Pianist/ singer ESTELLE KOKOT is a unique unifying force between the UK and the South African scenes- she performs gigs in both countries each year. In this interview she tells her story, talks about her recently recorded album “The Sound of You”, and looks forward to two London gigs around the time of her birthday. Sebastian asked the questions:
LondonJazz News: You arrived here in London from South Africa in 1993.
Estelle Kokot: That’s almost right. There were a few trips around the houses before that though. I spent three months as an observer at the Hochschule für Musik in Graz (Austria) where I attended vocal workshops by Jay Clayton and had a few private singing lessons with Mark Murphy. I arrived in the UK round July 1993 and spent a couple of weeks staying with trumpeter and promoter Ernie Garside in Cheadle Hulme, before moving to London. I met Ernie when he was on holiday in SA visiting SA jazz vocalist Esther Miller and English pianist Gerry Spencer in Cape Town.
LJN: What brought you to London?
EK: I felt I had reached my creative glass ceiling in South Africa. I was doing my solo show From the Blues to Brazil, a duo with bass and voice No Place To Hide, which was an exploration of Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Steve Swallow and Sheila Jordan’s work, Big Band jazz Galas at The State Theatre in Pretoria, while lecturing jazz vocals at the then Pretoria Technikon now Tshwane University and doing collaborations at Kippies Jazz Club with South African saxophonist Mike Makhalemele and Canadian trumpeter Bruce Cassidy, so… I was doing a lot of work but I felt constrained and as if I had stopped growing.It was not just the barriers apartheid had created for those of us in the arts but also the politics within the music industry. I wanted grow some, see some, share some and learn some…
LJN: How / where did you get your first gig?
EK: In South Africa my first gig was in 1980 when I was 18. I recorded two singles (four of my originals) for Warner Bros (f you want to call that a gig) with SA jazz guitar legend Johnny Fourie guesting and brilliant SA pianist Lionel Pillay producing. I met Lionel in Durban, where I was working as a waitress in a restaurant and he heard me practising piano in a function room on my break. He invited me to meet Etienne Cronje from Warner Bros. in Joburg. I did solo gigs in Durban and Johannesburg, my first one being at Rumours Jazz Club in Rocky Street, followed by playing mainly for the mine workers in a bar at the Dawsons Hotel in President Street.
My band début was in 1987 at Kippies Jazz Club in down town Jozie with Phambili, which means ‘progress’. Kippies was named after Kippie Moeketsi, the iconic South African saxophonist, born in 1925. Phambili’s members were Victor Ntoni on double bass, Duke Makazi on tenor sax, Thabo Mashishi on trumpet, Dan Selsick on trombone, Vusi Khumalo on drums and Rashid Lanie on piano. Those were highly volatile political times. Big changes were coming and many South Africans were not prepared to tolerate the oppression of apartheid for much longer and to be part of that change in the 1980’s had a massive impact on me, as a human being and as a musician.
LJN: And prior to that… were you forced to play the piano or did you scream if you couldn’t?
EK: I screamed if I couldn’t. How did you know?! I loved to play piano and would pinch the hymn book from Church and mess around with the chords and harmonies for hours on end. My ma did however insist on an hour a day practising scales and pieces once formal training began at around the age of six.
LJN: You were a member of a successful band in Johannesburg called Rush Hour?
EK: I met keyboard player Avzal Ismail at a jam session at Kippies and he invited me to come and guest with Rush Hour at one of their Quiet Storm nights hosted by 5FM DJ Mark Stewart at a venue called Quavers.
I joined the band and Epic Record Label manager Teri Kuchcinski decided to manage us. A few months down the line we were signed by a new label, spearheading South African music called Umkhonto Records (Gallo GRC). The band members were Avzal Ismail on piano and keyboards, Jacques Lagesse on vocals and guitar, Martin Mitchell on bass and vocals, Andre Steenkamp on drums and me on vocals and keyboards. It was 1988 and the sound of Basia and Shakatak were doing their rounds. I think we partly styled ourselves on these bands with a dose of Yellow Jackets and Spyro Gyra thrown in for good measure. We did a mix of original material and standards, both instrumental and vocal. The band had quite a wide appeal and we seemed to cross over somewhere between pop, jazz. funk, soul and easy listening. Tracks from our co-written album The Perfect Way did well in the pop charts and we played lots of festival, concert and club gigs between 1988 and 1991.
A couple of memorable moments… The Human Rainbow Concert at Ellis Park with loads of wonderful SA bands like Brenda Fassie, Lucky Dube and Mango Groove.. The concert was banned before it happened and had to change it’s name to The Big Birthday Bash in order to go ahead.
Our performances with the Transvaal Chamber Orchestra at the Linder Auditorium in Johannesburg and our collaboration with Mike Campbell (Head of Jazz Studies at UCT at the time) called Bach Versus Benson with the UCT Symphony Orchestra at the Baxter in Cape Town are particular highlights for me, having all those gorgeous strings and horns cushioning and framing the band and the songs.
LJN: And when someone called a club “Over the Top” it was in tribute to you?
EK: That was South African Afrikaans actor Chris van Niekerk and it was spelt ‘Eauver’ the top! I opened this Kalk Bay supper club for Chris in 1992. Tiny and only seating about 50 people, the mixing desk was floating in two feet of water when I arrived for a sound check. There’d been a burst pipe, hence I did not use a sound system that evening and my acoustic show was born. I went back to reopen the new venue on the main road in Kalk Bay in 1993. Shop mannequins from the 1930’s/50’s dangled from the ceiling, plastic leopard print tablecloths and lots of velvet drapes made this place ‘über camp’ and completely over the top!
LJN: And why do they call you Rainbow Child?
EK: South African photographer and presenter on Jazz On WILD Coast FM Mzi van der Mtola says, ”This nation has given birth to the likes of Estelle Kokot who embrace its culture, including the music we call jazz. “Rainbow children” are the ones able to transcend all the invisible boundaries that divide us as a people. JAZZ in this country is still a “black thing” and not many musos are brave enough to do the “black thing”. Estelle’s ability to cross these boundaries, play and entertain the masses make her a rainbow child.”
I met Mzi at Neil and Nicola Comfort’s Rainbow Restaurant in Pinetown on the 27th April 2014,. I was booked with my band to perform and celebrate 20 years of South African Democracy on Freedom Day. We also raised enough money for three cleft palate operations for Operation Smile.
LJN: What was your connection with the South African drummer at Ronnie Scott’s Bobby Gien?
EK: Bobby Gien played drums in the Ronnie Scott’s Trio with Mike Carr on keyboards between 1971 and 1975. I met his ex-wife Josie Gien at Joburg Jazz Club Rumours. We became close friends and when I moved to the UK, Josie got in touch with Mike Carr to ask if I could stay at his place for a week or two till I found my feet in London.
LJN: And meeting Mike Carr had consequences too…
EK: After spending a bit of time with my friend Ernie Garside in Cheadle Hulme, I moved to London in August 1993 and went to camp at jazz organist, pianist and vibraphonist Mike Carr’s place. Mike was as surprised as I was when Pizza Express Jazz Club offered me my first gig in London!
LJN: And that led you to meet pianist Alan Clare…
EK: I met Alan Clare at Pizza Express and loved his piano playing. We shared support act duties doing two nights a week each and I remember being thrilled to be earning £35 a gig at a fabulous jazz club in London! Back in the day in 1993, Pizza Express hadn’t had it’s walls knocked down yet. You could smoke in the club, it was intimate and many of the bands that headlined were local. This is where I met top London-based jazz musicians like Liam Noble, Anita Wardell, Ian Shaw, Bobby Wellins, Simon Purcell just to name a few and then of course there were the visiting Americans like Mose Allison, Ray Bryant and more. It was fabulous to hear Mose Allison, as I had been covering some of his songs for some time.
LJN: That was a time when the politics, the apartheid regime cast their shadow…
EK: That’s right. I lived in a communal house owned by Denis and Esme Goldberg in East Finchley for about a year and a half after moving out of Mike Carr’s house. Denis Goldberg was the only white member of Umkhonto we Sizwe to be arrested and sentenced in the Rivonia Trial to life imprisonment in 1964. Esme was briefly held in solitary confinement in 1963 before going into exile in London with their young children. Only allowed to see Denis twice in twenty years, Esme’s house in East Finchley in north London provided a haven for many South African political refugees and a wide variety of other itinerants
LJN: Step into the present. You’ve recently recorded an album…
EK: It’s called The Sound of You and is a PledgeMusic funded project. We recorded at Milestone Studios in Cape Town in November 2014 with South African sound engineer/producer Peter Pearlson at the helm.
LJN: What’s on it?
EK: A collection of songs written by Chicago born Multi-reedsman/composer Chico Freeman and English composer/producer, keyboardist/virtual artist Jan Pulsford.
LJN: Who’s on it?
EK: I play piano and sing and South African musicians Herbie Tsoaeli and Kevin Gibson play bass and drums. Chico Freeman guests on six of the ten album tracks. I am planning to launch and release it in South Africa in September 2015 and am looking for distribution in the UK too.
LJN: And around the time of your birthday in May you’ve got two gigs….
EK: That will be 1) the London Festival of Cabaret on the 11th of May at The Pheasantry and 2) the Vortex Jazz Club on the 15th of May.
1) I am going to be performing my solo show From the Blues to Brazil.
It features songs by Carlos Jobim sung in Brazilian, an acappella in Portuguese, maybe a tune by Charlie Parker, some Neil Diamond and a song by industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails. I will be including some originals and South African standards. It’s quite a personal show and I sometimes relate stories about my times in SA and London or improvise in between songs, composing a tune or two on the spot that relate to current affairs or something that might have happened to me the day before that left an impression. There will be a couple dancing the tango on stage while I play and sing on two songs. I think it is going to be a fun night and who knows… I might do Peacock Sunset with peacock sounds and impersonations like I did at my Pizza Express audition!
LJN: And your links with the Vortex go back a long way?
EK: I think my first gig at The Vortex was in 1997 or maybe it was 1998, as a guest on one of the Blow the Fuse evenings. This was when the Vortex was still on Stoke Newington Church Street. I met Christine Tobin there and loved her style and we have remained good friends over the years. I worked there with a variety of line-ups over the years at The Vortex and they include Mick Hutton and Rod Youngs – that was when I recorded my Alternative Therapy album in 1999; and then with Gene Calderazzo and Yaron Stavi who played on my Information album in 2002 before the club relocated to Dalston Culture House in 2005.
2) I will be performing a duo gig at The Vortex Jazz Club on the 15th of May (guest Jean Toussaint), playing quite a few songs from the new album as well as some new stuff I am currently working on and again, dependent on my mood and the moment, there will probably be quite a few impromptu twists and turns…