By Nick Pelling

Hastings and St Leonards is home to many ordinary people who are not ordinary at all. If you listen. One such is Reggie Hendrickse. Reggie has been involved in the jazz scene in Hastings for many years, particularly through the JazzHastings group but also working with the Respond Academy for young people. He has been responsible for bringing such jazz legends as Bheki Mseleku to the Stade. And in many ways his whole deeply complex life history has been lived within the wide streams of jazz. I found myself listening to Reggie a few days ago in his flat in St Leonards. He had just hit eighty and in reflective mood. To listen to Reggie is to be on a unique sort of trip, through a near, but also somehow distant, past. 

Reggie’s family fled South Africa in 1961 because of the increasing racial criminalities of Apartheid. And yet – peculiarly perhaps for a designated ‘black’ family – Reggie’s parents had never seen themselves as oppressed in South Africa: “my family was well to do, upper middle class with a big house and a huge garden”. His brother had classical piano lessons. “We were cultured. We knew the difference between Debussy and Ravel.” However, and probably inevitably, the racist system came to steal their house. But not before the Cape Town jazz scene had bitten the young Reggie and made him fall in love with the fluidities of jazz. It would be a life-long love affair that persists to this day.

CREDIT: Bruce Rae

Britain may have been thought a free society seen from afar, but reality had surprises in store. As Reggie says, Britain was in some ways “more segregated than South Africa; it was a more complex sort of game”. Reggie became a sign writer, the sort that could paint an ornate sign free-hand. But sixties Britain was also on the cusp of major cultural change and Reggie arrived as jazz and blues was about to upset what people had just decided to call ‘the establishment’. He began to see all manner of artists, even catching Dudley Moore, who was a far better jazz pianist than people tend to think, at the Marquee Club. But his personal epiphany was in 1961 when Reggie saw John Coltrane, on what would prove to be the saxophonist’s one and only UK tour. After Coltrane, the world was different.

For a brief moment in time they almost created a new genre, ‘punk-jazz’ 

But he also had his life in art. He went to Croydon Art college where he was a contemporary with punk impresario Malcolm McLaren. They riffed off each other. For a brief moment in time they almost created a new genre, ‘punk-jazz’. From here he began his other existence as a printmaker. He became a technician at St Martin’s College of Art, a position that put him close to the heart of the big sixties art effusion. Today his house has two magnificent printing presses and he continues to work as a printmaker seeing no boundaries between visual and auditory art.

One of Reggie’s Printing Presses
CREDIT: Samara Jayne Martin

But the call of jazz was always the strongest. Perhaps his most influential involvement was with South African band The Brotherhood of Breath. The group was in its day quietly revolutionary. It was headed up by Chris McGregor, a white jazz pianist from what was then known as Transkei (now the Eastern Cape province), but someone that Reggie still regards as family. McGregor, now sadly passed away, had an explosive idea: to create a band of black and white musicians. Otherwise just known as musicians. But, the regime had made it clear to McGregor that jazz on those terms was likely to lead to a fatal accident. And thus, Chris and Reggie both ended up in Britain.

For several years Reggie was the manager of Bheki Mseleku, probably the most gifted of the South African jazz exiles. According to Reggie, Bheki rejected written music as “someone else’s chords”. And yet he could move fluently in any key, in any time. But Mseleku was a troubled character and Reggie spent much of his time just trying to get him in tune with the normal world. 

Reggie and Pablo McFee
CREDIT: Samara Jayne Martin

Listening to Reggie was an education. At the age of eighty he is still looking for new things. He runs life drawing classes, he is learning the blues harmonica and he plays the flute incredibly. His conversations veer from plumbing to Giacometti’s life advice: “Keep a sketch book in your top pocket”. He might even be described as out of step with our strange times. But jazz has always embraced the notes at an angle to the written tune. Perhaps it is that slight eccentricity that makes Reggie a natural fit for St Leonards.

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