Andre Petersen was selfless when it came to jazz

The pianist was a musician’s musician who valued passing on his vast knowledge. As one collaborator put it, there’ll never be another piano player with his sound.

“Waa gat jy vir iemand anders kry?” The late guitarist Errol Dyers would ask this repeatedly about his friend and fellow musician Winston “Mankunku” Ngozi after his death, “Where will you find anyone else like this?” Relaying this anecdote, musician Mark Fransman now asks the same about his friend, Andre Petersen. The pianist, composer, scholar and teacher died on 22 July from Covid-19-related complications at the age of 43.

Petersen is considered one of the greatest pianists of his generation – unsung, underrated and incomparable. Musicians were inconsolable, describing the loss and impact of the prolific artist and educator as immeasurable.

“Stripping the term of all its archaic class baggage, Andre was in a very real sense, a gentleman of jazz,” wrote journalist Gwen Ansell. From his poise at the piano to the way he wore his signature hat, his soft-spoken nature and the manner in which he carried himself, Petersen’s gentleness touched all those who encountered him. 

13 August 2018: Andre Petersen. (Photograph by Colette Y Benjamin)

Known affectionately as “Dre”, Petersen was a musician’s musician. He earned the highest respect from peers across generations. “Every aspect of Andre’s life was indivisible from his music,” says long-time friend and arts producer Paul Sedres.

Petersen was deeply loved and a brother to many. Drummer Kesivan Naidoo, now based in Switzerland, was a close friend for 25 years and played in Petersen’s first band. “I realised I won’t be able to hear that sound again while I’m playing,” he says. “In jazz, there’s a certain interaction that only happens when you play with a certain person … We had such a deep connection that I know there’s never going to be another piano player with that sound.”

Many called their on-stage chemistry a telepathic connection. “We knew that we had something special, but we never thought of it as telepathy,” says Naidoo. “We just knew where we were going in the music, because we spoke so much about music and we listened to the same music off stage. Andre’s phrasing was flawless.”

Trumpeter Feya Faku, a close friend and collaborator, connected with Petersen after including him in one of his bands in the mid-2000s. It was in Faku’s quintet that Petersen would perform with bassist Chantal Willie, who would soon become his wife and frequent collaborator. The band was completed by Naidoo on drums and Buddy Wells on saxophone, which Faku remembers as “one of the greatest quintets I’ve ever had”. 

Raised in music

Petersen’s last performance was a duet with pianist Bokani Dyer, recorded in May for the House on the Hill series. In the accompanying interview, Petersen reflects on the huge influence his family had on his musical education. His earliest memories are of sitting next to his father at the organ. “Music was always around me,” he said.

Petersen’s father was an organist and music teacher, while his mother led the church choir for years. The tradition of playing and teaching extended to the rest of his family and church was integral to this nurturing environment. 

“When my mum was on the piano, then my dad would play the trumpet,” says his older brother, Winston Henry Petersen. “So when Andre was playing with his toys around them, he would just stop and listen to the music. When they were done, he would emulate the piece as a three-year-old. He would sing and touch the piano with his small, little fingers. That’s when my dad picked up he had a talent.”

6 December 2013: Petersen performs at The Mahogany Room in Cape Town. (Photograph by Gregory Franz)

Petersen grew up in Surrey Estate on the Cape Flats during the 1980s, at the height of apartheid protests and mass unrest. He did well academically and came of age in a stable, working-class family that instilled in him a strong sense of discipline and etiquette.

He met Fransman while attending Belgravia High School. The two young pianists were fortunate to be mentored by pianist Hotep Galeta, who lived in the neighbourhood after returning from exile in the United States. The pair would continue to play together for years to come.

Petersen already had a firm grasp of the tradition when he began studying classical piano at the University of Cape Town (UCT). It was here that he would connect with many of his musical peers: Naidoo, Fransman, Wells, Melanie Scholtz, Jimmy Dludlu and others.

But it was not until he reached university that he started gravitating towards jazz. “I was really attracted to the social aspect of jazz, which wasn’t really spoken much about in classical music,” he once said, identifying “with some of the strong messages and inclusivity that jazz offered”. 

“He took his music very seriously in a way that wasn’t alienating, but actually drew people to him,” says Sedres. “This is the reason why he was so drawn into jazz, because he recognised the kind of social warmth that the musicians were practising.”

The importance of listening 

For Petersen, listening was one of the core principles of music education. In the mid-1990s, Sedres was the music librarian in the Listening Laboratory at UCT. It was a small room with listening booths, filled with about 10 000 records, dedicated solely to listening. Students would visit to learn their particular repertoire. He describes Petersen coming in regularly and spending hours listening to records and talking about music history, sometimes staying after closing. 

This listening practice was important because despite being a student of classical music, on a parallel level he was teaching himself about jazz and African music. “He would come to me and say, ‘Paul, I’d like to check out Scriabin or Prokofiev today.’ And then at the same time I’d say, ‘Listen Andre, have you checked out this McCoy Tyner album? Do you have this Herbie album?’ So he would learn and listen to the repertoire of all the piano greats.” Petersen was particularly drawn to the playing of Kenny Kirkland. 

10 November 2006: Andre Petersen on piano, Winston Ngozi on saxophone, Herbie Tsoaeli on bass and Kesivan Naidoo on drums at the Bheki Mseleku tribute concert in Cape Town. Feya Faku is on trumpet on the overhead screen. (Photograph by Theo Lawrence)

His research into African music helped shape his African identity, as did his love for his great musical hero, pianist Bheki Mseleku. “Bheki was significant in terms of Andre’s philosophy, his understanding of himself as a person and his musical approach,” says Sedres. “Andre had an insatiable musical curiosity … By the time he was done with his classical degree, he was very well equipped already as a jazz musician.” 

Petersen studied further at the University of South Africa and graduated with a master’s degree in jazz from the prestigious Lemmens Institute in Belgium.

‘Vicious techniques’

Petersen shone on stage. An intelligent and skilled performer, he was versed yet soulful and humble.

“That world of sound and the contribution that his voice commanded … I’m going to miss his voice,” says Fransman. “Because we were both piano players, my admiration for Andre’s musicality was watching him play. He had some of the most vicious pianistic techniques.”

Petersen had a vast repertoire that would move easily between straight-ahead jazz, South African jazz, African music and improvisation. “I would stand behind him and watch him. He had this classical technique, but it was extremely fluid and effortless … He’s probably the best piano player I’ve ever seen in my generation,” he says. “Because there isn’t a lot of recorded material of his own, to have watched him live was the thing.” 

Petersen will be remembered as a live performer, master musician and improviser. “I’m happy that I got to see someone like that throw down. There is a thing a musician experiences called ‘mid-flight’ when playing, where there’s this unguardedness and they don’t care how they look anymore. I’ve got such great memories of Andre throwing that badass technique all over that piano. It was something to witness,” says Fransman.

14 May 2017: Andre Petersen performs at Jazz in the Native Yards in Gugulethu, Cape Town. (Photograph by Gregory Franz)

An educator and scholar 

“I wanted to be a music teacher, because I come from a family of music teachers,” Petersen said in the aforementioned interview. His father was a principal and his mother a teacher, and both were also music teachers. Petersen’s deep enthusiasm for knowledge and learning came through in his teaching. 

Peterson mentored Dyer at UCT in 2005. He describes Petersen’s teaching style as going beyond playing, developing him conceptually and philosophically. His mentor, a “great nurturing spirit”, made him think “about music in a different way, outside of just being at the piano and learning scales, chords and harmony and all the theory behind it. I remember always looking forward to my lessons and it was a really great way to engage with an elder in the music.” 

Petersen was teaching jazz piano at the University of the Witwatersrand and completing his PhD on the solo piano works of Abdullah Ibrahim when he died. He was dedicated to developing knowledge about South African jazz in the curriculum.

Jazz scholar Lindelwa Dalamba, his colleague who was overseeing his PhD, says “Andre was passionate about centering South African jazz in jazz pedagogy … He truly cared about his students, including their welfare.” He often spent his own time giving them extra lessons, she adds. 

Petersen facilitated a music exchange programme with the Norwegian Jazz Forum in 2004. He took youths there for many years, including young players like today’s Dyer, Nomfundo Xaluva, Keenan Ahrends, Jonathan Rubain and Kyle Shepherd.

He taught previously at Stellenbosch University and the University of the Western Cape. He also conducted masterclasses at global institutions such as Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York and the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo, Norway. 

Petersen’s selflessness and the time he spent sharing his knowledge could be one reason he did not release an album under his own name. He did, however, record with other musicians and there are many notable performances and recordings with artists from South Africa and abroad. He received numerous classical and jazz music awards and performed at festivals globally. One such project is the 2016 duo album Where Worlds Collide, a collaboration with classical pianist and long-time friend Kathleen Tagg, who is based in New York. 

Respect for elders

Petersen had a deep appreciation for his mentors and elders. Despite being much younger, he performed with greats such as Ngozi and Robbie Jansen. “Andre had a very big respect for older musicians and for what they had to contribute. He was very respectful about moving that forward,” says Naidoo.

“Paying homage was very important to him. Feya Faku is Andre’s big brother in the most loving of ways,” says Sedres. “He believed in paying your dues and never took for granted that he would ever have to stop paying his dues. His humility as a pianist is because he understood that … Every time he played the piano, he was paying his dues.”

Music, not ego, was at the core of Petersen’s work. Faith and family were central. Petersen understood the importance of the balance between seeking knowledge and passing it on. He was prolific, but more importantly, a nurturing force. South Africa has lost an incredible talent. 

Fransman captures this poignantly. “I always think, when a musician goes … it’s one less sound, one less voice on this planet. We’re a choir. In the end we’re like this massive band. We play on our own and we do our own things, but communally there’s this sound that we create as an entirety that is the sonic imprint of a generation.”

12 August 2018: Andre Petersen. (Photograph by Colette Y Benjamin)
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