ArtSpoken & Reviews

Spotlight on Morris Goldberg

Don Albert
01/12/2012 08:36:17

Jazzaholic by Don Albert: Morris Goldberg, the South African who played saxophone with the President of America …

While everybody who is at all interested in South African jazz, especially the iconic recording of ‘Mannenberg’ by Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim) in 1974, knows the personnel, many are unaware that one name is missing, that of alto saxophonist Morris Goldberg. Why? No one seems to know.

I got chatting to him on a Jazz Cruise in 2006.

Morris Goldberg was born in Observatory, Cape Town. He says: ”We always had music in the house. 78 rpm shellac records of everything from Al Jolson to Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Yiddish musical comedy.”

When he was seven his mother sent him for piano lessons, which he disliked and at eight he made his first stage appearance. “I played ‘Buttons and Bows’ on the harmonica on the Vic Davis show at the Sea Point Pavilion.” Clarinettist Davis led a very popular band in Cape Town at the time, and he used to call kids up to perform.

“At the age of 12, I asked my father for a clarinet. He said no. It was not a good thing to be a musician. I asked why. He said he used to be a musician in Lithuania (Russia) and it was looked down upon. He said he used to play the clarinet in the Russian army band. I had no idea - he never talked about it till that time. I thought he was bullshitting me. Two years later, at the age of 14, we went to Bothner’s (a music shop) and bought a clarinet from George Kussel *. When we got there, he actually played the clarinet. I was shocked, because he still had the embouchure **. When he left Russia, he left that whole world behind and worked as a butcher.

“I studied clarinet at the College of Music in Rondebosch with William Staniforth, who played in the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra. I used to play in the College of Music Orchestra, and one of my colleagues was a violist by the name of Galt MacDermot. He was from Canada and his father was the High Commissioner for Canada in South Africa. He introduced me to the music of Duke Ellington. He also went on to write the music for Hair. He lives in New York on Staten Island. Gerry Bosman and I studied harmony and theory with Ashley Hartley at the College of Music. When I returned to Cape Town in 1966, I played as an extra in the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra. We did one of the Mahler symphonies. I had to play Bb and Eb clarinet.

“I started to play the saxophone at the age of 16. The first band I played with used to rehearse in Kuilsrivier, and the first bebop tune I learnt was “Move“. I guess I was fascinated by music at an early age. The first small jazz group I heard was Dave Brubeck with Paul Desmond. When I moved to Sea Point, I used to go to George Kussel's flat and listen to his records for hours. He had all the latest discs that he got from Ira Gitler (Ira Gitler is a famous American jazz writer) by Charlie Parker, Horace Silver, Clifford Brown, Max Roach etc.

“I met Shunna ‘Sonny’ Pillay, Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa and Kippie Moeketsi when I was about 17. They came to Cape Town with African Jazz. I met John Mehegan (pianist and educator Mehegan came to SA in 1959 and recorded an LP in Johannesburg with Goldberg who also studied with him). He gave me a six hour lesson on jazz harmony, which comprised of what was to be the first books on jazz theory and harmony. When I got the job on the Queen Mary in 61, I spent hours practising what he had given me - the modes, seventh chords etc. When I got to New York I heard John Coltrane playing in the modal style, and was familiar with this because of what I had studied with John.

“Before I left Cape Town I remember having an almost religious experience. Chris McGregor brought over a record by Ornette Coleman - “The Shape of Jazz to Come‘. We sat listening to this in awe.

“When I played with Dollar (Abdullah Ibrahim) in New York, I met Duke Ellington. It was an indelible experience - lasted only a few minutes. He told us to write everything down - the minute an idea comes, write it down, because it will never come back the same way.

“I left Cape Town in August 1960 and went to London and starved. I had 20 pounds in my pocket eventually I got a job on the Queen Mary playing in one of the bands, and while doing that I decided I wanted to study music in New York.

“I got there in Oct 1961 and enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music and got a Bachelors Degree with a clarinet major and a Master’s Degree in Education.” Some of his fellow students were Herbie Hancock, Yusef Lateef, Donald Byrd and Ron Carter.

“At night, for my jazz education, I again studied with John Mehegan. Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa and I used to go down to his studio where he was teaching and had a band, we were the horn players. I played in Hugh’s first band with Eddie Gomez on bass and Al Foster on drums (Gomez went on to play with Bill Evans and Foster with Miles Davis) then Dollar Brand eventually come over to New York and I played with him. We made a tape, but I don’t think it was ever released. It had Sonny Brown on drums and Ron Carter bass. We played a concert at Carnegie Recital Hall and we played some far out stuff, getting into the ‘Free Jazz’ thing. At the reception afterwards one writer, I think his name was Burton, who was into straight ahead jazz and didn’t like the music, so he wrote “I felt like an Arab at a bar mitzvah.”

I then started working with Sonny Pillay who had a big contract with MCA Records. I lead the band and opened at Café au Go Go in New York (Lenny Bruce was busted there and Stan Getz recorded a famous album there featuring Astrid Gilberto). The pianist was Larry Willis, the bassist Lyle Atkinson. When they weren’t available I used Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter.”

When that ended he eventually got married and started teaching in high school, he did gigs and even went to France with a rock band. When he returned he felt quite unsettled but did a few gigs. The next thing he got a call from Harry Belafonte, with who he had worked in 1972. It was now 1980 and he worked with him off and on until 1988 touring America, Canada, Europe and even Harare for UNICEF, where Hugh Masekela was a guest. In between he worked with Dianne Reeves. It was in Harare that he and Masekela, although they hadn’t seen each other for some time, decided to hook up again. It happened in 1988 and they worked together for four years touring American, Canada, Europe and the Caribbean. When South Africa changed, the band came to South Africa and did a tour titled “Sekunjalo”.

Eventually Masekela came back to South Africa and Goldberg stayed in New York. That’s when he decided to form his own band for the first time. ”I realised that I had absorbed all the jazz thing, but the fountain, the well of the music, and the sounds that inspired me all came from South Africa. All the writing I did for the band had its roots in South Africa combined with the jazz that I love.” He played bebop with a different rhythm.

In 1971 he played a jazz mass written by the renowned jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams which had a choir and a jazz group and was performed by the Alvin Ailey Dance Group. He played for Brazilian musician Sivuka for seven weeks running at The Village Gate in New York. Names of musicians he worked with flow from his lips.

In 1996 he auditioned for the band on the Rosie O’Donnell show and got the job. He stayed until she decided to quite in 2002. One of the spin offs was that the Rosie O'Donnell Band played for a birthday party/fund raiser for Hillary Clinton in 2000. The then President, Bill Clinton came up to him and they started chatting about reeds and mouthpieces and horns. Goldberg had both his alto and tenor saxophones with him, and someone suggested The President sit in, he asked if he could use the tenor and of course he said sure, “he (Clinton) played ‘My Funny Valentine‘ on my horn, with us accompanying him - not bad. He could be good if he practised!”

On another occasion Goldberg’s band called Ojoyo played a private party for Anthony Hopkins at a hotel in New York City. Hopkins loved the music, and took photos with the group. One of the guests at that party was Mohammed Ali.

To get up to date he still leads his own band, he plays with Masekela whenever he’s in America and was performing some classical music as well.

Goldberg has paid various visits to his home town. In 1974 he recorded the famous Mannenberg album with Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim). Oddly he was not credited on the label of the album, but he plays the last solo on the title track.

A few years back Mountain Records released a CD of Morris Goldberg titled Jazz In Transit,*** which was recorded live in Cape Town at a jazz concert in 1983, with pianist Tony Schilder, drummer Cecil Ricca, bassist Gary Kriel and vibraphonist Merton Barrow.

It’s an historic recording of real South African jazz. It contains many examples of how to fuse a Cape Town goema beat with American jazz and losing nothing in the interpretation. Listen to “Pedal Pusher”, “Flying High” and “Sun ’n Sol”. The repertoire is excellent ranging from originals to compositions by Duke Ellington, Jerome Kern and Sonny Rollins. Solos are well constructed and the only niggle I have with this very fine CD, which features Goldberg playing alto and soprano saxophones, flute and clarinet underpinned by a typical Cape Town rhythm section able to feed him with a rhythm of Cape Carnival swagger, is the bad balance of his clarinet which sounds like an harmonica on “Anthropology”. Otherwise a fine example of a man who played with an American President.

* The late George Kussel was a prominent bass player in Cape Town. Charles Mingus was his great inspiration. He was responsible for much that happened on the contemporary jazz scene and was oblivious to the colour of your skin. Kussel has never received the recognition due to him.

** Embouchure: The adjustment of the lips and muscle in controlling the mouthpiece in blowing of a wind instrument.

*** Mountain Records.  Tel 021 447 1358.

I received the following -mail from him the other day, which could be of interest to those who might be in New York in February or March.

Hello friends, I will be performing at two shows during the LI Winterfest. Sunday March 4th from 4.30 until 6.30pm with the Super Band:- Randy Brecker Lew Soloff trumpet, Ada Rovatti, Jim Campagnola and myself saxophones, Claes Brondal drums, Rashid Lanie kybd, Bryan Campbell guitar, Peter Weiss bass. At Raphael Vineyard, 39390 Main Road Rte 25 Peconic, NY 11958

Sunday March 10th from 4.30 until 6.30pm at Duck Walk North with OJOYO, playing original South African flavoured jazz plus jazz standards. The quartet consists of Bakithi Kumalo bass, Rashid Lanie kybd, Mark Portugal drums, myself on sax, clarinet and pennywhistle. The address:- 44535 Main Road Rte 25 Southold NY 11971

I will also be performing at Wolffer Estate Vineyard on Friday February 24th from 5 until 8pm with Bill Smith kybd and Jorge Mesa bass. This is part of their Candlelight Fridays series. HOPE TO SEE YOU THERE!

Address:- Sagg Road Sagaponac (after Bridgehampton, travelling east).

Don Albert’s Jazzaholic column will be posted on every Thursday. Don Albert is a saxophonist and jazz journalist. He spent 12 years with The Star Newspaper on the Tonight! Section writing about jazz. Currently he writes jazz CD and book reviews for Financial Mail and is the South African Correspondent for Downbeat (USA) and Jazz Journal International (UK). He has presented radio programmes on jazz and served as judge at prestigious competitions. He has also won numerous awards.