Born: 1949 | Died: July 7, 2010 Primary Instrument: Sax, alto
With a career spanning over thirty years, Robert Edward Jansen became a legendary fixture of the Cape Town music scene. The virtuoso alto saxophonist, flute player, arranger and composer was proficient on several instruments and in a variety of genres, and played with many of South Africa’s most illustrious bands, including Pacific Express, Sabenza, and Juluka.. His status as a guru and forerunner of the unique brand of port music known as Cape Jazz cements him as one of the greatest life-long contributors to South African culture.
Born in Cape Town in 1949, the self-taught musician’s first instruments were the concertina and mouth organ. He entered the music business as a guitarist, playing clubs with bands such as The Rockets to satisfy the demand for music in the style of the British pop that had taken the world by storm, in the early sixties. A trip to London introduced him to the latest black music from the United States, particularly the bold and imaginative use of brass sections that was emerging in jazz and jazz-influenced music of the era.
Inspired, Jansen decided to teach himself the saxophone, and set about mastering the jazz idiom. In the 70’s, he was inducted into the tightly knit jazz fraternity of the Cape when he joined the legendary godfather of Cape jazz, Abdullah Dollar Brand Ibrahim, and fellow sax and flute player Basil Coetzee, to work with the cult jazz/rock band Pacific Express. Jansen’s raw yet lyrical alto sax sound can be heard alongside Coetzee’s tenor on the seminal Ibrahim album, “Mannenberg,” the title track of which is still widely acknowledged as representing the unparalleled embodiment of the Cape Jazz sound.
In the turbulent 80’s, Ibrahim joined the mass exodus of black and colored musical talent to live in exile in Switzerland, and Jansen moved on to collaborate with bands such as Spirits Rejoice and Workforce. He maintained close links with Basil Coetzee, however, performing and recording with his band Sabenza on numerous occasions, and continuing his commitment to the role of music as a vessel for protest and unity. 1989 saw the release of his debut solo album, “Vastrap Island,” in South Africa, Germany and the U.K.
When a serious illness nearly took Jansen’s life in 2005, the Cape Premier announced that the state would meet his hospital bills. This decision brought Jansen back into the public imagination and gave him well-deserved recognition as a living piece of musical history and a cultural legend of the Cape.
By 2000 he was playing alongside Mac McKenzie and Hilton Schilder and the Goema Captains of Cape Town, as well as fronting his own band, Sons of Table Mountain. Their first album, 2001’s “The Cape Doctor,” takes its title from Jansen’s own industry nickname, which is in turn the local nickname of the Southeaster that clears the city of smog. When a serious illness nearly took Jansen’s life in 2005, the Cape Premier announced that the state would meet his hospital bills. This decision brought Jansen back into the public imagination and gave him well-deserved recognition as a living piece of musical history and a cultural legend of the Cape.
His most recent album, 2006’s Nomad Jazz, was nominated for a SAMA Award.
In 2010, just two days before being admitted to the Cape Town hospital, Jansen played at a concert to raise funds for the treatment of fellow musician Hilton Schilder, who has liver cancer. Then he performed at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown and a week before that at Cape Town's Grand Parade Fan Fest.
Robbie Jansen passed on July 7, 2010 in Cape Town, South Africa.