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Jansen began his musical journey in pop bands such as The Rockets, performing music made popular by the South African radio stations such as Springbok Radio. The first instruments he played were the concertina and the mouth organ. The repertoire of the first bands he played with consisted of British pop of the hippie era. But after a trip to London, which was part of a prize in a band competition, he soon discovered black music from the USA and in particular the groups with brass sections and he decided he wanted to be a brass instrument player. Brass instrument bands were not new to him as his father was associated with the Salvation Army bands, but Jansen chose the rock and jazz genre for himself. He played in the brass section of Cape Town's cult jazz/rock group The Pacific Express, from where he went solo as an alto-sax player and singer.
His first nationwide recognition in South Africa was as a member of the Dollar Brand group. He and fellow saxophone player, Basil Coetzee toured and recorded with Brand, notably on the "Mannenberg" sessions. He later recorded with Brand, then known as Abdullah Ibrahim, on other projects by the groundbreaking jazz pianist.
Jansen's former bands were all in some way ground-breakers - such groups as Oswietie, The Hearthrob and Sons of Table Mountain all offered original music. Jansen was lead singer and multi-instrumentalist in these line-ups.
South African duo Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu brought him on board to play flute and saxophone on Juluka's debut album, Universal Men. Jansen joined the growing band for their next two albums, but departed between African Litany and Ubuhle Bemvelo to resume his solo career.
His history in music reflects the history of the so-called Coloured People under apartheid. Jansen was self-taught. His work with Dollar Brand and Basil Coetzee in the 1970s introduced him to jazz audiences internationally, and he became leading figure in Cape Jazz. Robbie was at two different points in his career signed to Mountain Records and was instrumental in encouraging his record label, to collect works from their archive to issue the first definitive Cape Jazz collection album.
Jansen landed in hospital after becoming very ill in July 2005. Fortunately the provincial government of the Western Cape met his medical bills as he had no medical insurance. He was immensely popular with Capetonians and when he returned to performing, usually with his band Sons of the Table Mountain, he was always met with affection, love and respect.
In 2006 his album Nomad Jez was a finalist for a South African Music Award (SAMA) as best jazz album of the year. He recorded two other solo albums: Vastrap Island and The Cape Doctor. The albums were produced by Patrick Lee-Thorp for the Mountain Records label.
A blow to his career came in March 2007 when his doctors said that he could no longer travel long distances by air due to his respiratory condition. This forced the cancellation of his 2007 European tour and put an end to his international performances. Robbie collapsed while on tour in Grahamstown in the winter of 2010, when his respirator malfunctioned. He died in hospital in Cape Town in July 2010 at the age of 61.
In 2006, a Media24 community newspaper, the People's Post, refused to publish an interview conducted with Jansen, citing his criticism of that year's SAMA. The interview was, according to papers filed at the Labour Court of South Africa, unfit to publish in a family newspaper. "Mr Jansen's views are too controversial to publish in a community newspaper targeted at a family audience." The editor of the People's Post at the time also cited Jansen's reputation as a drinker and frequenter of nightclubs. The journalist who conducted the interview brought a civil case against the corporation.[needs update]
- Vastrap Island (1989)
- The Cape Doctor (with Hilton Schilder, Jack Momple und Steven Erasmus, 1998)
- Nomad Jez (2006, nominated for the South African Musik Award (SAMA))
- Ribbons - The Best of Robbie Jansen (2013 - Digital release)