When he was 15, Abdullah Ibrahim turned professional backed by local bands; he became popular as Dollar Brand. In 1958, he formed the Dollar Brand Trio which included Johnny Gertze and Makaya Ntshok.
In 1959, he formed the band, Jazz Epistles, with saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi, trumpeter Hugh Masekela, trombonist Jonas Gwanga, bassist Johnny Gertze and drummer Makaya Ntshoko), and recorded their first album, 'Jazz Epistle, Verse 1'.
In 1962, with apartheid at its peak, Dollar Brand Trio members, along with vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin, left South Africa, and accepted a three-year contract at the Club Africana in Zurich.
In 1963, Sathima Benjamin persuaded the legendary Duke Ellington to listen to them play at Club Africana. The result was ‘Duke Ellington presents The Dollar Brand Trio’ released by Reprise Records.
He performed at the Newport Jazz Festival and Carnegie Hall, and in 1966, substituted as the leader of the Ellington Orchestra in five concerts. He toured with the Elvin Jones Quartet for six months.
In 1967, a Rockefeller Foundation grant enabled him to enroll at the Juilliard School of Music. In America, he could meet musicians such as Don Cherry, John Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, and Archie Shepp.
In 1968, he returned to Cape Town, and converted to Islam. His involvement in martial arts also gave him much comfort. He established a music school in Swaziland and spent two years there.
In 1968, he toured America, Europe, and Japan. He performed at music festivals, including the Montreux Jazz Festival, the North Sea Festival, and in Berlin, Paris, and Canada.
Between 1965 and 1968, he released four albums including, ‘Anatomy of a South African Village’,’ This is Dollar Brand’, ‘The Dream’, and ‘Hamba Khale’ with Gato Barbieri.
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He and his wife Sathima set up the record company Ekapa in 1981 to produce their own music. During the decade, he contributed to Garth Fagan’s ballet ‘Prelude’ and the ‘Kalahari Liberation Opera’.
He formed a septet with altos Carlos Ward, tenor-saxophonist Ricky Ford, baritonist Charles Davis, trombonist Dick Griffin, bassist Cecil McBee, and drummer Ben Riley that featured in the 1983 musical, ‘Cape Town, South Africa’.
In 1987, he performed a memorial concert for Marcus Garvey held in Westminster Cathedral, London. Garvey, a Jamaican, was a firm believer of Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism.
He wrote the soundtracks for two Claire Denis directed French films – ‘Chocolat’ (a 1988 film about a French family living in colonial Cameroon) and ‘No Fear, No Die’, released two years later.
He ended the 25 November, 1989 episode of ‘After Dark’, a British late night live discussion program` broadcast on Channel 4 television, with a long piano jazz improvisation.
After his release from prison, Nelson Mandela invited the pianist back to South Africa. The emotions were captured in two albums – ‘Mantra Modes’ and ‘Knysna Blue’, and also performed at Mandela’s presidential inauguration.
In the 2002 documentary film, ‘Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony’, he was one of the many South African musicians who spoke of their struggles against apartheid and their part in that struggle.
From 2000 to 2009, he released albums including ‘Cape Town Revisited’ ‘Ekapa Lodumo’, ‘African Magic’, ‘Senzo’, and ‘Bombella’. These albums revisited some of his earlier works and also presented new tunes.