9 June 2018
Pianist Gary Hendrickse is the consummate professional when it comes to plying his trade as an entertainer.
That’s not me saying it. I hardly know the man and I’m not even sure our paths crossed when I was reporting on local shows and gigs more than 40 years ago. That assessment comes from his peers with whom he has shared the stage for more than 50 years.
A quick vox pop of people in the know in Cape Town’s music scene all paint a picture of an accomplished, committed musician who placed great store on presentation, punctuality and performance. In other words, not only do you “gotta play good, you gotta look good”.
“If you got to play with Gary, you just knew you had to be there on time and that you had to be dressed appropriately,” one said.
That begs the question: if he was that good, how come he never gave up his day job?
Gary started playing in the early Sixties and has played in and led any number of groups since then. All the while, he was religiously turning up for work every morning to carry out his duties as a municipal health inspector.
By his own admission he “could hardly have considered music-making a career but what I did was to use the additional income to enhance my family’s economic circumstances”.
Although it was, to all intents and purposes, a “sideline” job, Gary’s commitment to it was such that that in time to come, he was acknowledged as one of the sought after pianists in Cape Town, particularly for people who wanted to listen to good jazz.
Like so many of his contemporaries, Gary is a District 6 boy, born in Long Street in 1944 before the family moved to Silvertown.
He attended Zonnebloem and matriculated at Harold Cressy before enrolling with the then Peninsula Technical College for Advanced Technical Education in 1963 that was offering public health courses.
“I earned a diploma which qualified me to be a health inspector and a second diploma which qualified me to identify diseases in animals used for human consumption by post mortem examination and to ensure that food in general for human consumption was safe,” Gary said.
He worked for the Paarl Municipality from 1966 to 1968 and then Cape Town Municipality till 1998. The job entailed enforcing legislation relating to public health with regard to sanitation, housing, water supplies, infectious diseases and general environmental health conditions.
But for Gary, music was always present. The family was steeped in the art form.
“My father’s parents had a piano and both could play. My father, two of his brothers and his sister played the piano. Birthdays were celebrated with lots of performances. I also had an uncle who was an Al Jolson imitator.”
By the time he got to Zonnebloem, Gary was already showing a natural flair for music. He sang in the school choir and at the age of 11, was the solo singer for the choir in a concert in the City Hall given by the TLSA [Teachers’ League of SA, a strongly anti-apartheid union whose members did much to conscientise learners of the day].
There was no formal music education as such in the early years. Gary’s dad bought a piano in 1958 but thought formal lessons would get in the way of his schoolwork.
“I taught myself to read music and eventually played through a pile of sheet music which included jazz standards and dance band favourites . . . songs by Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Junior, Ray Charles and pop songs.
“I also worked my way though a series of classical piano books which took me up to grade 8, not the general school grade 8, level which was one level below that of licentiate. “
Gary also enrolled with the Berklee College of Music in Boston and obtained a diploma in harmony, improvisation and big band arranging in 1973.
“In 1979, I enrolled as a part-time piano student at UCT, was given recognition for the work that I done on my own and sat for the Associate Board of the Royals Schools of Music grade 8 piano practical exams and the grade 8 theory exams. Thereafter I enrolled with UNISA to obtain a Bachelor of Musicology Degree but abandoned the idea.”
While he was working as a health inspector and furthering his music education, Gary was also carving out a name for himself on the local music scene
“I started out playing with langarm bands, as did a number of jazz pianists such as Henry February, Mervyn Jacobs, Richard Schilder, Abdullah Ibrahim, Tony Schilder, Aubrey Kinnes, Lennie Daniels, Snowy Jackson and others,” Gary said. He played with the likes of the Ballerinas, Wally Ruiters, Noel Connolly, Blue Gardenias, Strand Combo and Montreal Sound.
His contemporaries those years included Jimmy Adams, Ezra and Duke Ncgukana, Donald Tshomela, Zelda Benjamin, Louie Schouw, Harry Peacock, Cliffie Moses, Basil Moses, Willie van Bloemestein, Richard Tembo, Victor Ntoni, and Max Diamond.
Those names include some of Cape Town’s jazz “royalty” and most musicians would feel comfortable calling themselves a jazz performer. Does Gary consider himself primarily a jazz musician?
“That’s another difficult question to answer; ‘jazz’ musicians do not generally categorise themselves,” he says. “The label is assigned most of the time by academics, producers and agents who feel the need to categorise every human activity.
“Generally you’d find that musicians, who play by ear only and have learnt to play by ripping off the recordings of jazz artists, getting stuck in the mould of playing jazz only and being restricted thereby.
“I am able to play for conventional church services, funerals, weddings bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs etc, without first having to listen to recorded music for the occasion, even if the sheet music is provided on the last minute.
“When I get together with jazz musicians, I play jazz which is something I try to do as often as possible. From the time that the Green Dolphin opened its doors in 1990 till it closed in 2011, 95 per cent of my public performances were jazz.”
Gary’s preference is for the old jazz standards, some of the Brazilian rhythms and the bebop repertoire of Charlie Parker . . . “but I do play one or two funk tunes”.
Whilst he has no problem with “ghoema music” being part of a “balanced program”, one is left in no doubt that it doesn’t rate highly in his vision of all things musical.
“This [ghoema] is something that surfaced at the time of, I think, the collaboration between Taliep Petersen and David Kramer. Ghoema was never really a type of music as such. The ghoema drum, I believe, was made with a beer barrel and sheep skin stretched over the mouth of the barrel.
“The slaves from Malaya used it to accompany any music whatsoever. It was extensively used in Khalifa displays. The ghoema drum is still extensively used by our Malay Choirs to accompany any song whatsoever, whether it be marching, up-tempo or a ballad.
“In days of old, the ‘white’ populace used to frequently expect you, as a ‘coloured’ person, to play ‘klopse’ music with a beat generated by a ghoema drum. The apartheid Department of Arts and Culture even went so far as to label the music as ‘coloured culture’. Even to this very day, there are ‘whites’ who expect us to play music of our ‘culture’ and nothing else. Fortunately there are those of us who didn’t fall into the trap.
“There is nothing wrong with ‘ghoema music’ being part of a balanced program but, unfortunately, because of demands made by producers, a great number of musicians have fallen into the ‘coloured culture’ trap.
“It has now been labelled Khoisan culture by some. As part of a balance program there would be nothing wrong with this, but there are musicians and bands who are ‘coloured culture’ specialists.
“The music has as a harmonic base of one, two or no more than three chords. It’s like the difference between poetry such as Mary had a little lamb, and a sonnet by Shakespeare.”
Gary has oodles of admiration for the new breed of Cape Town musicians coming through, particularly Dullah Ebrahim, Kyle Shepherd and Darren English.
“All three took off from a solid base where they studied music formally. Kyle and Darren each have a masters degrees from UCT. They have taken South African music to the international stage. Camillo Lombard is also to be admired. He runs the Cape Music Institute and has been accredited to run music courses that are recognised by the London School of Music.”
Even with the more educated musicians coming through, Gary is still not sure whether people are becoming more refined in their taste, “but there is a growing following for jazz music in general”.
The fact that he hasn’t much of a recording legacy doesn’t faze him too much. As far as he is concerned, “producers are the ones who make the money”.
After he left his day job he registered a trademark “South Easter Music” and became a member of the Cape Town Chamber of Commerce, the first ever to register as a music services provider.
“I ran my operation along business lines. I specialised in music – including a little bit of “ghoema” – for local and international functions. I played for functions hosted for, among others, Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, New York Life, German Tourism, Thabo Mbeki, The World Bank, Trevor Manuel, ABSA, First National, KPMG, De Loitte, the Lewis Family of Foschini fame.
“The money was good and I did at least four corporate functions a week. The only restaurant I virtually played in during this period was the Green Dolphin if I were available to do so.”
He is in semi-retirement mode, choosing the gigs he wants to. He recently lost good friend, drummer Willie van Bloemestein, but he still has his reliable bassist Gary Kriel to depend on.
When he is at home, he listens to classics, like Arthur Rubenstein performing Grieg’s Piano Concert in A Minor and Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto.
And, of course, bebop, with the emphasis on Charlie Parker.
“Internationally, in my opinion, there has been no one to surpass Charlie Parker on alto saxophone. He revolutionised jazz harmony and melody.”
All photographs provided by Gary Hendrickse.
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