This week of 8 May 2012 was a difficult week for those who had been close to Zim Ngqawana and for ardent followers of his music. It was one year since his passing away. Many have not yet gotten used to the gap he left; for some, it is a matter of becoming more acutely aware of the big cavity that exists in the wake of his death.
One year after that fateful day, there are many coming out of the woodwork to “do something” – write, create or craft a tribute about the towering figure in arts and culture that Zim was. Of course, much of this desire to bring forth something creative comes from a good place and is spurred by good intentions. It is part of acknowledgement, but it is also part of the project of remembering, of reading and “re-reading,” and – through reflection – of forging deeper understandings.
At the same time, the week was marked by a lack of a major anniversary event. This, one guesses, is due to the complications related to family rights, issues which become more charged at a time when estate issues are still being settled, and when there is disunity among groups of potential beneficiaries. At such a time, private persons or groups of individuals are not rushing forward to host any event that bears the artist's name. In some senses, government institutions are better placed to mount a fitting event to honour Zim’s contribution. It is better placed to manage the various interests. Perhaps such an initiative will come in the future – or perhaps it will never come ... as government may find it too difficult to single out particular artists to honour in this way.
In the case of Zim, there is also (one year later) a great deal of nonsense being spread about him. Some of these views have been captured and disseminated in a new magazine called Discography which debuted with a major focus on Zim and his relationship to jazz. Amid pieces and comment lauding his stature and immense contribution, one finds the sniping remarks and vituperation aimed at Zim.
Without denying the encounters that specific writers had with Zim, these views must of course be seen for what they are: individual and partial views against a person who cannot give his side of the story. In some instances, those negative claims seem to arise, it seems, from the usual subterranean anger felt by those who are left behind, by those with unspoken fury at the loss they are experiencing. In other cases, such views come from people who undermined rather than supported Zim, and who now, being denied a chance to “make peace”, seek to use justification as some kind of balm.
One claim was that Zim underpaid the musicians who performed with him and another source in the magazine implied that Zim could struggled to work with other musicians.
Regarding the claims around payment of musicians, I know a different side. When I discussed business plans with Zim, he made it clear that all so-called door takings should go to the musicians who performed. I pointed out to Zim that – since bar takings would be insufficient – this meant the project would not be viable without funding and his answer was, “So be it”. I am also aware that Zim paid accompanying musicians straight after gigs, often getting his manager to transfer their payments in the middle of the night while the musicians were still packing up their instruments. Many of his overseas adventures may have seemed (to some) like they involved a great deal of money; but after flights, hotel bills and fees, there was often only a nominal amount left for him. As far as Zim went, reality was often the opposite (to the story of money accumulation). For far too many people, Zim was the rainmaker, a situation that, especially toward the end, had a draining effect on him.
The less said about the claim that Zim could not work with other musicians the better. The claim already rings hollow when – as per one quote in the magazine – it is claimed that what riled musicians most was the payment issue.
Let it be said, as an exponent of pure jazz (although he never used the term), Zim towered over most others. He was extremely professionally, he demanded a deep level of engagement from those he played with, and he was bold and assertive about his place in jazz. In many senses, Zim was uncompromising (with himself and others). What would you expect – we could not have had the magic that was Zim without that trait. Most other musicians understood and accepted these realities; the few who did not (and even now do not) should own their attitudes and responses to Zim.
Another charge made in Discography was that towards the end Zim was not creative enough, that he was no longer innovating and producing new work. In one sense, the answer to whether this is true or not will emerge once all Zim’s unreleased work comes to light. But what I know is this, Zim was always buzzing, musically speaking, with ideas and concepts, with narrative and counter-narratives. On his mind was always the seed of a piece that was germinating. A second truth is that Zim went through short stages when he struggled to balance the requirements of his artistic calling with other demands. But Zim pushed against it. Zim had founded the Zimilogy Development Institute, a groundbreaking initiative. At certain stages, however, he complained that the effort required to keep that undertaking going cut into time he needed to work on the further evolution of his art. Another truth is that as time went by, Zim’s understanding of “composing” changed. He eschewed the idea of sitting in a room (at a desk or piano) and composing. Composing took place elsewhere - in practice, in vibrating work spaces and performance. Only the blinkered – and those who fail to grasp his essence - will fail to see that Zim’s innovation and originality with music continued unabated.