The Horny Horns

Doping with dizzy, plotting with Brando, and crashing Don King's orgy

Hugh Masekela
Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela
Crown

Hugh Masekela's first sexual encounter has got to be one of the oddest in the annals of recent biography. The 14-year-old student convinces his girlfriend to have sex with him on a secluded grassy knoll. But just as Hughie climaxes, he spots a nearby snake poised to attack. "Out of pure instinct, I grabbed my pants, yanked Nomvula off the grass, and shouted for her to run up the hill while I hotfooted in the opposite direction," he recounts. "The last time I saw her, her beautiful little black ass was disappearing up through the boulders of a hill, her panties swinging in her right hand, her feet nimbler than a mountain goat's."

He never sets eyes on her again.

As that anecdote portends, Masekela's autobiography, Still Grazing, is delightfully bawdy and profane. The legendary 65-year-old South African trumpeter is a boastful and blunt narrator, dispensing stories with a charming exuberance.

Masekela came of age just as white supremacy in South Africa was being institutionalized through apartheid. His love of music and women blossoms against a backdrop of humiliation and violence. At the premiere performance of his high school jazz band, gangsters kill 17 people. Shortly afterward, he receives a trumpet donated by Louis Armstrong. Masekela drops out of school and travels the country playing with various bands. He eventually scores a scholarship to the Manhattan School of Music.

This kicks off a four-decade bacchanal of drugs, booze, and sex. Masekela's anecdotes of (quite literally) the high life boggle the mind. Soon after landing in New York in 1960, he's smoking dope with Dizzy Gillespie and Jimi Hendrix. Then he's plotting with Marlon Brando to spring antiapartheid activist Robert Sobukwe from prison. Masekela's first LSD trip takes place at David Crosby's house. "His girlfriend had worked all evening on a sumptuous spaghetti dinner, and when we sat down to eat, the pasta began talking to me," he recalls. "I answered, 'You are so beautiful. I can't eat you.'"

With all the drugs and booze, it's a wonder that Masekela isn't as useless in the sack as--to steal one of his favorite phrases--a broke-dick dog. But his sexual exploits are positively Chamberlainian. After his first marriage falls apart, Masekela flies to Mexico for a quickie divorce. He ends up bedding down with two fellow divorcées during the trip. Billy Dee Williams, of all people, warns him not to marry Cab Calloway's daughter, Chris. "She is insane," Williams cautions.

The couple is so high when they go to tie the knot that they mistakenly throw away their marriage license. The relationship dissolves in acrimony.

A few years later, Masekela is hanging out with Mick Jagger and Ron Wood at the Plaza Hotel in New York. Don King is also staying there and they decide to pay a visit. Masekela recounts the bizarre encounter as if such incidents were routine.

When Lloyd [Price] opened the door to Don's suite, we were shocked to see Lloyd and Don in their birthday suits. There were at least four very well endowed, nude black amazons in there with them, lounging on armchairs and couches. We were shocked at first, but our hosts seemed very laid back and relaxed. We declined the drinks we were offered and kept standing while Don's party were all sitting cross-legged. Jagger came down hard on Don King, telling him how disgusted he was to find someone of his stature receiving guests he didn't even know in a state of undress, surrounded by sleaze.
Despite all the festive debauchery, apartheid is a constant, menacing backdrop. In 1990, following the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, Masekela finally returns to South Africa. It's a bittersweet homecoming. His continued substance abuse leaves him erratic and confrontational. The white supremacist government of South Africa had always provided a justification for this anger and self-abuse. With that sore removed, Masekela has no choice but to face up to his own shortcomings--and, ultimately, write it all down.
 
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