08 March 2013 by Caroline Smith

If jazz is your thing ...

For a cheap evening out, and an opportunity to mix with music-loving Jo’burgers from all walks of life, the Zoo Lake Bowling Club jazz sessions can’t be beaten.

The Zoo Lake jazz sessions

If jazz is your thing – or, for that matter, people-watching is your thing – then the Thursday night sessions at the Zoo Lake Bowling Club in Johannesburg are for you.

Every Thursday evening, three of South Africa’s top jazz musicians host the sessions from around 8pm (jazz time is a flexible concept).

All welcome All welcome

The trio consists of Jonathan Crossley, Justin Badenhorst and Carlo Mombelli. Jonathan is one of South Africa’s leading guitarists, equally adept in both the jazz and classical genres. He is currently completing his PhD at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), where he also lectures, and frequently amazes audiences by playing the cyber-guitar he is building as part of his thesis.

Justin is a brilliant drummer, with an uncanny ability to both lead and follow as part of the trio. In addition, he is, quite frankly, extremely good to look at.

Carlo, who conceptualised the idea and leads the trio, has given composition and performance workshops around the world. He currently teaches jazz studies and composition at Wits and received his doctorate in composition in 2009.

To put this in context, the Zoo Lake jazz sessions are a little like Dame Kiri te Kanawa hosting a karaoke evening.

The trio begins and ends the evening with a jam session, where the audience gets to hear original compositions from both Carlo and Jonathan, as well as kick-ass (and sometimes very entertaining) covers. Among my favourites are their cover of Nirvana’s Smells like Teen Spirit, which is frequently immediately followed by either the Dallas theme tune or Brenda Fassie's Weekend Special.

But it’s the middle of the evening when things really get funky: anyone, and I do mean anyone, who wants to, can perform.

One might think that the opportunity to watch three jazz greats in concert, for nothing, in a place where the beers are cheap (R15 for a Black Label draft at the time of writing) and dinner for two can come in at less than R100, might be enough of a drawcard.

But it’s the middle of the evening when things really get funky: anyone, and I do mean anyone, who wants, to can perform.

There’s a book in which you write your name, your instrument and your style of music. Carlo then creates 'instant ensembles' by mixing these people and getting them to perform together. So it’s not quite open mike, it’s not quite karaoke, but it is a hell of a lot of fun and very interesting (and sometimes challenging) to watch.

On my last visit, I asked a couple of regulars to tell me some highlights:

  • There was the time the Tembisa brass band arrived, all dressed in uniform. They began quite sedately, but then, during the course of their performance, they built a human pyramid, with the grand finale of the music timed to coincide with the final band member reaching the top of the pyramid, where he performed what was described as 'an excellent sax solo'.
  • Or the time Talib Kweli was in town, and his entire backing band pulled into the Zoo Lake Bowling Club and happily participated in the evening’s entertainment.

People travel from far and wide for the sessions – the venue has played host to a Mozambican ensemble; there are regulars from Brakpan (east of Johannesburg); and musicians who are in town and free on a Thursday will pull in.

Many artists also use the venue as a space to showcase new ideas, things they are playing with, before performing them to a paying crowd. So you’re guaranteed that something exciting and different will happen, whoever is up for the night.

The trio begins and ends the evening with a jam session The trio begins and ends the evening with a jam session

It might not all be to your taste, but there’s a large outdoor section where you can escape should the set that’s being played involve the words 'kumbaya', any form of steel drum, or a hippy-looking child beating on the belly of her guitar for extra emphasis.

The venue also regularly plays host to talent scouts from around the world, looking for what’s hip, hop and happening in the Jo'burg jazz scene.

The other thing that really makes the evening’s entertainment is the variety of the audience. People of all colours and all ages, along the scale from nerd to hipster to corporate, mingle happily with one another, all there for the music.

All in all, for a cheap evening out, and an opportunity to mix with music-loving Jo'burgers from all walks of life, this really can’t be beaten.

Where: Zoo Lake Bowling Club, Prince of Wales Avenue
When: Thursday nights, from around 8pm
Who: Carlo Mombelli, Jonathan Crossley and Justin Badenhorst
Entrance: Free

Calm before the storm Calm before the storm
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