Words by Hank Williams | Photos by Joyce Jones. Creative Commons CC-NC-BY-ND. Main photo: Hugh Masekela.
“What you see us do may look like we’re having fun, but we’re working hard”. That was Hugh Masekela‘s way of giving a polite hint that it was time to get out of the green room and let him and pianist Larry Willis take a breather after the night’s second set. It also accurately summed up their appearances last week at New York’s Jazz Standard, where they indeed made the difficult look deceptively easy.
Masekela and Willis initially met as students in the early 1960s at the prestigious Manhattan School of Music. Although the institution has embraced jazz and now sports a substantial program in the field, at that time conservatories took a dim view of jazz — when they even acknowledged it. Masekela recalled that his initial meeting of Willis was at a rehearsal for an opera, which the latter was training in at the time.
Aside from being the only other Black student in the room, Willis — according to Masekela — was wearing a ridiculous outfit required for the production that made him look “like George Washington”.
“Man, you have no idea what it was like at that time”, Willis confided after the set. “If they caught you playing jazz in the practice rooms, they’d kick you out”.
Fortunately, New York offered a rich hands-on training in the form, including ample listening opportunities. Masekela recalled the ability to work one’s way downtown for an evening, going from club to club along the way.
One perk of being a student was that clubs offered free admission, clustering them all around the bar in a section called the peanut gallery. Masekela soaked up all the lessons the city had to offer — formal and otherwise —while seeing the great musicians of the golden age of jazz in their prime.
Masekela recalled the advice he got from Miles Davis, which would prove crucial in the shaping of his sound. He originally wanted to play bop. Instead, Masekela took Davis’s typically pithy words to heart: “If you combine the shit [African musicians are] doing there with the shit we’re doing here: shiiiiiiiit ….”

Masekela weaved biographies of Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller and shorter reflections on Miriam Makeba and Herbie Hancock to introduce each song

He did just that and the result was aptly reflected in the night’s program, which was a seamless diasporic view of both African and American currents in jazz, punctuated by a master class in jazz history as Masekela weaved biographies of Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller and shorter reflections on Miriam Makeba and Herbie Hancock to introduce each song in addition to revealing all of the above.
Masekela’s signature song, “Stimela” was done to perfection with Masekela alternating between singing, playing the flugelhorn, and cow bell. It didn’t suffer at all from the lack of a larger ensemble, with Masekela and Willis filling in all the gaps themselves. It’s a song that seems wrong to enjoy, given all the suffering that was necessary for Masekela to be able to document the history of Black South African coal mine workers as he does.
Masekela honored Armstrong’s legacy to jazz with a version of “Sleepytime Down South”, pointing out his crucial role in the shaping and popularity of the form.
A cover of “Until the Real Thing Comes Along”, popularized by Fats Waller, similarly allowed Masekela to step back into the dual role of griot/djali and master musician that he clearly enjoys and does well.

Masekela was in good form throughout the set, displaying his command of the flugelhorn (his chosen instrument for the night) and his vocal ability, still intact after decades of performance. Masekela’s unmistakable voice showed excellent control and seemingly undiminished range, as he alternated between storytelling and singing, with just a hint of rasp and the deliberate addition of the occasional growl for texture or to punctuate a point.
Masekela and Willis ended the set with a cover of Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island”.
Willis left the bulk of the storytelling to Masekela and most of their communication was musical. But, after 55 years of friendship, not much needs to be said and their musical conversation made extra commentary unnecessary.
Masekela will be the featured guest on Suga’ in My Bowl on November 15 from 11 PM – 1 AM EST on WBAI Radio.
Masekela and Willis are on tour in the US through early December 2015 and return to the New York City area on November 14 and 15 at Monmouth University in West Long Branch NJ and the Landmark in Port Washington Long Island, respectively.
Hank Williams is an associate producer for Suga’ in My Bowl on WBAI Radio and webmaster for the Suga’ and Behind the Mic sites. He is also a PhD candidate in English and Africana Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches at Hunter and Lehman Colleges and The City College of New York.