Hugh Masekela

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We talk to the legendary South African trumpeter
Hugh Masekela and find out how music saved him
from getting into trouble at school

How does it feel being 70?

I’m doing festivals all over the world and celebrating. But I’ve never been a birthday person. It’s my friends, my family – everybody else is logging into my birthday.

What got you interested in music in the
first place?

When I was three years old I discovered the gramophone and that’s all I was interested in. I thought there was people who lived inside and that’s where I wanted to live – and I’ve been living there ever since.

You were influenced by the Kirk Douglas film Young Man With A Horn?

When I was a kid we sang along with Ella Fitzgerald, with Bing Crosby, with Frank Sinatra, with Louis Armstrong, and great musicians like Harry James and Glenn Miller. Kirk Douglas stood in front of the band and took all the solos and had beautiful clothes. As a teenager I thought maybe this instrument can get me to those things.

Why did anti-apartheid campaigner Archbishop Trevor Hudddleston give you a trumpet?

He got me my first trumpet because I’d seen it in that movie. I was in a lot of trouble with the school authority and he was the school chaplain and knew my parents. He said: ‘What do you want to do because – getting into that kind of trouble – no school is going to want you.’ And I said: ‘Father, If I can get a trumpet I won’t bother anybody anymore’. And he got me a trumpet and a trumpet teacher – and the rest is history.

When you moved to New York, what was it like seeing the jazz greats?

Louis Armstrong had already sent our youth band a trumpet and I corresponded with him by letter. The biggest thing was to be able to get there. I just lived in clubs because in those days you could go to ten shows and stand in what they called the ‘bull pen’. You paid a dollar to go in. It was unbelievable, I spent my first night seeing Thelonius Monk and Dizzy Gillespie at one club. I saw Charlie Mingus at another and Coltrane at the Half Note. When I got to New York I knew how to get from The Apollo to Birdland via Central Park and Ninth Avenue and how much the fare should be – I was in my natural habitat.

You had a Number One hit with ‘Grazin In The Grass’ (1968)?

It was pure accident. We were doing the album [The Promise of A Future] and Russ Regan, head of Universal Records, said ‘Listen I need one more song, there isn’t enough songs on this LP’. The saxophone player Al Abreau said: ‘Well let’s do this one song that I have a tape of, that this friend of mine gave me’ – Philemon Hou. We did it in half an hour. It was simple – it had a simple melody and piano, guitar and bass. So, that evening when Russ Regan came and listened to it he said: ‘This is a smash’.

Interview by Neil McKim