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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
Suited and booted in the Lanvin show at the Paris menswear collections
fashionParis Fashion Week
Arts and Entertainment
Kara Tointon and Jeremy Piven star in Mr Selfridge
tvActress Kara Tointon on what to expect from Series 3
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
An asteroid is set to pass so close to Earth it will be visible with binoculars
news
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has spoken about the lack of opportunities for black British actors in the UK
film
News
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

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project