All that jazz is a song from the 1975 musical Chicago (and later the title of a film based on the musical), and is the opening act which sets the mood for the story set during the so-called jazz age. The musical is about a free living, some would say scandalous, behavior of the ‘roaring twenties’ of the United Sates. It paints a picture of people who live for the enjoyment of life, and have no care about the rest of us.
Many Ugandan jazz aficionados will tell you about visiting outside countries where, typically in small clubs, a bunch of guys without a care what you thought of them get together to play jazz, and have a roaring good time. New Orleans (where it all begun), New York, Washington, all over Europe, and others are places where folks just want to be free to listen to their music.
What about Kampala, you may ask? For a time, it seemed we had joined that international group of free-spirited people and lived for all that jazz. But just for a time, because word going round is that Jazz FM, a station ostensibly dedicated to the preservation and spreading of jazz in Uganda, was sold off. It must be true, because last time I tried to tune in, it was Nigerian music being played.
What is it with Uganda and jazz? It’s like a tale of star-crossed lovers, whose every attempt to make things work somehow always ends in tragedy. Shakespeare would have loved the story lines that make up the tale of jazz in Uganda.
The earliest mention I can find of jazz in Uganda is a poster from 1960 somebody shared on Facebook, announcing that Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong would be performing in Nakivubo Stadium. Louis Armstrong in Kampala? Seems like the stuff of dreams.
In more recent times, the only public jazz performances were mostly when visiting American artists, brought by the USAID, performed in Kampala. Then sometime in the mid-noughties the late DJ Bangirana decided to organize a jazz night at the then Viper Room discotheque (which would later become the Basement before eventually closing its doors).
What must have been the biggest group then of self-acclaimed jazz aficionados (addicts, fans, enthusiasts, buffs) to ever get together in Uganda found their way there, as did many great instrumentalists. It was really going well, but Bangi had other plans, which included a break for karaoke. That broke the spell, almost everyone left, and did not return to a jazz get together for years to come.
There were several attempts after that at regular jazz gigs but they did not last very long, although Alex Ndawula tried to keep the fire burning with a weekly jazz night at the Rock Gardens. But that soon came to naught, as did the Tusker Jazz Night at Sabrina’s hosted by Harry Lwanga.
In the meantime Tshaka Mayanja started the Jazz Safari, but it was more of a social event where folks were more interested in being seen than to what was going on stage. And Ugandans actually dressed up to go for a jazz concert! Wonder what the folks on New Orleans would think about that? But credit must be given to Tshaka’s persistence in that the Jazz safari still takes place, and is currently in its 11th year.
Performing at the Jazz Collective in 2013
But the biggest effort to introduce regular jazz in Kampala was when the Jazz Collective was started at the Grand Imperial’s Copper Bar by a group of determined people. From May 2013 lovers of jazz gathered there every last Friday of the month to play their favourite jazz songs, and live acts soon followed. The word spread far and wide, and many visitors timed their tours of Kampala to include that last Friday, and for a time it seemed the tragic tale of jazz in Uganda was to have a happy ending, after all.
But it was not to be and after about a year, without any explanation or evident cause, the Jazz Collective stopped happening, and the Copper Bar became, first a forex bureau, and now a casino.
What was jazz lovers to do? At least we had Jazz FM, and if we couldn’t paint the town and go into a club where the ‘gin was cold and the piano’s hot’, we could chill out wherever we were and listen to some cool jazz.
But now that is not happening anymore, and the tragedy rolls on. A new spot in Ntinda, the Old Timerz, had planned to have a jazz night, tried it a few times, but it was not thought out very well, and that too came to an end.
So sadly, we are not going to paint the town red, and all that jazz.