Gideon Plays

by Greg Dale

Today is set to be one of the more interesting vinyl collecting days in our recent history, in fact in our collective vinyl history as far back as I can remember, and its an equal playing field, we’re all in on this one.

A bit of back history. University trained jazz pianist Gideon Nxumalo, also a radio show host known as ‘uMgibe’, who hosted the This is Bantu Jazz radio show from the 1950’s until his dismissal after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, was a central figure in modernist African jazz. In 1965 he released the legendary album entitled Gideon Plays on the Jazz Appreciation Society label, JAS, that has gone on in jazz lore to achieve near mythical status, due to one defining factor….no-one has ever actually seen a copy!

Well that’s a slight untruth…. Cut to the mid 1990’s, and South Africa is for the first time ruled by the ANC, under the leadership of president Thabo Mbeki. Mbeki’s vice president is none other than Kgalema Motlanthe (whose name Jon Savage can’t pronounce without hesitation ). Now, little known fact, Mr Motlanthe is an avid jazz vinyl collector, and through his vast underground network he comes upon the information that a certain Johannesburg super-collector is holding the only known copy on the planet of the mythical Gideon Plays album.

Mr Motlanthe promptly sends off an envoy to said collector, possibly in the form of a blue light brigade of large and serious looking negotiators, to bring back the treasure. What he doesn’t bank on is the iron will of the true vinyl junky, and in a similar twist to my most recent blog, the blue light brigade members are met with a resounding “No,” the treasured Nxumalo album will remain on the collector’s shelves. The collector is however a wily fellow, and sees an opportunity to meet with the vice president of the country, not one to be passed up, whereupon they can talk rare jazz records over Johnny Walker Platinum in the Union Buildings. He agrees to at least humour the vice president and set up a meeting where he will play the record for him, after which he will slip it back into its Nagaoka sleeve and head off home, watching his back the whole way down the hallway where rows of NAT government busts follow his every step.

I have it under very good authority though that the meeting didn’t go according to plan for the wily collector. He underestimated the charm of a vice-president-jazz-junky, and the record ended up staying in the Oval office. And there might have ended the trail of the only known copy of Gideon Plays, if it wasn’t for a small twist of fate on the opposite end of the globe.

Further history about the album is that renowned exiled artist Dumile Feni, a close friend of Nxumalo, was tasked with creating the cover, making the album valuable even just for the rarity of its cover art. Feni was living in New York at the time, and through a series of tragedies, ended his life there with a studio containing an immeasurable number of priceless unseen artworks that sat dormant and unprotected for ages, during which time the vast majority of the works ended up walking out of the studio.

Then in 2005, at least ten years since the first copy changed hands, another intrepid vinyl digger is flipping through dusty worthless records in a junk store in New York, and stops dead in his tracks on a specific red sleeve. This is the part of the story where your average vinyl hunter may start to sweat, recounting their own series of near misses in this endless quest for unearthing musical treasure. In his grubby hands is a near mint copy of Gideon Plays, preserved like it was pressed yesterday, and for a price that most of us would pay for a tatty Fleetwood Mac ‘Rumours’ just to have a spare. The thinking is that this was Feni’s personal copy, and with the scattering of so many of his possessions, this somehow ended up in a junk store crate. This copy now became the only Accessible copy on earth that wasn’t as good as locked up in the Vatican vaults.

And it might have stayed that way forever, but last week; all the way back where the story started, at the Southernmost tip of Africa, the land that birthed the jazz giants that were exiled around the globe to leave smatterings of themselves in far-flung places, the unimaginable happened….copy number three surfaced.

Tonight, at 11:45 pm, give or take 3 minutes for snipe bids, this record, in forty years never seen by any mortal save two treasure hunters, a vice president, and possibly some blue light brigaders, will end a very unceremonious tenure on a local bidding site, to either go, like a bull, or murano glassware, or an antique iron, to the highest bidder. This particular copy is explained on the listing to have come from ‘the late estate record collection of a sixties SA pop star, recording artist and later international theater producer and movie script writer’, and cropped up on the 18th August, to a very aghast bunch on the vinyl sites, myself included. It’s an incredible coup and I shudderingly think a very sad end of the road for a record of this caliber. I for one though, in the spirit of Dumile Feni, Gideon Nxumalo, and the countless number of jazz fans over the last forty years who have waited to hear just a snippet of this fabled volume, will be watching from the front row, and hoping that if it is bought up the new owner may have the grandness of spirit to arrange for it to be mastered and archived, and somehow put into the public domain, because a sadder end I cannot imagine than for this to be the second to last step in this record’s lifespan, the last being to end its days once again in an endless exile.


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2 thoughts on “Gideon Plays

  1. Beautifully put, Greg. It’s a wonderful thought that, in some way, a piece of music is being valued in a similar manner to the artwork that adorns its cover. JAG had a remarkable exhibition of Dumile’s work a few years ago. A good number of Roger Hallet’s photographs were included. It would be worth asking him if he ever heard the album, if you’re in touch with him in Cape Town.


    1. Thank you Herby, and I funnily enough am in touch sporadically with George Hallet, he’s a wonderful man,and I never thought to chat to him about this album, but will.


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