The family of Masekela, who cancelled all his concert bookings last October, said the veteran musician and anti-apartheid fighter died peacefully at his Johannesburg home following his battle with prostate cancer.
“A baobab tree has fallen. We can safely say ‘Bro’ Hugh was one of the great architects of Afro-Jazz and he uplifted the soul of our nation through his timeless music,” South African Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa said on Tuesday.
The world-renowned flugelhornist, trumpeter, bandleader, composer, singer and defiant political voice was born in the town of Witbank in 1939.
At the age of 14, the deeply respected advocate of equal rights in South Africa, Father Trevor Huddleston, provided the young Masekela with a trumpet, and soon after the Huddleston Jazz Band was formed to honour the donor.
According to his website, Masekela began to hone his signature Afro-Jazz sound in the late 1950s during a period of intense creative collaboration, most notably performing in the 1959 musical play, “King Kong,” written by Todd Matshikiza.
Masekela was also a member of the legendary South African group, the Jazz Epistles. In 1960, at the age of 21, he left South Africa to begin what would be 30 years in exile which, among other countries, took him to the United States of America.
On arrival in New York City, he enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music. This coincided with a golden era of jazz music and the young Masekela immersed himself in the New York jazz scene, where nightly he watched greats like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Mingus and Max Roach mixed it up in the Big Apple, as New York City is popularly known among the jazz musicians.
Under the tutelage of Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong, Hugh was encouraged to develop his own unique style, feeding off African rather than American influences – his debut album, released in 1963, was entitled “Trumpet Africaine.”
In the late 1960s, Masekela moved to Los Angeles in California state, where he was befriended by hippie icons like David Crosby, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper.
And in the summer of 1968, Masekela hit the world pop charts with his mega hit, “Grazing in the Grass,” an instrumental tune that distinctly gave the world the Afro-Jazz sound.
That record gave him his worldwide fame when the hit made it to the number one spot on the American and UK charts.
His subsequent solo career spanned five decades, during which time he released over 40 albums and featured on countless more, working with such diverse artistes as Harry Belafonte, Dizzy Gillespie, The Byrds, Fela Kuti, Marvin Gaye, Herb Alpert, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder and the late Miriam Makeba – his wife for two years before they divorced.
In 1990 Masekela, a fierce critic of the white minority regime, returned home following the unbanning of the ANC and the release of the late and former President Nelson Mandela.
In June 2010, in one of his career highlights, the late legend opened the FIFA World Cup Kick-Off Concert to a global audience and performed at the event’s opening ceremony in Soweto’s Soccer City Stadium.
In the same year, President Jacob Zuma honoured him with the highest order in South Africa, the Order of Ikhamanga.
Masekela is a Grammy award winner for “Best Contemporary Pop Performance-Instrumental.”
The family is yet to announce his funeral programme.