Iconic South Africans: Trevor Jones

We as South Africans struggle with a major inferiority complex. There is a mass misconception that people and institutions from other countries and continents are better than us at achieving anything they wish, whether it’s music, technology, medicine or innovation. Yet many South Africans are considered world leaders in all of the latter mentioned fields. Clive Calder is one of the most successful music executives in history and at one point considered one of the richest music executives in Europe, he is currently worth $4.8billion (USD). Christiaan Barnard was the first cardiac surgeon in the world to perform a heart transplant and Elon Musk is one of the pioneers of electric vehicles, currently worth over $21billion (USD).

There are many South Africans that we should be celebrating for their major accomplishments, but we generally do not know who they are, what they do and how valuable they are, because they don’t do what they do for acclaim and recognition. They merely do what they do because they love doing what they do. One of these people, and someone who has composed music that has altered the lives of many people, is the legendary Trevor Jones. In anticipation of his upcoming 70th birthday I decided to dedicate this article to one of South Africa’s national treasures.

Elon Musk, Chris Barnard and Clive Calder are and were leaders in their respective fields.

He was born in District Six, Cape Town on the 23rd of March 1949 and was passionate about music and film-making from a very young age, with articles claiming that Trevor articulated that he wanted to be a composer, “when he grew up”, from the age of 6. Being brought up as a person of colour in Apartheid South Africa, the prospects were not very good. His mother, a machine worker, was the sole breadwinner, whose meager income was used to raise a family of 3 boys. Trevor was therefore forced to find a job from a young age and one of his first jobs was as a newspaper delivery boy. He used some of the money he made to go to the movies, where he dreamed of becoming a movie composer. Fortunately his talent was identified early and by the time he was 10 he had been accepted to the South African College of Music (the music department at the University of Cape Town) on a municipal bursary.

At 17 he received a scholarship from the Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, Dr. JP Duminy, to go study, for one year, at the Royal Academy of Music in London after a visiting professor identified his talent. The problem was that the programme was 4 years and Trevor was therefore forced to work whilst studying, to pay for the additional 3 years. He worked at the BBC for 4 years in both the radio and television divisions as a music reviewer, a job obtained after he won the Music Criticism Award at the Royal Academy of Music. At the Academy he studied composition, conducting, orchestration, piano, organ and obtained an undergraduate degree. Her articulated into postgraduate studies at the University of York after completing his studies at the Royal Academy.

Universities and school with which Trevor Jones has affiliations: University of Cape Town, National Film and Television School, University of York and University of East Anglia.

At the latter university he studied various genres of music including Jazz, Pop, Rock, Folk and the Ethnic music of various cultures, amongst other topics and eventually attained a BA Hons. He continued his Masters studies at the National Film and Television School (NFTVS). He was the first composer to be admitted into the school and his Masters topic was on the relationship between image and music. Whilst at the NFTVS he studied general film-making, production, cinematography, editing and sound techniques and completed film scores for 23 student films. One of these student films, “The Dollar Bottom” won an Oscar in 1981 in the category “Best Short Subject”. He then commenced his career as a film composer and for the first few years of his career he pursued Doctoral studies at the University of East Anglia.

Soon after the success of “The Dollar Bottom” Trevor’s talents were identified by the movie director John Boorman who was looking for a young and affordable composer for a movie he was working on, for which he had little budget. The movie was entitled “Excalibur” and was Trevor Jones’ first major Motion Picture production. The movie became a cult favorite and went on to generate over $35million (USD) at the box office, which is not too bad considering it only cost $11million (USD) to make.

The latter movie brought Trevor Jones to the attention of Jim Henson, the founder of the Jim Henson Company and Creature Shop. In 1982 Jim Henson was busy working on a movie entitled “The Dark Crystal” and he was looking for a young composer who was willing to experiment with different sounds and Trevor Jones was the man. Trevor worked with the London Symphony Orchestra on the project and mixed synthesized and novel production techniques with traditional musical elements in the making of the music for the movie. The film became the 16th highest grossing movie of 1982, in North America, earning over $41million (USD) at the box office.

Three movies that were star vehicles for rock stars: Freejack (Mick Jagger); Crossroads (Britney Spears); Labyrinth (David Bowie).

Altogether Trevor Jones has composed music for over 60 major motion pictures, 23 student movies and short films, and 25 made for television movies or series. His Top25 films have generated over $2billion (USD) worldwide and of particular interest to me are the movies for which he has composed music, which feature major recording artists as lead actors:

  • Labyrinth (1984): This was a Jim Henson production and was used as a star vehicle for the legendary David Bowie. The movie was a bit of a financial flop having only generated over $12million (USD) off a $25million budget. Since its release it has become a cult favorite and has seen revived success.
  • Freejack (1992): The movie was directed by Geoff Murphy and featured a cast that included Mick Jagger, Anthony Hopkins, Emilio Estevez and Rene Russo. This movie was also a commercial failure only having generated just over half its budget $17million (USD).
  • Crossroads (2002): This movie was directed by Tamra Davis and was a star vehicle for Britney Spears. The movie was a major commercial success having generated $61million (USD) off a $12million budget. Although it was slated by critics, the fans streamed into theaters and made it a financial success.

Some of his most iconic movies and major commercial hits include: “Sea of Love” (1989) which generated $110million; Arachnophobia” (1990) $53million; “The Last of The Mohicans” (1992) $75million; “Cliffhanger” (1993) $255million; “In The Name of the Father” (1993) $65million; “GI Jane” (1997) $97million; “Notting Hill” (1999) $364million; “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” (2003) $179million; “I Robot” (2004) $347million.

4 of Trevor Jones’ highest grossing movies ever: GI Jane; I Robot; The Last of the Mohicans; Notting Hill.

Looking at some of his television projects, he composed music for the following serials: “Gulliver’s Travels” (1996), “Merlin” (1998), “Cleopatra” (1999), “Dinotopia” (2002) and two Mfundi Vundla productions, the long running South Africa Soap Opera “Generations” (1994–2014) for which he wrote the theme song and “Jozi-H” (2006/7). He also wrote the music for the “Marvel Nemesis: Rise of the Imperfects” (2005) video game.

He has worked with some of the most iconic directors in the movie business, including Sir Alan Parker, Jim Henson, Michael Mann and Ridley Scott, to name but a minority of the movie makers with whom he has worked.

  • Sir Alan Parker is a multi-award winning movie director, who has won 10 Golden Globes and 6 Oscars, some of his most iconic movies include “Midnight Express” (1978), “Fame” (1980), “Pink Floyd-The Wall” (1982) “The Commitments”(1991) and “Evita” (1996).
  • Jim Henson: The founder of the Jim Henson Creature Shop was a famous filmmaker who created The Muppets and Sesame Street. His creations were also used in the Original Star Wars Trilogy. In 2004 the rights to The Muppets franchise was sold to Disney.
  • Michael Mann: The filmmaker is known for having written and created TV series such as “Starsky And Hutch”, “Miami Vice” and “The Jericho Mile”. As a Motion Picture Director he directed “The Last Of The Mohicans” (1992), “Heat” (1995), “The Insider” (1999), “Ali” (2001), “Collateral” (2004) and “Miami Vice” (2006). He is considered one of the Top30 directors of all time.
  • Ridley Scott: The director’s movies have generated over $4billion (USD) worldwide. Some of his most iconic movies include “Alien” (1979), “Thelma and Louise” (1991), “Gladiator” (2000), “Black Hawk Down” (2001), “American Gangster” (2007) and “The Martian” (2015). For his efforts he has won 9 Oscars and 3 Golden Globes.
Four of the top movie directors with whom Trevor Jones has worked: Sir Alan Parker; Jim Henson; Michael Mann; Ridley Scott.

As a result of his success, he has won 9 ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) Awards and been nominated for 3 Ivor Novelle Awards, 3 BAFTAs, 2 Golden Globes and 1 Emmy. He is also the Chair of Music at his alma mater The National Film and Television School (NFTS), lectures at the Royal Academy of Music and is a jury member for the Oscars and BAFTAs (British Academy of Film and Television Arts). In 2005 he was conferred an honorary doctorate by Archbishop Desmond Tutu from the University of the Western Cape. He has also been invited to host masterclasses, talks and lectures at various prestigious institutions, fairs, conferences and festivals around the world, including the Music Exchange in Cape Town, the EMMA-Fest in Greece, The Hay Festival in London and The Arts Council of Spain. His success has afforded him a lifestyle which many people would envy. He has become a truly international citizen, working and living in various countries around the world, including the USA, UK and South Africa.

Possibly because of the assistance he received from the Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town as a youngster and probably because of his extensive exposure to music education as both an undergraduate and postgraduate student, Trevor Jones has shown great commitment to the upliftment, education and empowerment of South African youth in music education and education in general. Unlike many successful South Africans, who have “made it” on the international stage and summarily forgotten their fellow countrymen, Trevor has made major contributions to the musical development of South Africans. He has achieved this through a scholarship he founded to pay for the education of South Africans at the NFTS in London and the Trevor Jones Composition Studio at the University of York. He has also funded programmes run at the University of the Western Cape as well as other South African educational projects. His commitment to the upliftment of South African youth is exemplary.

Trevor Jones a national treasure.

Trevor Jones and his career are an example to many and testament to the fact that if one wants to be respected and exceed in the music business it is essential that one is schooled in one’s art form. Without a proper education any contribution made to an art form will be superficial and fleeting. He also proves that any kid, from anywhere, even the most downtrodden communities, are able to make it on an international stage, if they have the discipline, commitment and passion to invest in what they do. South African creatives are world class and are able to excel on any platform (as is evidenced by various case studies including this one). Finally he shows that it is essential to return to one’s roots and give back where one can and pass on the grace to which one has been exposed to the next generation of hopefuls. Sometimes being famous and winning major accolades is not what this business is about, sometimes people just want to have the pleasure of making beautiful music and feeling 100% fulfilled. I’m sure that Trevor Jones will celebrate his 70th birthday, this year, feeling that he has made an indelible mark on not only the South African music business, but on the world of music and that he has followed his true vocation.

Happy Birthday TJ and I hope that you see many more years and continue to make the music from which memories are made…



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Sheldon Rocha Leal, PhD

Musicologist, Musician, Songwriter, Music Business Enthusiast and Music Teacher