When Kevin Davidson first heard John Coltrane’s Lush Life, something happened to him. He was impressed with the spirituality and originality in Coltrane’s music. Years later, he witnessed a live performance by Winston Mankunku Ngozi. He and Mankunku became friends instantly. There are no words to describe how that sound went to his body. “Music chooses you. Jazz chose me”, he said.
This multi-instrumentalist, composer, arranger, former teacher and music lecturer, was born and raised in Port Elizabeth. After both his parents died when he was very young, he was given for adoption. “The parents that adopted me were communists. They told me about the harsh realities of South Africa and not the lies that were propagated by the apartheid government”, as the young waitress delivers the drinks.
News Café in Midrand is where Kevin sat down with Marabi Jazz Lounge to narrate his story. He and the late Zim Ngqawana were taught by the same flute teacher Anne Catt. He used to hang with Big T Ntsele, Dudley Tito and Whitey Mitchell who were members of the group Soul Jazzmen. This is also where he met Robbie Jansen, beginning a friendship for many years. He regards Jansen’s group Estudio as one of the most sophisticated ensemble this country has ever produced.
Kevin plays eleven instruments with different degrees of proficiency. These instruments include tenor, alto, and soprano saxophones, flute and piano. He no longer has some of the instruments in his possession. Asked which of the instruments is his ultimate favourite, he took a deep breath and said, “I don’t find any of them particularly easy. With most of them I have to fight or wrestle for my sound”.
He has recorded four albums and is working on the fifth. “Each of my albums has its own unique concept and distinct from the others in different ways”, reflecting on his long music career. With over 500 compositions to his credit, he tells Marabi Jazz Lounge that what drives him is a ‘need to soothe people and calm them down’. He adds, “As a young musician, I was into avante garde music, but I now chase beautiful melodic lines with unexpected harmonic progressions that nonetheless have an aural flow”.
Looking back at his contribution as an educator and lecturer makes him extremely proud. He completed a B Mus (cum laude) at the University of Port Elizabeth in 1979 and moved to Cape Town where he taught at the Jazz Workshop School of Music run by Merton Barrow. Kevin also joined the band Scott-Free as their alto saxophonist. He worked with musicians such as Winston Mankunku Ngozi, Duke Makasi, Robbie Jansen, Ezra Ngcukana, Chris Schilder, Basil Moses and many others.
With extreme confidence, Kevin told Marabi Jazz Lounge that, “Coltrane is a far more celebrated player than Mankunku, but the place where their music came from is what drew me to them”. He said the spirituality of both these players affected him deeply. In one of his albums entitled Breathing Winston Living John, he pays tribute to both his jazz icons. He performs tenor saxophone accompanied by Roland Moses on piano, Hugo De Waal on guitar, Pete Sklair on bass, drummer Peter Auret and special guest Dan Selsick on trombone in the tune Water Torture where Kevin plays flute.
From 1988 till the end of last year, Kevin taught music at Tshwane University of Technology (TUT). “Sydney Minisi and Thami Mahlangu are my former students”, beaming with pride. He retired at end of last year. “All one can do as an educator and lecturer is to hope and instill a thirst in one’s student to investigate their craft as thoroughly as possible”, reflecting on those years.
His other albums include Let Sleeping Doggz Fly and Our Land Our Music. Kevin strongly believes that jazz has an amazing way of making strangers connect and be friends for life. “Jazz is universal. I have played with musicians where none of us could each other’s language well enough to even say Hello, but when we spoke to each other through sound the level of communication got very deep, very quickly”, he said. He added, “Jazz for me is something drawn from different styles such as Indian, Cuban, Brazilian and many other cultures.
Asked what are the obstacles and challenges facing jazz as a music genre in South Africa, without hesitation Kevin said, “Obstacles in South African music will take the form of styled cul de sacs”. Responding to where he sees South African jazz in the next ten years considering that jazz musicians are getting younger, he drew on his experience and said, “Age is never a factor. I can’t say where local jazz will be in ten years’ time, but I am perturbed by cheap licks and tricks eclipsing spiritual depth”.
In his first year of retirement, he is trying to be more active than he ever was, going to the gym every morning. “I am near the end of arranging 13 compositions for my fifth album”, he tells Marabi Jazz Lounge. He says this project will be devoid of piano and guitar, and will contain saxophones and flute choirs interfacing with a very widely written string orchestra. He has not had a live performance in years but is always available to perform at private functions at a reasonable fee.
Kevin’s website is www.kevindavidson.co.za He is very also very active on social media and is accessible on the following platforms.
Facebook: Kevin Anomaly Davidson