Jazz is often described as the quintessential American musical form. But even in its early years, it radiated over much of the globe. In some areas such as Hitler’s Germany, Soviet Russia and Eastern Europe, or in apartheid-era South Africa, jazz was not welcomed by governments for whom it represented moral decadence and symbolized American ideals of democratic freedom and racial tolerance. There, jazz developed underground or in limited contexts, with little direct contact with foreign musicians. In South Africa the new sounds had to compete with a cornucopia of local musical styles and traditions, but by the late 1950s small groups of young people were playing jazz in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

In 1959, Juilliard School of Music jazz instructor, pianist John Mehegan, visited South Africa and coached a group of musicians, including saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi and trumpeter Hugh Masakela. He eventually arranged for a recording session that would produce the first album by black jazz musicians in South Africa. Most of the players involved were, together with pianist Dollar Brand (later known as Abdullah Ibrahim), members of a short-lived sextet, the Jazz Epistles. In the first months of 1960, the Epistles, and separately the rhythm section under Brand’s leadership, made two records, which remain as the only witnesses of the group, which broke up soon after. While these recordings were being made, the country was in turmoil, resulting in the Sharpeville Massacre in March 1960 that led to a tightening of the already draconian apartheid laws and eventually prompting many musicians, including Brand and Masakela, to leave.

Both musicians developed successful careers in exile while also engaging in political work, and both retained and developed native South African elements in their music making; back home Ibrahim’s song “Mannenberg” became an anthem for the anti-­apartheid resistance. In the decades that followed, Ibrahim’s music mellowed, often harkening back to rhythmic and melodic components of South African kwela and other native forms, tinged with wistful nostalgia. He recently began to plan a series of concerts celebrating the Jazz Epistles with whom he played and recorded fifty-seven years ago, but Masakela died on January 23, a day after the anniversary of the original recording session, and Ibrahim is now the sole survivor of the group.

The 1960 Epistles album, Verse 1, featured a group of musicians who were versed in the language of jazz of their day, playing well-written original tunes. This was good hard bop, influenced by Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers. Moeketsi was the most mature soloist, but Masakela and Brand were already revealing sparks of originality that would develop in years to come. The pianist shines on his own trio recording, demonstrating his take on the way Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk approached the piano, with many of his later stylistic characteristics already in place. We shall see how Ibrahim handles this music now that more than half a century has passed.

UMS will present Ibrahim’s tribute to this great moment in South African music on April 13 at the Michigan Theater, with an all-American cast.