Hugh Masekela had an extensive jazz background and credentials, but enjoyed major success as one of the earliest leaders in the world fusion mode. Masekela's vibrant trumpet and flügelhorn solos were featured in pop, R&B, disco, Afro-pop, and jazz contexts. He had American and international hits, worked with bands around the world, and played with African, African-American, European, and various American musicians during a stellar career. His style, especially on flügelhorn, was a charismatic blend of striking upper-register lines, half-valve effects, and repetitive figures and phrases, with some note bending, slurs, and tonal colors. Though he often simplified his playing to fit into restrictive pop formulas, Masekela was capable of outstanding ballad and bebop work. Importantly, Masekela also became an international symbol of anti-apartheid activism during his decades in exile from his home country.
He began singing and playing piano as a child, influenced by seeing the film Young Man with a Horn at 13. Masekela started playing trumpet at 14. He played in the Huddleston Jazz Band, which was led by anti-apartheid crusader and group head Trevor Huddleston. Huddleston was eventually deported, and Masekela co-founded the Merry Makers of Springs along with Jonas Gwangwa. He later joined Alfred Herbert's Jazz Revue, and played in studio bands backing popular singers. Masekela was in the orchestra for the musical King Kong, whose cast included Miriam Makeba. He was also in the Jazz Epistles with Abdullah Ibrahim, Makaya Ntshoko, Gwanga, and Kippie Moeketsi.
In the aftermath of the March 1960 Sharpeville massacre, Masekela and Makeba, his wife at that time, left South Africa one year before Ibrahim and Sathima Bea Benjamin in 1961. Such musicians as Dizzy Gillespie, John Dankworth, and Harry Belafonte assisted him. Masekela studied at the Royal Academy of Music, then the Manhattan School of Music. During the early '60s, his career began to explode. He recorded for MGM, Mercury, and Verve, developing his hybrid African/pop/jazz style. Masekela moved to California and started his own record label, Chisa. He cut several albums expanding this formula and began to score pop success. The song "Grazing in the Grass" topped the charts in 1968 and eventually sold four million copies worldwide. That year Masekela sold out arenas nationwide during his tour, among them Carnegie Hall. He recorded in the early '70s with Monk Montgomery & the Crusaders.
In 1990, when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, Masekela returned to South Africa. He visited Zimbabwe and Botswana, and recorded two albums with the Kalahari Band that once more merged jazz-rock, funk, and pop. Starting in the mid-'90s, Masekela began releasing a stream of albums and collections that showed his versatility and growth in South African jazz. He continued to be active into the first decade of the 21st century, issuing Live at the Market Theatre in 2007, Phola in 2009, and a pair of albums in 2012, Friends (with Larry Willis) and Jabulani, inspired by South African wedding traditions Masekela remembered from his childhood. Though the jazz content of his work varied over the years, Masekela had far more musical material on the plus side than the negative, and his significance as a worldwide symbol against oppression cannot be overemphasized. Hugh Masekela died in Johannesburg in January 2018 at the age of 78. ~ Ron Wynn