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NPR Arts & Life

Legendary Trumpeter Hugh Masekela Dies At 78

(SOUNDBITE OF HUGH MASEKELA'S "GRAZING IN THE GRASS")

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In 1968, an instrumental tune by a little-known South African jazz musician hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100.

(SOUNDBITE OF HUGH MASEKELA'S "GRAZING IN THE GRASS")

KELLY: That's "Grazing In The Grass" by the legendary jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela. Masekela died today, 78. The cause was prostate cancer. He burst onto the world pop scene in the '60s, playing alongside Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Ravi Shankar, The Who and Jimi Hendrix.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

HUGH MASEKELA: I got possessed by music as an infant.

KELLY: That's Masekela speaking with NPR. He told us the trumpet wasn't actually his first instrument.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MASEKELA: Well, I started playing the piano when I was 6 years old 'cause my folks tried to get me away from the gramophone. And I just - I lived for music since I could think. And they got me piano lessons. So by the time I was 13, I was quite an accomplished piano player and musician. And I went to see this film "Young Man With A Horn."

KELLY: Thanks to a school chaplain who had pulled aside a rebellious, young Masekela and asked him...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MASEKELA: What do you really want to do? And I said, Father, I just seen this movie, "Young Man With A Horn," the story of Bix Beiderbecke. And I said, if you can get me a trumpet, Father, I won't bother anybody anymore.

KELLY: Masekela fled apartheid South Africa when he was 21. He eventually made his way to the States, but he never entirely left apartheid behind. In 1986 as part of his political activism, he wrote this plea for an imprisoned Nelson Mandela.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRING HIM BACK HOME (NELSON MANDELA)")

MASEKELA: (Singing) Bring back Nelson Mandela. Bring him back home to Soweto. I want to see him walking down the streets of South Africa. Hey, tomorrow, bring back Nelson Mandela. Bring him back home to Soweto. I want to see him walking hand-in-hand with Winnie Mandela.

KELLY: After Mandela was released, Hugh Masekela returned to South Africa for the first time in 30 years, and he celebrated with his hero. Over his career, Masekela fought alcohol and cocaine addiction. He published a memoir. He never stopped making music - dozens of albums. Speaking to NPR, Masekela offered this advice for young artists.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MASEKELA: Whatever you go into, you have to go in there to be the best. There's no formulas. It's all about passion and honesty and hard work. It might look glamorous, but it takes a lot of hard work. The blessing with the arts is that you can do it forever.

KELLY: Advice from Hugh Masekela. He died today in Johannesburg. He was 78.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERB ALPERT AND HUGH MASEKELA SONG, "SKOKIAAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.