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Passings: Hugh Masekela (1939 - 2018)

by VVN Music

Jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela, known as the "Father of South African Jazz", has died after battling prostate cancer at the age of 78.

Masekela was born in Kwa-Guqa Township in South Africa and initially played piano before seeing the film Young Man With a Horn which was inspired by the life of Bix Beiderbecke.  Hugh switched to the trumpet and inspired others in his school to take up the instrument leading to the first youth orchestra in South Africa, the Huddleston Jazz Band.

Hugh went on to play in Alfred Herbert's African Jazz Revue, the Manhattan Brothers and the orchestra for South Africa's first major musical, King Kong, before joining forces with other well known musicians in his country to form the Jazz Epistles. The first jazz group to record in Africa, it was short lived after Masekela fled the country following the Sharpeville massacre where 69 protesters were shot dead.

Masekela settled first in London to study at the Guildhall School of Music and then, with help from Harry Belafonte, to New York where he attended the Manhattan School of Music from 1960 to 1964. It was also during this time that he married and divorced fellow South African Miriam Makeba.

It was Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis who encouraged Hugh to develop his Afro-Jazz style, telling him "Listen, if you're going to play jazz, you're just going to be a statistic like all of us. Why don't you infuse some of the stuff from your home into your music, and then maybe you'll come up with something that will interest everybody and that we can learn from."

While he recorded mainly as a jazz artist, starting with the 1962 album Trumpet Africaine, he also crossed over to the pop and R&B charts, first with a cover of "Up Up and Away" (1967 / #71 Pop / #47 R&B) and, most notably, with "Grazin' in the Grass" (1968 / #1 Pop / #1 R&B). In addition, his "Soweto Blues" became a theme for the anti-apartheid movement in his home country.

Hugh was also played on Paul Simon's landmark 1987 album Graceland. His last album was 2016's No Borders.

Masekela was also involved in several social causes including The Lunchbox Fund which provided daily meals to students in Soweto.