Hugh Masekela, the internationally renowned flugelhornist, trumpeter, bandleader, composer, singer and defiant political voice, died Tuesday, Jan. 23, after a long battle with cancer.
When Masekela was 14, Father Trevor Huddleston, a leader for equal rights in Masekela’s native country of South Africa, gave the musical prodigy a trumpet. He would soon form the Huddleston Jazz Band, also perfecting his signature Afro-Jazz sound throughout the late 1950s.
In 1960, he left South Africa at age 21 to begin what would be 30 years in exile, moving to New York and studying at the Manhattan School of Music. During that golden age of jazz, he witnessed the genius of greats including Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Mingus and Max Roach. And with guidance and encouragement from Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong, he honed his own unique style, choosing African rather than American influences for his music.
In 1968, his instrumental single “Grazin’ in the Grass” went to number one on the American pop charts and was a worldwide smash, elevating him onto the international stage for a career that would span five decades and the release of over 40 albums as well as collaborations with a diverse group of artists: Harry Belafonte, Dizzy Gillespie, The Byrds, Fela Kuti, Marvin Gaye, Herb Alpert, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder and the late Miriam Makeba.
Until the very end, he used his global influence to highlight the message of heritage restoration in Africa, often saying, “My biggest obsession is to show Africans and the world who the people of Africa really are.”