Pianist, vocalist, and composer Melorie Jane describes herself as a child of God, an ordinary woman who is happily married to an amazing husband.  “I love people, art, travelling, information and of course music”, she told Jazz It Out.  She loves to bring joy, connect with people, and have deep conversations.  “I am also quite emotional, and it seems the combination is often a starting point of my compositions”, she added.  She admires authenticity and is passionate about making space for everyone and being inclusive, but also seeing people grow and finding freedom.  

As a young girl growing in Pretoria, she was always involved with music and sports.  She joined a choir at the age of 7.  Melorie started playing the piano by ear before her first lessons at age 9.  “I also remember playing piano alongside my father.  This is where my love of music began and it has been a part of my life and expression ever since”, she said.  Some of her fondest memories are going on vacation as a family, spending a lot of time together, enjoying braaivleis, gardening, visiting art galleries, walking in nature and making food together.  She enjoyed reading, academics and studying.

Melorie Jane. Picture by JF de Villiers

The award winning pianist knew she wanted to be a musician all her life, always had a good ear which led to an interest in music.  “I wrote a lot of songs as a young child, none of them were any good, but were the start of something bigger than I realized at the time”, she recalls.  At school, she never played in bands and knew nothing about jazz.  Despite not knowing how it would practically work to be a musician, she felt drawn to become one.  She loved Buena Vista Social Club, world music from the Putumayo CD collection, songwriters such as Bob Dylan, the likes of rock bands Coldplay and Muse.  By her own admission, she was not a big fan of pop music.

When she expressed her intentions to study music, her parents were supportive of the idea, probably since her mother is an artist and they knew it would be possible to pursue a career in the arts.  Melorie enrolled for a Bachelor in Music at the University of Pretoria.  Her parents supported her throughout the studies to strategize and think of ways in which she could make music a viable option going forward.  “I am so grateful to my parents, sister, husband and his family for their continued support, without which I would not have been where I am now.  It has been a challenging journey”, she acknowledges.

It was at Tukkies (as the university is often referred to) that she really got into South African and international jazz.  The institution’s music department was at the time very piano centric, focusing on classical piano, encouraging excellence among students and a high work ethic.  “These qualities were greatly beneficial to my own playing and practicing.  I am amazed that I was accepted into the programme despite my sight reading standard which was not very high.  However, I worked very hard to catch up with other students” she admits. The curriculum at her time of studying offered jazz piano as a first instrument but did not offer other studies in the jazz field.  This meant that students who majored in jazz like her had to do self study or consult other musicians.

Performing with some of the best South African musicians at Mzantsi Jazz Awards in 2022

While studying towards her music degree, she formed an afro jazz and funk band called ALL the MORE.  “I learnt a lot about South African Jazz in this band”, she confessed.  Bassist Gilbert Sithole loved the music of bassists such as Marcus Miller and Jaco Pastorius, which is why her compositions at the time had prominent bass parts.  Later Lehlohonolo Ntsoko joined on saxophone, and introduced Melorie to music of Winston Mankunku Ngozi, Moses Khumalo and Moses Taiwa Molelekwa.  “Thato Tswai joined the band much later but was also a significant part of my development in jazz.  His drumming specifically helped my own sense of multiple metres and timing”, she added.

The formation of ALL the MORE evolved quite naturally and the ensemble needed a venue to showcase its talent.  “A saxophonist named Josh Boudan and I decided we were going to perform at Marais Street Acoustics.  The band was formed out of a necessity to perform, its style came from all the members and the music we were interested in”, she said.  This period proved to be a journey of discovery of South African Jazz for Melorie.  They also travelled to the National Arts Festival for the first time which was quite an eye opener for the young and ambitious pianist.  She recalls the insightful conversations she had with jazz enthusiasts at the festival.

In Pretoria, the band used to have regular gigs at +27 Café, which they were responsible for organizing.  They started very small and decided to place posters on campus.  “Our first turn out was about 80 people, went down to 60, then started growing, until one day when we had about 320 people and my husband had to play bouncer at the concert”, recalling the long queue that evening.  They played South African Jazz and music of Herbie Hancock, mostly instrumental which the predominantly young audience enjoyed.  She realized that the music was fun, deep,  inclusive and had something special about it.

Different View – Melorie Jane’s EP

The band was disbanded in 2017 after Melorie graduated at Tukkies and relocated to Franschhoek.  She enrolled for a Master’s Degree in Music Performance with a focus on jazz composition and piano at the University of Stellenbosch, performing under her own name.  The master’s degree was very intense, although it turned to be a great decision.  “I was priviledged to have studied under the guidance of Dr Pierre Henri Wicomb, who not only guided me in performance, but also in composition”, she said.  As a result, she was able to perform many of her original compositions during her final recital.  “Wicomb’s input shaped my ability as a composer immensely and allowed me to start writing music that was more sophisticated”, she added.

She also wrote a dissertation under the guidance of Dr Stephanie Vos.  Both aspects of the degree were of great value to her performing abilities, knowledge and capacity to grow.  It felt like she started behind her peers yet again and had to catch up.  The road to obtaining the Master’s was not an easy one.  It required long hours of working and practicing, sometimes through the night.  Working full time while doing her studies was very demanding.  “I was very thankful once I had completed my studies”, with a sense of fulfilment.  

Her EP as a solo artist titled “Different View” was released in 2018.  All of her songs often have double or triple layers of meaning.  One such song is “Freedom”.  The first layer of freedom refers to the freedom among musicians connecting through playing together.  Music is a platform for musicians to hear one another’s stories.  A deeper meaning at the time had to do with Melorie finding her voice as a person and composer.  These songs reiterate themselves and their meanings as time goes on and as they are performed in different ways.

More of Less – Melorie Jane’s award winning debut album

In 2021, she released her debut album titled “More or Less” which was created as a thought through product, but a bit less structured.  “Some of the music I had written before, and some of the material was written before lockdown”, she said.  When the album was recorded, Melorie did not realize the full weight it would carry, representing her style and signature as a body of work.  “I did not anticipate it would do so well, or that so many people would know about it.  I was pleasantly surprised”, she added.

The album was an artistic expression of what she studied at Stellenbosch.  “When we started, I set out to capture my emotions and experiences in the music.  I really wanted to inspire people and let them know they were not alone, especially during the lockdown”, she stated.  She also wanted to encourage them to reach out to others who might also have been in need.  “I also wanted to make a bold step and put my music out there as a young female musician, and perhaps spark some others to go for their dreams”, she emphasized.

“Mr Tswai” is a dedication to Thato Tswai whom she played with at ALL the MORE.  It was inspired by his resilience and faith as a person and the joy he carries.  Thato, his wife and family are close friends of Melorie and her family.  “It’s been a long time” is a song written as an ode to her ALL the MORE band members, and the special connection they had as an ensemble.  “Amina” refers to Amina Figorova, a huge inspiration to Melorie as a composer and performer.  She enjoys her music and feels it is important to see a fellow female pianist and composer succeeding. The harmonies are inspired by her harmonic palette.

Road to Zambia – Melorie Jane Quintet

“More or Less” was voted Best Jazz Album and Melorie won Best Female Jazz Artist where she was the only nominee at the 2022 Mzantsi Jazz Awards.  “The whole process was very surprising to me”, with excitement.  She acknowledges that there are many artists who came before she did, whom she holds in high regard.  “I am thankful for all those who helped me achieve this success.  At the ceremony, she got to perform with bassist Dalisu Ndlazi and drummer Sphelelo Mazibuko and shared the stage with Khaya Mahlangu, Kgethi Nkotsi, Malcom Jiyane, Roland Moses and Sandile Masilela.

For jazz to be made more popular in South Africa, Melorie believes it must be made cool and desirable.  It must be made accessible to everyone, young, old, rich and poor. “Let’s make it danceable. Let’s tell the audience why it’s so amazing when someone’s solo is on fire. Let’s build each other while we are playing” she said.  She thinks the audience reads into their body language as musicians, and perhaps a lot of what they learn in jazz performance is about being discreet, and she thinks the music is more amplified when the audience can see what is happening, not only hear it.  “It comes down to how we treat music”, she added.

Melorie is not resting on her laurels and is working on new music.  “I am also looking at opportunities to collaborate with other artists and wish to perform internationally”, she concluded.  Her list of favourite artists include Avishai Cohen, Amina Figarova, Hiromi, Bokani Dyer, Thembelihle Dunjana, Shane Cooper, Mammal Hands, GoGo Penguin, Robert Glasper, Ibrahim Maalouf, Benjamin Jephta, Sean Sanby, Nicky Schrire, Zoë Modiga, Vuma Levin and Gabi Motuba.  Connect with her on LinkedIn – Melorie Jane. Subscribe to her YouTube channel @meloriejane and visit her website www.meloriejane.co.za  Her Facebook Page is Melorie Jane, follow her on Twitter @MelorieJane and @melorie_jane on Instagram.