involves being part of and experiencing nature and its beauty”, he added.  He is not an avid reader but predicts this may change soon.  Melvin also enjoys watching movies, and more recently, documentaries on musicians.