If Zelda Benjamin hadn’t gone to Sunday school as a child, Cape Town might never have had the opportunity of being entertained by this stalwart jazz singer – 80 years old next October – for the last 60-odd years.
It’s not an unfamiliar story: top-flight singer has roots in church music. That’s how it is with almost every big name in the US, ain’t it?
But Zelda’s route to jazz singer wasn’t quite like that. The church Sunday school was only a bit player, if that.
As a child, a young Zelda Uhren (as she was then) used to trek from her home in District 6 up to Walmer Estate where she attended Sunday school.
“When I came from Sunday school, I would pop in at my aunt’s place on my way to the bus stop,” Zelda said. “They were jazz fanatics like you won’t believe. They used to have drinking parties on a Saturday and Sunday. I would stand behind the door because these were all men. I was all of 12 years old. I couldn’t go in there. They were all suiping.
“All the time they would have the most fantastic jazz music going, people that I had never heard of. The main focus was Sammy Davis, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Julie London. The type of music I heard was, like, ‘oh my god’.
“It was something that just soaked in. It wasn’t really an early influence. I’d be sitting doing my homework and find myself singing and humming the tunes. I never sat down and actually listened to it properly. It would come to me suddenly from constantly listening to it on a Sunday morning. That’s where it actually started.
“And my father, who played the piano, had a voice like a nightingale and drank like a fish, was also into that kind of music.
“A lot of the music of that time, like the Victor Sylvester stuff, had that strict dance tempo style and flavour to it as well. But the style of the jazz is what grabbed me. Bebop and swing, more the swing.”
Zelda won’t be pinned down on any one singer who has had a defining influence in her style, preferring to label it as somewhat eclectic.
“I will be influenced by any tune that grabs my ear. I’ve got a CD by Pink and I love it. The stuff I like must have structure, it must be melodious and the words must make sense. I also love Amy Winehouse but I wouldn’t do her tunes. There was such a uniqueness about her. She used her vocal chords and not her nostrils.”
Like so many of her contemporaries, Zelda is from District 6, born in Lavender Hill and then moved to Upper Constitution Street. She schooled at St Phillips, then Upper Ashley Street Primary and Harold Cressy.
She left District 6 in 1964 and moved to Lansdowne with her husband, Ferdie. It is the same house they are in today, 51 years later. “It was almost a wasteland when we got here, there was nothing here, our house was all on its lonesome.”
Although Zelda was already nurturing this love for jazz, a career in that art form was not on her agenda.
“I had applied for nursing. I had an aunt who was such a well-known nurse and I admired her so. I always said I was also going to be a nurse.”
When Zelda left Cressy, she went to work at Somerset Hospital and was there for two years, preparing for a life-time caring for the sick. It all ended badly when she had a fight with one of her superiors – “a rude woman, I wanted to throw a bath of baby, shitty water over her”.
“In those days they were damn strict, they treated you as if you were in the army. I didn’t mind that because I knew that was going to happen and that’s the way it should be. But when she took the head nurse’s word over mine – and the head nurse was a lazy bitch – it made me so angry I thought ‘shit, I’m not going to stay here’.
“I had already taken my one exam, but toe kry ek mos ‘n boyfriend man’.”
The long hours and rigid training regime of nurses back then (“nurses today have got it bloody easy”) coupled with the boyfriend, made it easier for her to turn her back on being a latter-day Florence Nightingale.
“I got job at dry cleaners in Claremont as a clinical quality controller dealing with the chemicals and knowledge about stains. It was poorly paid but we had a wonderful boss; if we had a bumper month, he would share all that money amongst the staff.”
She left that job to take up a position with the Cape Town city council where, among other things in the 25 years she was there, she had to motivate young women and mothers to use the pill – “not to stop having babies but how to use the pill correctly”.
The nursing, the cleaners job, the council work . . . it all translated into a solid 9-5 working life. Where then did the professional jazz entertainer come into it all?
“I have never regarded myself as being a professional entertainer,” she says quite emphatically. “In my head, being a professional jazz singer meant 24/7 playing, rehearsing, thinking out things, which I never did because I never had the time to do it.
“I always had a home to run and see to the kids and work. I never ever thought ‘I’m going to give up my job to become a professional artist’. Also, when you were with some of the guys [on the music circuit] and you saw how they behaved, I didn’t think I wanted that label.
Zelda says her first gig wasn’t actually a gig in the true sense of the word. It came about one Saturday afternoon when she was hanging out with her friends.
One of the friends was a cricketer and his club was going to have their end-of-season party at The Naaz (the popular jazz venue in Cape Town at the time).
“One of my friends dared me to sing Summertime at the function. Well, I got up, picked up the mic and started singing with Cecil May backing me.
“There were no rehearsals, nothing. He simply told me, ‘you sing and I’ll play’. And that’s exactly what I did. The manager approached me and said you can come and sing here on a Friday and a Saturday. Of course we sang for peanuts.
“It just developed from there. People would ask me to come and sing at parties. And me, brave, wouldn’t know who the hell I was going to sing with. I would always try to arrange a rehearsal even if it was just for a half hour.”
Even as her part-time jazz singing career blossomed, Zelda still dealt with it as a lower priority. There were still no defining influences shaping her style.
“I had no preferences, if the tune and the words suited the timbre of my voice I would do it. The only criteria I wanted met was that I had to hear something melodic in my ears, something that I know I can do.
“I will not attempt to sing a song that I won’t be able to reach the top note or bottom. I like to sing comfortably. It must suit my ear and suit my mind. I don’t care if the hall is packed with 1000 and only two people clapped. As long as I know I’ve done the song well. For me it’s not a matter of people stamping or clapping or whistling. That’s all nice, but a tune well sung is what does it for me.”
Zelda’s early year’s were spent performing in the early ‘60s at The Naaz in Woodstock, and the Zambezi jazz hotspot in District 6 and at Davey Saunders’ Ambassadors Club in Woodstock where the then Dollar Brand (now Abdullah Ibrahim) had a regular gig.
As was the custom at the time, most of Cape Town’s top jazz musicians played at white nightclubs where the remuneration was decidedly better. Zelda had quite a following at the Three Cellars Club where the Four Sounds backed her and at the Midnight Grill where she worked with Gary Hendrickse and Ivan Davids.
“I also did smaller venues like the Tafelberg in Upper Constitution Street. You name it, I’ve been there, even for one gig. I also did a lot of ballroom stuff, the popular spring queen shows and there would be parties and anniversaries and 60th birthdays and that type of goeters.”
In all her years as a solo performer, she has had the pleasure of working with almost all the frontline jazz musicians in Cape Town. Does she have any favourites? “Quite a few, actually. Gary and I have a special connection. Henry February and Gary, those two. I just had to open my mouth and they would know where I was going.
“If I were to go out for the night to listen to jazz for enjoyment, I would go where either of those two would be playing.”
She readily admits that she’s never had any formal singing training. “Not a damn, I don’t know one note from the next. If you tell me I’m singing in C or I’m singing in F I wouldn’t bloody know the difference. I only know what my ear tells me. If I go and I say to Gary or Henry or whoever ‘play that note . . . no no, I won’t be able to do it in that key, try another key quickly’, up or down, whatever the case may be and off I go, finish, it’s as simple as that.”
She has never written anything either. “I just do cover versions, I have never attempted to write, I had no yearning to write because nothing’s pure or new. I was sitting in my friend’s car, and I’m listening to this tune, and I sang practically a whole verse. She wanted to know how I knew the song because it was quite new. I said, ‘nothing’s new’. Look, very few of the modern-day tunes grab me. I listen and I say to myself, I enjoyed that or I didn’t enjoy that. It’s all the same bloody tunes.”
Despite only being a part-time performer whose career spanned decades, Zelda has managed to be among the top female jazz performers in the Cape. But then, have there been that many female jazz singers in her time? Going back 40-50 years, there was Zelda, Phyllis Madikwa, Sylvia Mdunyelwa and Bea Benjamin (later known as Sathima, Abdullah Ibrahim’s wife). Zelda can’t explain why there weren’t that more those years.
“I have no idea, I really don’t know. I was too busy thinking about myself thinking ‘this is a job; I must get on stage, do it, do it well and bugger off home. I never thought about other female jazz singers.”
She is full of admiration for Tina Schouw who is a product of the late ’80s and is pretty chuffed that Tina partly credits her for embarking on a jazz career.
“Tina has written a book and in it she tells the story about standing behind a door and listening to me singing with her father, Louis, a guitarist. She says while listening to me in her head she says ‘I want to be like that lady’.”
Zelda isn’t too sure whether jazz gets true recognition as an art form in Cape Town but says it is on the up in recent years with the advent of jazz bands at high schools.
“It depends on who and where your audience is. I have already sung in a school hall in Gugulethu and brought the house down and made lights go off.
“The jazz following in Cape Town is starting to pick up again because at one stage it was in a slump. The schools are having a helluva influence on people changing their taste as well. We have school jazz concerts at the Baxter and at Artscape. They are wonderful, they actually give you goosebumps. These days you have to book your ticket early to avoid missing out on these things. That, to me, is proof that there is some kind of revival somewhere. Something’s coming alive.
“They play all old jazz standards and really, it’s beautiful. I think the future of jazz in Cape Town is looking good.”
Next year Zelda will be 80. She is not sure how long she’ll continue with this “part-time” jazz singing career. She has been told, quite bluntly, that there is a preference for a “black” face on stage. She has also been told that she is too old and that she sang obscure jazz songs.
“I don’t know how long I’ll go on. I’ll sing at an old aged home or whoever’s birthday party . . . it is not a big issue for me. Last year it was quite a shock when they came to ask me to do the Women’s Day thing at Artscape. I didn’t think they’d still remember me.
In her long career there aren’t too many things she rates as memorable but treasures the moment when she sang at the amphitheatre in the Waterfront, got a standing ovation and was presented with flowers by two little boys.
She had a spot on the Cape Town International Jazz Festival a few years back but felt it was a bit of a disaster even though her son, Joel, himself a jazz saxophonist, thought it was great.
“It was supposed to be such a wonderful experience but everything seemed to go wrong. The sound wasn’t right, we missed our cues, played out of turn. I couldn’t wait to get off stage and go home.”
Another highlight was being featured on a jazz program, Swing With Lexington Jazz, on the SABC in the apartheid days. A song she recorded with Henry February was sandwiched in between songs by Ella Fitzgerald and Nancy Wilson. It was quite an achievement for a person of colour to feature on one of the old SABC’s all-white stations.
She never performed with Dollar Brand and described their first meeting – in Cliffie Moses’ kitchen – as not pleasant at all. His first words to me were ‘oh pleased to meet you Miss White’, and I thought ‘voetsek with you’.
Did people confuse her with Bea Benjamin? “By name, but not by voice. They thought we were related.” Interestingly, they were born four days apart, Bea on October 17 1936 and Zelda on October 21.
There’s a lot to tell about Zelda Benjamin. She’s got opinions about everything but she’s not opinionated. She’s ballsy enough to give you a free character reference if you piss her off. You’ve got to respect the woman. She’s earned it.