Hepcat Miles Keylock on the music that moves him
Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Photographs: Nick Gordon
Frank Zappa, Martin Mull, Elvis Costello, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, George Carlin and numerous others have been credited with the popular and enigmatic simile, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Regardless of its true origin, Miles Keylock has based his storied career on this exact sentiment. And if you’ve ever read the man, then you’ll know that Miles' words have the same effect as watching someone dance a little jig in celebration of their favourite brick-and-mortar structure. Pure joy.
Miles’ story started with the name his father gave him after he'd watched Miles Davis perform somewhere in Paris. Even the name Keylock sounds somewhat musical, but is, according to its bearer, “actually a Jiu-Jitsu move.” Like most white boys from that time, Miles grew up on rock music and still remembers the first time he heard Iggy and The Stooges.
“It was the final track on side B on their album ‘Funhouse’ and it was this free-form jam with screaming saxophones that wasn’t rock, wasn’t punk, wasn’t heavy metal, wasn’t jazz… it was pure expression. They used to close their live shows off with that song and it could last seven minutes or it could last twenty minutes. It took me ten years to realise that it was actually the saxophone that I was relating to and as soon as I picked up the sax, I got it.”
Similarly improvised is Miles Keylock’s journalism career. After studying drama at UCT, he initially wanted to be an actor, but after one Bible epic, in which he played John The Baptist’s disciple alongside a bunch of Egoli stars, he decided to switch to literature and theory instead.
“I never studied journalism and for me that was the key. If you want to be a music writer, please don’t study journalism. It won’t help you in any shape or form. Rather read and experience life. Most of the great South African writers, Bongani Madondo and Rian Malan, didn’t do any journalist stuff although they became really good journalists. Why? Because they learned to feel the music, man.”
While still studying, Miles worked part-time in a record store where he busied himself by listening to everything that was available. The song that changed his life was the ballad 'Naima' by John Coltrane, which had him weeping in the aisles. At the time there was only Top 40 Magazine and so together with Chris Roper and Malu Van Leewen, Miles started Collapse, a “beautifully pretentious zine inspired by an Einstürzende Neubauten song” and from here began contributing to SL, Mail & Guardian, GQ and whoever else would have him. Miles also edited the short-lived South African edition of Rolling Stone and has contributed to Taschen’s 1001 Albums/Songs You Must Listen To Before You Die amongst others.
And now Miles runs a jazz club, Straight No Chaser, which is where we meet him – a dark, smoke-filled space where the only bells and whistles are if the musicians decide to play them. Kyle Shepherd’s piano is up on stage and the walls have Rashid Lombard and George Hallett’s photographs, which used to hang in the National Gallery.
As much an enigmatic figure as the musicians he’s profiled over the years, Miles’ lank, silver hair, black clothing and long fingernails – a hangover from his CD smuggling days, make for a man that’s as interesting as his looks would suggest. After marinating in his jazz knowledge we’re sure that you’ll agree.
For me, the key was working in a CD shop and listening to all types of music. I got into Kwaito heavily and so I started to write about that. The sounds! Particularly the KZN guys, and I was like, “Shit, this is so avant-garde!” And they just just went, “Oh, white boy...” Because it’s actually about what it does to the body. Anyway, there was Kwaito, hip hop, house and then jazz slowly filtered in there and I went, “Oh, hello.”
It was probably an interview with Abdullah (Ibrahim), where I realised that I was going to have to surrender at some stage, because he’s a tough cat, and that was one of those times I went, “Thank you, Dad!” because I stick out my hand and say, “Miles!” and 45-minutes later he’s still telling me Miles Davis stories. We spent three hours together where he pretty much told me to forget about everything else and just follow this style of music called jazz and everything would work out fine.
Kesivan started Straight No Chaser because he needed a place to play. He brought me in to help run the daily affairs so that he wouldn’t have to waste his time trying to balance the books. Which you can never do with a jazz club. Lets be straight, this is a heritage site, it makes no money, only seats 55 people, and when they‘re here they just have to shut the f*** up and listen.
Straight No Chaser is based on the Village Vanguard, but the idea is to turn it into something like The Stone in New York, which is a non-profit organisation where every single cent goes to the musicians. And that’s what this should be. At the moment we give the musicians 90% of the door, which is cool, they’ll play here for that, but they probably actually need more. It’s tiny. We’re actually in the process of moving. Here you can play two sets a night and if you know your shit and you sell out like the headline artists do you can make decent money. Or enough to pay the rent. You’re never going to make the big money because South Africa has an audience that doesn’t support purely creative jazz music. It’s just how it is.
The other option is the restaurants, which drives all the jazz musicians crazy playing when people are eating and waiters are coming round. As worthwhile as it was for all those years, Green Dolphin would drive all those musicians mad. Particularly the drummers because you could only play with brushes…
Rolling Stone was in the process of committing suicide and I started managing Kesivan so that he could just play. He’s studying in Berklee now, a Masters in global jazz performance. Being a big rock star of jazz in this tiny South African goldfish bowl was driving him mental. Kesivan launched his album at Carnegie Hall about nine months before he got the Berklee gig and after launching it with Kyle Shepherd, Shane Cooper, Feya Faku, Reza Khota– a South African super group – went “Now what?” Now he’s there.
You don’t know Louis Moholo? Let’s educate! (Starts pointing to the photographs on the wall) Johnny Dyani, a bassist, Chris McGregor, pianist, Mongezi Feza, the forlorn-looking drummer over there, and Dudu Pukwana, sax, they were in a band with Louis, who is the only surviving member and is 75-years-old now.
They went into exile in the 60s because of apartheid. It was illegal for them to play together so Chris used to play in front of a curtain to white audiences with the rest of the band behind the curtain and would then play in blackface when he went into the townships. They were playing this free-form African jazz, very experimental, far more experimental than Abdullah or Hugh or any of the cats who went to the States.
I’m collecting stories at the club, and am busy writing a book Conversations in Jazz a bit like Geoff Dyers’. In the 70s Louis was playing with this mad German saxophonist, Peter Brötzmann, sounds like a Panzer assault, heavy heavy, he had an album 'Machine Gun', two guitarists, two drummers, two bassists, just this wall of sound, so Louis says to Peter, “Hey I’m broke, maybe I should go play this pop music Hugh Masekela is making and make some money.” And Peter said, “No Louis, whatever you do you must play your own music. You are free. Even if it kills you.” And he did that. When he told me that story backstage the hairs stood up on my arms.
Cape Town International Jazz Festival is what it is. Is it a festival that caters to jazz musicians? Probably not. It certainly allows certain types of jazz to showcase, but it isn’t just a jazz festival. In fact, they’ll even tell you – it’s a lifestyle festival. Which is where things are at if you’re trying to sustain any large festival. Rocking The Daisies. Same thing. Lifestyle festival. So yes, it caters to a certain audience; it also denies a large section of the population access to that.
Look at the lineup. Man, the South African stuff is, as usual, the most interesting stuff. No question about it. As for the other stuff, well that just brings in the numbers. You’ve got a bit of hip hop, little bit of electronic, a couple of collabs and for me what’s really nice is that Derek Gripper is playing this year. TPerhaps that's an avenue the jazz festival can look into – music from this continent. For me, SWV?! Ye Gods! An RnB band from the 90s? Ok, sure, somebody out there wants to see them but they do water down the jazz component. Why don’t they rather call themselves the Cape Town International Music Festival?
The founder of the festival, Rashied Lombard, the guy whose dream it was, whose photographs are on this wall, a photojournalist from the old struggle days, he had a dream 19 years ago for a festival. And he embraces the music, understands the music, but is no longer involved. There it is.
This age we live in, you can call it capitalism, you can call it consumerism, you can call it whatever you like, yes there’s a space for it and I’m never going to diss anyone for actually staging any event ever, whether it’s Cape Town International Jazz Festival or someone on the corner busking, hallelujah, however, I have a problem with lifestyle in this day and age. In fact the semantics with this bothered me. Somewhere in the artists' programme ‘entertainment’ was splashed around and that’s in the jazz journalism workshop. Here we go, “…a workshop programme designed to build the key skills that arts and ENTERTAINMENT writers need…”
Zim Ngqawana, the sadly deceased jazz saxophonist, he said something very interesting, "This music is not just about entertainment, it’s about innertainment.” If you’re a serious jazz musician, you devote yourself to that calling, which is one of expression. And if you’re a serious jazz fan you shut the f*** up and you listen. You don’t go there to have a party. You don’t go there to have some fashion show. But that’s just how it is. That’s where we are.
What’s needed at the moment, certainly in South Africa, is a cultural reeducation programme. And the only way to do that is by creating spaces for musicians who want to express themselves in the ways that they want to express themselves. Not the club owner, not the promoter, not the advertisers. Again Louis Maholo has this refrain for all the youngsters, “Just play, baby!” And he’ll tell you, live on stage, he’ll call you out, “No, baby! Come on, baby! Play, baby!” until you actually just drop all that other stuff.
There are no mistakes in jazz. It’s like having a conversation and how can a conversation ever be wrong? What, you going to call somebody out and say, “Oh no, dude, why did you just say that? That was a piece of crap.” You know? Perhaps we should be doing that though… But that’s Louis, the last man standing when it comes to that search for freedom of expression. Certainly in South African jazz anyway.
What is this thing called jazz? Jazz musicians have been laughing off that question when asked by journalists, myself included, for years. If you don’t know what it is then don’t ask the question. It’s an improvised music. It’s a music that does more than simply entertain an audience. It’s a music that allows the listener and the musicians on stage some kind of access to some sort of, what I call, the sublime, the ecstatic… Talking with the ancestors.
Jazz is my calling. I still listen to everything; just not much of it actually impinges on me at the moment. Jazz allows any musician, and audience for that matter, to improvise. To have a conversation live on stage. You’re in the moment, permanently, as a listener as well as a musician.
The music is a search for freedom. That’s why I relate to it. Simple. And you can get help from upstairs or downstairs or wherever the hell you want it. There are other worlds out there that you can tune into.
Jazz is the one space where the audience doesn’t have to think. Just follow the flow. You don’t have to know what’s going on. You applaud when you feel it. Oh Yeah! And that’s what it’s about.
The Doctor, Philip Tabane, the most unique guitarist on the planet, only plays when the ancestors talk to him. He turned Miles Davis down in the 70s when Miles asked him to join his band. Tabane said, “No man, why don’t you join my band?” Different approach to music. Respect the music and the music will respect you.
I still listen to interesting rock music as long as the artists are prepared to walk a line where everything can be a shambles. Where they either stand, they fall or they get off. That’s what I’m interested in. That’s why I adored The Blk Jks, because they went into that zone. There was a lack of pretense and a lack of control and a lack of polish. Everything is over polished, over varnished and half the stuff we don’t even have to hear because we’ve already heard it. And in jazz, it was Duke Ellington who said it, classic, “Damn Jazz musicians. Can’t play the same thing twice.”
Yes we live in an age where jazz doesn’t get played on the radio and we don’t see it on TV, but it’s still out there. It’s about finding those glitches in the matrix that will give you what you need. Give the body what it needs. This music has nothing to do with the head. It’s all got to do with the body and the heart.
I was fortunate enough to grow up at a time where there was an emotional relationship with the music. Now there isn’t. Now you have 365 days of songs on your iTunes. But how much do you actually listen to after you’ve downloaded it all from your mate? After I’d listened to Iggy and the Stooges I was fortunate enough to read Lester Bangs writing about Iggy and the Stooges and I realised that there were multiple worlds out there of whatever you want to call it, sonic architecture, auditory experiences… It’s just a matter of finding them.