Everybody in Alexandra township knows Edmund ‘Ntemi’ Piliso. He is the tall, quiet jazz man from Third Avenue.
Ntemi has been around for a long time. He has made music with the best of them. He has played with big music groups like Zonk and the Harlem Swingsters. And for many years the township jived to Ntemi’s own band, the Alex All Stars.
Today Ntemi plays with the Jazz Pioneers – a group of the old greats who have got together. They are still blowing the old township tunes.
Ntemi Piliso does not talk much. He saves his breath for his saxophone. But Learn and Teach went anyway. And we were in luck. Nterni did not have his saxophone with him.
We asked Ntemi about his life and his music. He sat down. “Okay!” he said. He began to talk in a quiet and gentle voice.
“I was born in Alexandra on the 16th December 1925. My full name is Mthuthuzeli Edmund Piliso. My mother called me Ntemekwana or “Ntemi” for short. People still call me Ntemi today. Not that I mind – I like the name.
“Alex has always been my home. The place has also been my school. I learned music there. Like most kids, I began playing the pennywhistle in the streets.
“After school we loved to watch the movies from America. One day I saw a film that changed my life. The big Glen Miller band from the U.S.A. was in that film. That film made me dream the same dream for weeks. In the dream I saw myself playing a big trombone.
“I forgot about school. I forgot about those little pennywhistles. I longed to play a long, gold trombone. I can say that is how my music began – in my dreams.
A GUY CALLED CASABLANCA
“Years later I was sitting at home. I was all alone and bored. I heard someone knocking loudly on the door. I opened the door and a guy called Casablanca walked in. He was very excited. He said I must come over to his place. He said now was the time to start our own band.
“And he wasn’t just talking. He had three saxophones, two trumpets and a trombone. Said he bought them in Cape Town. I couldn’t believe my ears.
“I wasted no time. But when I got to his place another guy had the trombone already. So I picked up a saxophone. I’ve never let it go since then.
“Casablanca knew a music teacher at the Catholic School. This guy taught us to read and write music. Soon we were ready to start a band. We called ourselves the Casablanca Ochestra.
“I loved playing in a real band. We had great tunes. But some of the guys were not so serious. So my friend David Sello and I left the band. We wanted to move into the world of real jazz.
THE BIG TIME
“We met a guy called Sam Maile. He was a great writer of jazz music. People called him South Africa’s Duke Ellington. He wrote the music for the famous film ‘Jim Comes to Jo’burg’.
“During the great war, some of our people fought in the army against Hitler. After the war Sam asked some of the soldiers to join a big band. He called the band Zonk.
“Sam Maile was a great guy. He taught me a lot about jazz. I played with Zonk for a short while. But I wanted to move on. The Harlem Swingsters and the Jazz Maniacs were the hottest bands in town. I wanted to join one of them.
“The Harlem Swingsters needed a sax man. They asked me to come and show my skills. I’ll never forget that day man! The great Kippie Moeketsi was there. He just said ‘Play’. And he listened very carefully. I was very scared.
“They asked me to play with them at a concert. The concert was at the Inchcape Hall in Sophiatown. I knew this was my chance. And I played for my life. The great piano player Todd Matshikiza and Kippie said I was okay. And that’s not all. I didn’t have my own sax then. So they went out and bought me one. I knew then that I was in the band – full time.
“I had great times with the Harlem Swingsters. The band was good. We mixed American swing and our own township tunes. We made African Jazz.
“We played allover the country. Once we even went to Lourenco Marques in Mozambique. The best shows happened when we played with the Jazz Maniacs. We played from 8 o’clock at night to four in the morning. We took turns to play. We wanted to show who was best. We never beat the Maniacs. But they knew we were not a small group.
“The gangsters were always at our shows. Sometimes they loved us and sometimes they hated us. They arrived at some of the shows at four in the morning – just when we were ready for some sleep. And they said: ‘Play until the sun comes up.’
“No one could do anything. They took our women and danced with them. And we played on sadly. I remember a concert at Moroka. This gang started fighting. Then they took their knives out. I grabbed my sax and ran for my life. I hid in the toilet. When I came back I found a body lying on my saxophone case – full of blood. Our shows were like this all the time. Today’s shows are like Sunday picnics.
ALEX AND THE ALL STARS
“In the early fifties all the big bands began to split up. I left the Swingsters and started my own band – the Alexandra All Stars. We were champions in the township. Even the gangs in Alex didn’t touch us.
“I made many records with the All Stars. My wife Constance had a beautiful voice. She made a record with me. The song was called “Baby come Duze”. That record made thousands of bucks. The record company gave me a paper and told me to sign. And they gave me five pounds. They bought my song for five pounds. That is how it was in those days.
“In 1962 King Kong started. This show went from South Africa to London. I very much wanted to go overseas and study music. But I wasn’t chosen to go with the show.
“I was broken. I felt so down that I didn’t play for a long time. But the Alex All Stars stayed alive. We made a record now and then. But the wish to play with the great jazzmen was gone.
TWENTY YEARS LATER
“Now us old timers have got together again. We want to bring back the big sounds from those days. We call ourselves the Jazz Pioneers.
“But we’ve got lots of problems, big and small. For example: we need a trombone player. We know a good trombone player who lives in Springs. And he wants to play with us. But he can’t blow until he gets his false teeth.
“And when Kippie died, we all lost a good friend. He was a giant in jazz. I fought hard to keep him in the Pioneers. I felt proud to play with a man like him – even though many people did not understand him. And now he’s gone and we’ll never get another one like him. But we know that we must go on. Us old timers have a job to do. We can’t let the old music die.”.