Willie van Bloemestein, one of the most enduring drummers to have graced the Cape Town scene, died last week, a few months short of his 90th birthday.
From the mid-’50s until well into the new century Willie was a fixture in local clubs, playing with whoever needed his services – be it a funk band, a langarm band or a jazz band.
That was Willie van Bloemestein. He was THAT good, he could handle anything anybody threw at him.
In an interview for the book, Jazz People of Cape Town, back in 2002, Willie told interviewer Lars Rasmussen that, aside from his regular gig with Cliffie Moses and the Four Sounds, he was also playing in a Dixieland jazz band and a German oompah band.
His peers held him in high esteem. All I spoke to – Gary Kriel, Gary Hendrickse, Cliffie Moses, Zelda Benjamin and Harry Peacock – were effusive in their praise for him.
Willie’s career started way back in the mid-Fifties when he joined a group called the Rock River Boys in Athlone. He was playing guitar then, a skill he learnt while hanging out with some part-time musicians in District 6.
As he said in Jazz People of Cape Town: “There were no drums, so the guys said: ‘Hey, we need a drummer. Nobody wanted to play it, but I did. I had my Black Rose guitar; I gave it in to Bothners [music store], bought me a set of drums, and I started playing rock ‘n roll on them’.”
That group featured the legendary Jimmy Adams on sax and Gary Kriel on guitar.
It started the long journey that saw him play over the years with all the top musicians around Cape Town, most of the time in jazz combos and in jazz clubs.
He provided the beat for jazz groups led by Richard Schilder, Cliffie Moses’ Four Sounds, Kenny Jephtha, Cecil May and Gary Hendrickse.
When he was in “langarm mode” he played with the legendary Alf Wyllie and Stan Lombard’s dance bands and with The Gemstones.
For all this commitment to music, it was always only a second job for Willie. His day job for many years was as a sewing machine mechanic
In some clubs, like the “whites only” Catacombs in the city, where Willie played with Cecil May’s group, they would only start playing at 10pm and go until 3am every night of the week.
He would “get to bed at four o’clock, get up at seven o’clock, back to work, take a nap, come home, take a nap, eat quick, take a wash, go to bed, wake up at 9.30pm, 10 o’clock I’m up again playing. For eight years”.
“My boss understood this. He said, ‘you need some extra money’, so if I came late, he didn’t mind,” Willie recalled in the jazz book.
The group at The Catacombs featured some of the best talent Cape Town had with May on piano, Kenny Jephtha on guitar, Johnny du Toit on bass and Maud Damons and Yvonne Cloete on vocals. It was largely unknown to the Cape Flats jazz lovers because the money was too good in the white clubs.
When the gig at The Catacombs eventually came to an end, Willie did the club rounds in the Peninsula – the 524, the Beverley Lounge, the Surwell Lounge, Club Montreal.
In all the years he played, Willie did it without any formal training. It was all done by ear.
Once, in the early years, he had a gig at short notice with pianist Albie Louw whose regular drummer was unavailable. When Willie asked him what music he was playing, Albie whipped out a music sheet multiple pages long and told him to follow the beat.
“I just used my ears and followed him as he went along,” Willie said.
“You’ve got be versatile, specially playing with different groups,” Willie said in the book. “You can’t stick to one thing all the time . . . like jazz, quickstep, sometimes you play Mexican type of music, or you got to do Jewish numbers, or Italian numbers.
Even late in life Willie was still practising and learning something new everyday. In recent years, he teamed up with Billy Baatjes and played once a week at the Kensington Old Age Home.
Although he played with most of the top groups in the Cape, he would not single out any one for special attention. “I enjoyed every band I’ve played with.”
Although Willie’s career spanned decades, there is very little by way of recording material that he has left behind. He did a CD with saxophonist Harold Jafta that focussed on the developing ghoema genre and a tape with Gary Kriel.
He said it was a shame that not much was recorded, but “no one cared”.
One of the highlights of his career was having a jam session at the Surwell Lounge in Surrey Estate with one of the superstars of modern jazz, American pianist Chick Corea. “He pitched up at the place unannounced and was so impressed with us, he joined in,” Willie recalled.
As much as the nightlife and music was his life, Willie van Bloemestein was essentially an old school “ home boy”. He never really ventured out of Cape Town.
He had a stint with the African Jazz and Variety Show in the Sixties when they had a run in Cape Town but when they show packed up to head out for Jo’burg and a national tour, he pulled out.
“I didn’t want to travel, they wanted me to go to Jo’burg and all those places but I was scared to go. I had a wife and children,” he said in the book.
Willie leaves behind his wife, Ingrid, and six children.
I did meet Willie during my time reporting on entertainment in Cape Town but he was never front and centre of any interview. Yet, he cast a long shadow over any proceedings.
[Drum roll, please! Boom tish!] Vale Willie van Bloemestein. Rest in Peace.
Gary Hendrickse: “I am sad to have heard of the passing of Willie van Bloemestein. He was a drummer of note.
“I met Willie in 1964 soon after I had turned 20. He was at least 15 years my senior and the drummer with the Cecil May Trio at the Catacombs.
“I was privileged to eventually do many gigs with him in my trio, with the Four Sounds and with [saxophonist] Jimmy Adams’ Cape Jazz Quartet and the extended band at the Green Dolphin, and also with Harold Jephthta.”
Harry Peacock: “Willie was an outstanding drummer. He was explosive, and when he finished his drum solo, he brought the roof down. He wasn’t essentially a jazz drummer, he could play anything, everything. I can’t remember all the outfits we played together over the years. We chopped and changed all the time those years.
“Willie played at the Catacombs every night for many years. I lived two doors away from him in Kensington. When I would get ready for bed at 10pm, I would hear Willie drive off in his VW to go and play.
“He came home in the wee hours, had a nap for a few hours and then went to his day job.
“I told my wife: ‘I don’t think that man is going to last long’. In those days we used to do a lot of drinking when we played. That he lived to a 90 is remarkable.”
Gary Kriel: “I started playing with Willie in Kew Town around 1955 in a group called the Rock River band.
“We played rock ‘n roll at any function that would have us. Willie moved to drums when I came in as guitarist. He just got behind the drums and played it like a natural.
“I left to go and tour with Percy Sledge but I teamed up with him again when I came back in 1982.
“As far as I am concerned, Willie could play stuff that no other drummer could play.
“He was unique. He was one of a kind.”
Zelda Benjamin: “The Willie van Bloemestein I knew was a rare person in the music world. He would go and do a gig with whoever asked him. He would never say no, whether it was for charity or whatever. Undoubtedly a rare creature, you don’t find men like that anymore. That mold has been thrown away.”
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