Hugh Ramopolo Masekela was born on April 4, 1939 in Kwa-Guqa Township of Witbank, South Africa. He began singing and playing piano as a child. At the age of 14, after seeing Kirk Douglas in the film Young Man With A Horn he took up playing the trumpet. He was given his first trumpet was given to him by anti-apartheid Archbishop Trevor Huddleston at St. Peter’s Secondary School.
Quickly mastering the instrument under the tutelage of Uncle Sauda of Johannesburg’s Native Municipal Brass Band, Masekela along with some of his schoolmates formed the Huddleston Jazz Band, South Africa’s first youth orchestra. By 1956, after leading other ensembles, he joined Alfred Hebrert’s African Jazz Revue.
In 1958 he wound up in the orchestra of South Africa’s first musical blockbuster King Kong, followed by touring the country for a sold-out year with Miriam Makeba and the Manhattan Brothers’ Nathan Mdledle in the lead. By the end of 1959 Hugh along with Dollar Brand, Kippie Moeketsi, Makhaya Ntshoko and Johnny Gertze formed the Jazz Epistles. They became the first African jazz group to record an album and perform to record-breaking audiences in Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Following the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre of 69 peacefully protesting Africans he left the country with the help of Huddleston, Yehudi Menuhin and John Dankworth for London’s Guildhall School of Music. Befriended by Harry Belafonte on a visit to the U.S. he gained admission to Manhattan School of Music studying classical trumpet.
By the late Sixties he had hits with Up, Up & Away and Grazing In The Grass, appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival, and was featured in the film Monterey Pop. In 1974, Masekela and friend Stewart Levine organized the Zaire 74 music festival around the Rumble In The Jungle boxing match.
He has played primarily in jazz ensembles, with guest appearances on recordings by The Byrds and Paul Simon. Since 1954 Hugh’s music protested about apartheid, slavery, government and the hardships individuals were living but also vividly portrayed the struggles and sorrows, as well as the joys and passions of his country. In 1987, he had a hit single with Bring Him Back Home, which became an anthem for the movement to free Nelson Mandela.
Trumpeter Hugh Masekela also plays the flugelhorn, cornet, and trombone and is a composer and singer. He has some four dozen albums to date in his catalogue, has won two Grammy Awards with seven nominations, received two honorary doctorates, and serves as a director on the board of The Lunchbox Fund, a non-profit organization that provides a daily meal to students of township schools in Soweto. He continues to perform, record and tour.
Chris Pyne was born Norman Christopher Pyne on February 14, 1939 in Bridlington, England and played piano as a child before switching to trombone.
Beginning in 1963 he played with Fat John Cox, Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, John Stevens’s Spontaneous Music and the London Jazz Orchestra before settling in with Humphrey Littleton from ’66 until 1970.
During the Sixties he recorded with John Dankworth, Ronnie Scott and Stan Tracey. Staying very busy in the 70s Chris played with Mike Gibbs off and on from 1967-1979, toured with Frank Sinatra’s backing bands from 1970 and 1983, and was also performing with the John Taylor Sextet between 1971 and 1981.
Pyne also performed or recorded with Kenny Wheeler, John Surman, Philly Joe Jones, Maynard Ferguson, Tony Coe, Bobby Lamb, Ray Premru, Ronnie Ross, Barbara Thompson, John Stevens, Norman Winstone and Alan Cohen.
He toured with Gordon Beck in the Eighties, joined Surman’s Brass Project from ’84-’92 and later in his musical life became a member of the Charlie Watts Big Band. Trombonist Chris Pyne passed away on April 12, 1995 in London, England without ever recording as a leader.
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Conrad Janis was born February 11, 1928 in New York City and learned to play trombone as a child. Throughout his life, Janis has striven to keep traditional jazz alive often performing when not in front of a camera. In 1949, Janis put together a band of aging jazz greats comprised of James P. Johnson on piano, trumpeter Henry Goodwin, clarinetist Edmond Hall, Pops Foster on bass and Baby Dodds on the drum, with himself out front on trombone.
He was also a theater, film and television actor who at the age of 19 starred in the film the Brasher Doubloon with George Montgomery and went on to appear in the film Margie with Jeanne Crain.
In 1953, he played eldest son Edward in NBC’s Bonino, guest appeared on Get Smart, The Golden Girls and Quark. He was featured in the movies The Buddy Holly Story, The Duchess and The Dirtwater Fox, and appeared as himself in the bar scene in Tom Hanks/Jackie Gleason film Nothing In Common. Janis is best known for playing Mindy McConnell’s father Frederick on Mork & Mindy.
By the late 1970s, he formed the Beverly Hills Unlisted Jazz Band, which appeared multiple times on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and made eight sold-out performances at Carnegie hall. Trombonist and bandleader Conrad Janis continues to play and act whenever possible at the age of 87.
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Shigeharu Mukai was born on January 21, 1949 in Nagoya, Japan. While attending Doshisha University he played trombone in the big band and won the 1970 Yamaha Light Music Contest. A move to Tokyo in 1971 saw Shigeharu career taking off in the bands of Yoshio Otomo, Fumio Itabashi, Ryo Kawasaki, Terumasa Hino, Sadao Watanabe and Yosuke Yamashita and along with Hiroshi Fukamarau, he led a band with two trombones.
In 1972 he formed his own band with which he won the Shinjuki Jazz Festival prize. Dissolving the group in 1977/78 he lived in New York City, afterwards he returned to Japan, leading various bands and working with Kazumi Watanabe, Naoya Matsuoka, Akira Sakata and again with Yosuke Yamashita. He went on to play with Elvn Jone and Billy Hart.
In 1982, he performed along with Astrud Gilberto on the album So & So: Mukai Meets Gilberto on the Denon label. He later founded the quartet Hot Session with Ryojiro Furusawa, Fumio Itabashi and Mitsuaki Furuno, and toured Japan in 1991-92.
In 1992 he released his debut album as a leader Better Day Of Shigeharu Mukai on the Japanese subsidiary label of Columbia Records along with several others by 1997. In 2004 he made the album Super 4 Records sensation, in which he created the illusion of a big band with a “horn section” of alto and tenor saxophone, trombone and trumpet.
Designated by Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler as one of the most respected trombonist on the Japanese jazz scene, Shigeharu Mukai has won several critics’ prizes from 1975-1993 in reader surveys conducted by Japan’s Swing Journal. He continues to perform, record and tour also exhibiting his mastery of Latin, Brazilian and other ethnic rhythms.
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John Kirby was born John Kirk in Winchester, Virginia on December 31, 1908. His mother gave him up for adoption and was raised by Reverend Washington and Nancy Johnson. He was a student at the Winchester Colored School and started trombone lessons around nine years old under the guidance of Professor Powell Gibson. As a kid and that he learned to play music just as it was written and his formal education ended around 1923.
Kirby arrived in Baltimore around 1927 and met trombonist Jimmy Harrison, saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and composer Duke Ellington. It was Harrison who persuaded him to switch from trombone to tuba. He played tuba with Bill Brown and His Brownies, pianist Charlie Sheets and then with John C. Smith’s Society Band. He joined Fletcher Henderson in 1929, recorded tuba on a number of sessions, but switched to double-bass when tuba fell out of favor as jazz bands’ primary bass instrument.
In the early 1930s, John took bass lessons from legendary bassists Pops Foster and Wellman Braud, left Henderson to play with Chick Webb, then joined Lucky Millinder and briefly led a quartet in 1935, but was more often than not a sideman in other groups. He performed behind Billie Holiday and Teddy Wilson on their first recording date.
By 1936, Kirby was a successful sideman on the New York City jazz scene, secured a gig at the Onyx Club leading Charlie Shavers, Buster Bailey, Billy Kyle, Russell Procope and O’Neill Spencer, becoming one of the more significant small groups in the big band era. They recorded the Shaver’s classic Undecided, with Maxine Sullivan most often performing the vocal duties for the group.
Along with his orchestra, John had a 30-minute radio program, Flow Gently, Sweet Rhythm, also known as The John Kirby Show on CBS from April 1940 – January 1941. The program also featured Sullivan and the Golden Gate Quartet and they have been cited as the first black artists to host a jazz-oriented series.
He tended toward a lighter, classically influenced style of jazz often referred to as chamber jazz. He was very prolific and extremely popular from 1938-1941 but lost most of his group to World War II. Through the war years he was able to attract Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Carter, Ben Webster, Clyde Hart, Budd Johnson and Zutty Singleton to his small groups and club dates. As Kirby’s career declined, he drank heavily and was beset by diabetes.
After the war, Kirby got the surviving sextet members back together, with vocalist Sarah Vaughan but the reunion did not last. A concert at Carnegie Hall in December 1950, with Bailey plus drummer Sid Catlett, attracted only a small audience, crushing his spirit and badly damaging what little was left of his career. Double-bassist, trombonist and tubist John Kirby passed away on June 14, 1952 in Hollywood, California at age 43.