Jazzman keeps it all personal

When Jazzman Mahlakgane answers his phone, he calls you by your name. He saves all his contacts even though it should be his contacts taking the advantage. And when he promises to call them back in five minutes, he does just that. This doesn't happen often with people of his pedigree.

Mahlakgane's name is synonymous with some of the finest brands in South Africa, and I think his brilliance is mostly attributed to attention to detail, fast pace in his step and impeccable business acumen. He is also a believer in things pertaining to faith, laughter and good karma. And he lives it with sober habits.

Now imagine you are invited by a prodigy of his kind to spend the evening with him, drinking the finest wine, seated at the best table and being entertained by entertainment greats Selaelo Selota and Nana Coyote.

What a difference a night makes. To think that just the other day my geyser was broken without any hope of hot water till pay day.

It was here that I was reminded of a funny oldish wise woman who once proclaimed that life is as unpredictable as only it can be.

Just a few years ago, Mahlakgane saw himself making it big in the soccer scene. He laughs it off now as if he must have been crazy. But he was a left winger for Blackpool. Before then he had played for Lenasia Dynamites. A broken knee sent him off the soccer field and he had to dig into his bag of talent and realised that before he was swept away by sportsmanship he was always praised for being a magnet for people.

"Back then people talked about Ekurhuleni municipality like it was some Godforsaken place," he says.

"I guess it's in every East Rand dweller to change the stigma. I had to make it real and fast."

And change it he did.

He is the first to admit he was lost for ideas at first.

"I spoke to one radio announcer about my plans, without even having really thought about it, and blurted out that the Birchwood was to host jazz evenings. That was the beginning of the phenomenon you now see in front of you."

The first jazz evening hosted in 2001 drew only 40 people when 120 were expected. But over seven years the number has increased with every event.

So rapidly has this crowd grown that hosting auditoriums have changed three times, each being bigger. These days the Ekurhuleni Comes Alive Jazz Evening draws people from other provinces and has hosted more than 600 people.

Performing artists so love these events that most invite themselves. Mahlakgane's non-stop cellphone bears testimony to this.

"That's also because most have launched their careers here. Judith Sephuma had her first performance ever here. I could say the same for many but as you witness it, that was Nana Coyote's very first performance without Stimela.

With each success of these shows, accommodation facilities have had to increase and whereas there were just 86 rooms and two conference rooms at this hotel in 2001, these days there are as many as 450 rooms and 45 conference rooms.

"And most marketing has been by word of mouth. People come here for one thing and they take silent note of other facilities and recommend them to their families and companies."

Many businesspeople have approached Jazzman to help ease the burden of running this place by offering their state-of-the-art machines and expertise but Mahlakgane refuses to have new business concepts such as outsourcing and going digital to replace people.

"This place has provided so many people with jobs so if I replaced my sound man with a state-of-the-art sound system, that would be catastrophic for him," he says.

So when Mahlakgane says it feels good indeed to have his dues I nod in my wine. "I'm glad there are people who acknowledge others' blood and sweat before they are six feet under."