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Jazz Remembered


Johnny Dyani


Steve Day suggests we listen to Johnny Dyani. Steve says:

Johnny DyaniIt is a long time ago now, 1980. I heard the duet between Abdullah Ibrahim and Johnny Dyani, Zikr, (Remembrance to Allah). I am not sure of the circumstances. Certainly I had bought a vinyl copy of Johnny Dyani’s duet album with Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand), Echoes From Africa, from which this beautiful Sufi song came.  In hindsight I now think Zikr helped me realise it is possible to take strength from where you least expect to do so. I only speak for myself, I still tread warily past the territory of priests yet Zikr, this passive siren song to the spirit of our common humanity, connected. It is not just the voices of these two men, slowly singing with and to each other like old brothers, there is also that oh so stately piano and bowed double bass which come to the ears from an immeasurable depth.  Like an aural meditation. It sounds as if Abdullah Ibrahim had finally found home again and there was Johnny Dyani wringing time and melody from the double bass to welcome him.


Johnny Dyani



Zikr is hard won, but even in the midst of exile Dyani could never let go of joy.       

Here are Abdullah Ibrahim and Johnny Dyani performing Zikr.




Johnny Mbizo Dyani: Cook/Morton called him “one of the most distinctive bass players since Charles Mingus”. So why don’t more people still name-check him? Here are the basic facts: Johnny Dyani was born in Duncan Village, a Township in East London, South Africa on 30th November 1945. At the age of 16, already a gifted bass player, he met Chris McGregor in Cape Town and joined his band, the Blue Notes. In 1964 the whole band went into exile; apartheid meant that a Black band ‘led’ by a White pianist literally wouldn’t work. They came to Europe, playing the Antibes-Juan-les-Pines Jazz Festival, then decided to move on and settle in London. The way I read it, after Africa, Dyani never really ‘settled’.

Within a year of arriving in London he and drummer Louis Moholo were again globe-trotting on a weird tour of Argentina with American soprano saxophone supremo Steve Lacy and Italian trumpeter, Enrico Rava. Dyani and Moholo got back in one piece (another story) and in 1967 with the rest of McGregor’s Blue Notes (Dudu Pukwana, alto sax, Ronnie Beer, tenor sax, Mongezi Feza, trumpet) recorded the defining Very Urgent album for Polydor. Crucially, within twelve months Dyani had once more decamped, to Denmark/Sweden. Here he connected up with Don Cherry and John Tchicai, both of whom had independently moved from America after working with Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. Johnny Dyani still kept some links with the Blue Notes, particularly Dudu Pukwana, but for me it is the classic series of recordings he made under his own name for Steeplechase Records and his embrace of Abdullah Ibrahim that is the key to his memoriam. For him it would be almost forty-one years from birth to death; he died in October 1986.

Here is the Don Cherry Trio with Johnny Dyani and Okay Temiz live on French TV 1971.




By the time I got to see and hear the Chris McGregor band live, what was left of the Blue Notes had already morphed into the Brotherhood of Breath and Johnny Dyani had gone to live in Copenhagen. A city I now know well, though sadly not during the period when Mr Dyani was there.  So, for me, I am left with my little five-stack of precious Dyani Steeplechase recordings. All of them are highly Johnny Dyani, John Tchicai and Dudu Pukwana Witchdoctor's Son albumrecommended, two are absolute gold plated classics, Witchdoctor’s Son and Song For Biko. What comes next is the best I can do to plug their importance.     

Witchdoctor’s Son and Song For Biko were recorded in Copenhagen within four months of each other in early 1978.  Witchdoctor’s Son is a special album. John Tchicai had played on John Coltrane’s groundbreaking Ascension album. Now based in Scandinavia Tchicai’s investigative tenor was right up alongside Pukwana’s righteous alto; both reeds played ‘free’ yet were diligently responsive to Johnny Dyani’s material and the melodic bell-like drama of his bass. Witchdoctor also featured the Brazilian acoustic guitarist Alfredo Do Nascimento and his fellow countryman, the drummer Luez ‘Chuim’ Carlos de Sequaira. The end result, a recording brim full of beauty and excitement. The traditional song Ntyilo Ntyilo features Dyani singing about a tiny bird, his voice sounding almost discreet in its inflection, whereas the chant of Magwaza is all thunder and lightning, his bass rolling the riff under the horns as if carrying the whole weight of Xhosa culture. Other standout tracks are Eyomzi, containing a stunning exemplar of a Dyani bass solo, and Heart With Minor’s Face and Mbizo. The latter has Dyani playing some fine piano as well as mercurial bass. There is also a trademark Dyani device, using rhythmic counterpoint to expand the dynamics coming out of a small group situation. Witchdoctor’s Son is the real thing.


Here's Ntyilo Ntyilo sung by Johnny Dyani.




and here's Magwaza by Johnny Dyani, John Tchicai and Dudu Pukwana.


The second album to be made in 1978, Song For Biko, is historic. It had to be done and Johnny Dyani was the musician most able to do it.  Here’s the background: By the mid-sixties Don Cherry had undertaken his own version of exile (from America) following his breakthrough in the original Ornette Coleman Quartet. By 1971 he and Johnny Dyani, plus Turkish drummer Okay Temiz were playing regularly as a trio in Europe. Their Paris concert filmed by French TV shows how the Cherry/Dyani partnership were already expanding their performance to include voice, piano, flute, percussion as well as pocket cornet and double bass. Seven years later when the two men came together with Dudu Pukwana and drummer, Makaya Ntshoko (who had played with Abdullah Ibrahim in the legendary Jazz Epistles in Cape Town) the scene was set for something special.


Song For Biko by the Johnny Dyani Quartet featuring Don Cherry and Dudu Pukwana.




The title track Song For Biko has a startlingly measured introduction with the cornet and alto elucidating the elegy as a bright soulful signature.  The poignant homage to Steve Biko, the anti-apartheid activist who had died the previous year in police custody, is lifted up by the bass and drums axis. Pukwana’s alto reed propels the thing forward, leaving Don Cherry to bring his cornet through like sweetness and light.  It is all over in less than five minutes.  The length belies the brilliance of the performance. Song For Biko is a great Johnny Dyani Song For Bikomoment in jazz, and in itself records a critical moment in the development of a new South Africa.  I hope that neither the music nor the moment will be lost to those who follow.

The Trumpeter and writer Ian Carr once quoted Johnny Dyani as saying: “Only Abdullah Ibrahim and Makhaya Ntshoko are being true to themselves. They are the ones working for Africa. With them there is a real exchange – as with Don (Cherry) – we don’t seem to need to talk, we just communicate.”  For me it is a telling statement. Johnny Dyani was an exceptional bass player, composer, singer, a visionary, and a catalyst for change. In my view, he never truly received the recognition he deserved. Even now I can be brought low by the gap in understanding. Who did they think they were dealing with?  Back in 1964 he had little choice but to leave South Africa but South Africa never left the heart of Johnny Dyani.  Jo’berg – New York, another track from Biko, is a descriptor of Dyani the world traveller, yet at the same time it highlights the centrality of his roots and birthright.

In 1979, twenty years down the road and a year after Song For Biko, Johnny Dyani recorded the album Black Paladins in Italy with Joseph Jarman and Famoudou Don Moye from the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The first piece they play is a Dyani tune, Mama Marimba. I quote from Lee Jeske’s liner notes, as a fitting summary of everything the great Johnny Dyani stood for: “It seems to me that jazz is coming full circle. Borne of the music of African slaves, who adapted their native musics to field hollers in English, to gospel and blues, to ragtime and dixieland, to swing and bebop, to cool jazz and hard bop and free jazz and fusion and free funk and beyond, the music of Africa, the source, is returning to the jazz of today.”    


Listen to Johnny Dyani's bass solo on Eyomzi.



Steve Day -


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