Mountain Records describes Basil thus: 'His distinctive raunchy tenor sound and the untiring commitment to his cultural roots made him one of the best known jazzmen to come out of South Africa. He earned the nickname "Manenberg" after the hugely successful collaboration with Dollar Brand in the late seventies.
Basil toured and recorded extensively with Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim). Together with Robbie Jansen they created the unique brass sound of the group Pacific Express inspiring many younger cape jazz musicians in Cape Town.'
Coetzee was born in an area of Cape Town, South Africa called District Six, an area which shared the poverty common to all townships, but which also fostered a vibrant music scene. His first instrument was the readily available penny-whistle, and he began performing within the township on that instrument in 1958. He turned next to drums, before finally settling on flute and the instrument most closely associated with him, tenor saxophone, and was entirely self-taught on all of these instruments. He is probably best known for his recording work with Dollar Brand (as he was then, before he took the name Abdullah Ibrahim after his conversion to Islam in the late 1960s). Ibrahim recorded "Manenberg" with Basil Coetzee — it became an enormous hit in the townships and impressed musicians as the recording is reputed to have been made in just one take.
Abdullah Ibrahim is quoted by the BBC as saying, "Even Basil himself said that in later years he would use that solo as a study exercise. We also use it now in our teaching as a required solo that young musicians have to play."
The composition "Manenberg" became a South African jazz classic, and is also internationally renowned (indeed, a visit to the Cape Town waterfront will still today reward the jazz enthusiast with the "Manenberg" jazz venue).
Many artists left South Africa during the apartheid era — like Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim, Chris McGregor, Dudu Pukwana, Johnny Dyani, and Louis Moholo. They established new satellite South African jazz communities, notably in London. Basil Coetzee chose to stay and make whatever impression he could on his home ground, despite the many difficulties and deprivations which that struggle involved.
The Coetzee family were forcibly removed from the soon to be demolished District Six to Manenberg in 1969, and it was his composition of that name which became his best known work. Basil adopted the name as a middle-name, and became known as Basil "Manenberg" Coetzee.
Basil Coetzee toughed out those years, apparently supplementing his income working in a shoe factory through the 1970s and early '80s. He became active performing again around that time. In 1986 the band Sabenza (derived from S.A.Band and the Zulu word for work, sebenza) was formed under his leadership. He was also a founder member of Cape Town music school, MAPP.
An article in The Scotsman records that 'Coetzee developed a soulful, gospel-influenced instrumental voice which had a raw, impassioned urgency at its core. He often explained that his sound was reflection of the life around him, a product of the fact that "there's a lot of poverty in the townships, and people are frustrated, and my sound is created within that environment."'
In 1988 he toured Europe, and released the album Sabenza which was the work of Basil, Robbie Jansen, Paul Abrahams and Jack Momple who had all left American-influenced jazz in search of their Cape roots. Recorded in one week, this album changed perceptions about local jazz and includes some Cape Jazz jewels. It was followed by the album Monwabisi, Basil's second solo project. It was recorded in difficult times for the artist as he sought to establish his name away from previous successful associations. In the period between leaving his former Pacific Express associates and playing only sporadically for Abdullah Ibrahim, Coetzee and bass player Paul Abrahams worked together as a duo. Many of the works on this album were arranged and written by them.
After Abdullah Ibrahim's return to South Africa from exile, Basil Coetzee regularly performed in Ibrahim's various ensembles. The band Sabenza was active on the local scene, and regularly featured bassist Paul Abrahams, guitarist James Kibby, and drummer Vic Higgins.
B: was his third solo album released at about the time of his death in March 1998. This album contains some of his best work and includes contributions from players who worked with him for many years.
Basil Coetzee died during the night of 11 March 1998, after a long struggle with cancer. His funeral took place on Saturday 14 March 1998 in Mitchell's Plain, and he is buried in the Garden of Eden in Ottery. Abdullah Ibrahim was one of those who paid tribute to Basil's memory at his funeral, announcing plans for the establishment of a Basil Manenberg Coetzee Music Academy in his memory. Basil's son, Basil Coetzee, Jr., played saxophone in the service. Basil was survived by five children and six grandchildren.
Basil Coetzee's recording years spanned 1962-1991, playing both tenor saxophone and flute. He has 18 recording sessions to his name, and a selection of these albums includes: