Bheki Mseleku: South African jazz pianist

Broadly but inadequately defined as a "jazz musician", Bheki Mseleku had a brilliant but chequered career that bridged his native South Africa and the UK, where he made his international debut with the stunning album Celebration in 1992. A self-taught multi-instrumentalist, Mseleku sometimes played saxophone and guitar, but his undoubted forte was the piano, on which he displayed an advanced grasp of harmony and unique chordal voicings, sometimes scat-singing as he played.

His compositions reflected strong spiritual leanings and drew on the local marabi jazz tradition and classical technique, as well as having an ancient African melodicism and rhythmic sophistication. As his compatriot and colleague, the percussionist/composer Eugene Skeef (with whom he was recording two albums at the time of his death) put it, the man had "elephant ears".

Mseleku's musical quest for inner peace was thwarted by problems with physical and mental health – he suffered from diabetes and was dubiously diagnosed as bipolar – as well as financial difficulties, politics and insufficient recognition of his prodigious gift. Although these meant that he did not realise his full potential, he leaves a fine if relatively modest recorded legacy that marks him out as a major figure in contemporary South African music.

The sixth of seven children, Mseleku grew up in Lamontville, a suburb of Durban. Although his social-activist father had a Bachelor of Music from Cambridge and was a music teacher, he was also deeply religious and fearful that any of his children should choose such a "devilish" and low-status profession as music. Thus, the family's upright piano – eventually cut up for firewood one winter – was kept locked for much of Mseleku's childhood. His mother would give him the keys while his father was away, and his older brother Langa also encouraged him. He was largely self-taught, overcoming the loss of the top joints of two fingers on his right hand in a go-karting accident by developing a very rapid technique to compensate for his reduced hand span. It was also during this time that he met his future partner, Nomvula Ndlazilwane, who would eventually bear four of his eight children.

By his early teens, Mseleku was playing electric organ semi-professionally with a local group, Expressions. In 1975, he moved to Johannesburg and honed his skills with the soulful hard-bop group The Drive, later forming the progressive jazz outfit Spirits Rejoice with the bassist Sipho Gumede. Mseleku's first overseas trip was in 1977, when he was enthusiastically received at the Newport Jazz Festival, playing with Philip Tabane's group Malombo. While there, he met his idol McCoy Tyner and Alice Coltrane, who gave him the mouthpiece of the saxophone that her late husband, John, had used to play "A Love Supreme".

On returning home, he found the oppressive climate of apartheid increasingly unbearable. After a period in Botswana, where he worked briefly with the horn player and trumpeter Hugh Masekela, he left South Africa in 1980 along with Eugene Skeef. Mseleku eventually found refuge in Stockholm, where he spent a number of unhappy years on the breadline and in poor health, despite becoming accepted and even revered by the local jazz fraternity and visiting musicians.

By the mid-1980s he had rejoined Skeef in London, where his early promise finally flowered. Haunting Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in Soho, he got himself noticed after the pianist Horace Silver helped him land a two-week residency in 1987. There, he attracted emerging talents such as the saxophonists Courtney Pine and Steve Williamson, who both went on to contribute to his album Celebration. The low-key follow-up Meditations (1992) was a live solo recording which demonstrated his unusual ability to play sax and keyboards simultaneously, and in the same year he was featured on Melvyn Bragg's The South Bank Show.

Mseleku's international career took off, and over the next few years he toured Europe, the US, the Far East and India. He also made guest appearances on albums by Courtney Pine and the South African singer Sibongile Khumalo, among others. In 1994, his Timelessness featured his newly acquired rhythm section and US jazz heavyweights including the saxophonists Pharoah Sanders and Joe Henderson, drummer Elvin Jones and singer Abbey Lincoln, but took Mseleku somewhat away from his original vision.

The same year he returned to live in Johannesburg, soon squandering his major-label earnings in acts of spontaneous philanthropy – and losing the cherished Coltrane mouthpiece in a burglary, which seriously destabilised him. In 1995, he recorded Star Seeding in LA. Despite two fine subsequent albums – Beauty of Sunrise (1997) and Home At Last (2003) – he struggled to make a living from music in South Africa, having to teach to make ends meet. By early 2006 he had given up trying, and returned to London.

Jon Lusk

Bhekumuzi Hyacinth Mseleku, musician and composer: born Durban, South Africa 1955; died London 9 September 2008.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Contact Centre Advisor

£19500 - £21500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading children's chariti...

Recruitment Genius: Client Services Assistant

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Client Services Assistant is ...

Recruitment Genius: Junior / Senior Sales Broker - OTE £100,000

£20000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportuni...

Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Duty Manager is required to join one of the ...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor