Ray Harris, one of the key people who sowed the seed for the book Blue Smoke, has recently died. Born in 1929, Ray was a pianist, jazz broadcaster, and the NZ Listener’s jazz critic for nearly 30 years until 1983. He was also known for fronting an excellent television show on TVNZ of overseas jazz clips, Jazz Scene, which ran on Sunday afternoons in the early 1980s. Tune in and you may catch Billie Holiday or Duke Ellington or Dave Brubeck. How unimaginable is that from our public broadcaster now? For many musicians of all ages it was essential viewing: they’d drag themselves out of bed around noon, enjoy it with the first beverage of the day, then try and hold it together till Radio With Pictures later that night. Now, we have YouTube, but it’s not a shared experience to the same extent.
I met Ray while doing an ethnomusicology course with Allan Thomas at Victoria University. It included a field assignment in which we had to go out and interview local musicians on tape, like aspirant Alan Lomaxes. I decided to ask an older generation of pianists how they got into boogie-woogie. Jeanette Walker, a friend of my parents, suggested I call Ray. He was forthright on the phone – he said it was the nuttiest idea he’d ever heard – but yes, he would do it, as long as I could provide a good piano. (My hidden agenda was to meet someone who would want to pass on the secrets of the genre: there had to be one, other than hard, grinding practice …)
When we met, he was extremely forthcoming, performing lots of examples and saying “The trouble with boogie woogie is that, though pianists love playing it, by the time you’re into your second item at a party, the people are running from the room.” He also described the Wellington jazz scene of the 1940s to early 60s, and he was fascinating, making it sound like it was a really hep town. Details of that interview stayed with me for 25 years, until I realised that the people who knew that world were disappearing and their memories needed to be recorded quickly. I wish I’d had the idea 20 years earlier, but I was too busy writing about a type of music Ray hated: rock music.
When he heard I was embarking on Blue Smoke in 2006 he called and said, we should do another interview. It’s funny reading the transcript, he is enthusiastic and dogmatic, and every now and then there is a dig at rock’n’roll or the Beatles. Ray was an upbeat and generous man, but like a few critics he loved a combative style of conversation. He talked about the people who got him started: radio’s head of jazz and dance music, Bob Bothamley, and the godfather of radio jazz and R&B, Arthur Pearce (aka Turntable and Cotton-Eye Joe). Also, his friends in music, in particular musician/songwriter Ken Avery, singer/broadcaster Bas Tubert, musician/bandleader Don Richardson and many others.
Ray told great stories of visits by musicians such as the Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1960, Jimmy Rushing, the Eddie Condon All-Stars, Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughan, and Ralph Pena and Pete Jolly. And he told me how Wellington’s jazzers in the early 1960s would make a dash to the house bar of the notorious Forrester’s Arms on a Friday afternoon, to see if there were any pick-up gigs offering. On one occasion, they were rewarded with the company of Jimmy Rushing propping up the bar, and on another, Eddie Condon.
He could be tough on local musicians but, unlike many music writers – who are either too shy or disdainful of local music – he got involved in local music making, contributing behind the scenes rather than just through his pen. He was a founder of the New Zealand Jazz Federation in 1970, and its first president, and secretary of the music teachers’ organisation (encouraging them to include some jazz in their repertoire). I’m sure that through his day job – a self-employed accountant – he helped many musicians, too.
So farewell Ray, and thanks. When I run into our mutual friend Colin Morris, who wrote to me about your passing, we’ll have a drink in your honour and make sure the jazz being played is from the appropriate era.
Ray Harris’s funeral is at 1.30pm on Monday 23 November at All Saint’s Church, Moxham Ave, Hataitai. This photo shows Ken Avery and Ray taking time out from their day jobs to record an interview with US musicians Ralph Pena and Pete Jolly at the 2YA radio studio, Wellington, in 1960. From left, Ralph Pena, Ken Avery, Ray Harris and Pete Jolly. It is from Avery’s wonderful memoir, Where are the Camels?, which is available free as a downloadable PDF.
Christchurch jazz musicians of the 1950s were recently the subject of a Radio New Zealand Spectrum documentary produced by Katy Gosset, When Jazz Came to Town. She interviewed four veteran musicians – now in the 80s and 90s – about how jazz captivated them as young men, and how they reacted: by listening to recordings from the US, and trying to emulate them. All four played in legendary bands in Christchurch, including for the 3YA radio dance band on live broadcasts.
Pictured above, from left, are drummer Harry Voice, pianist Doug Caldwell, trumpeter Gerald Marston and Doug Kelly (who supplied the photo to Radio New Zealand).
Gosset’s background piece to the documentary – at the link above – features a recording of ‘Elevation’ by Doug Kelly’s Radio Band, from Christchurch’s first jazz concert – in 1951 at the Radiant Theatre (later known as the Repertory Theatre). Also on the page are a couple of lovely archival photos of Doug Kelly’s Radio Band. Kelly also recently took part in the musical element of Christchurch’s Heritage Week, which Nga Taonga Sound & Vision’s Sarah Johnston blogs about here.
Blackface was still acceptable when the Tom Katz Saxophone Band first toured New Zealand in late 1928. The band had been formed 10 months earlier, apparently by Sydney conductor and brass player Will Quintrell. It was led by Sam Babicci, who played in the orchestra at the Tivoli theatre in Sydney. The Tom Katz Saxophone Band was known for its energy, humour, intricate marching and virtuosic playing – as well as its blackface makeup and comic bellhop outfits. After touring Australia and New Zealand over the next seven years, Babicci took the act to Britain.
The six musicians played every saxophone in the instrument’s family, and – in a preview of the Katz act on 6 September 1928 – the New Zealand Herald wrote that the band could produce “remarkable results from the saxophone, their items ranging from modern jazz music to old favourites from such musical comedies as Floradora. In addition to their playing a feature of their act is their dumb comedy, while they also indulge in singing many of the numbers they play.”
“In addition to their playing a feature of their act is their dumb comedy …”
Their technique was so accomplished it intimidated some New Zealand musicians. In Dunedin, they performed at the Regent Theatre as part of a film programme. Local music identity Walter Sinton recalled that afterwards, with their black makeup removed, the Tom Katz band appeared at a function at Dunedin’s Orphans Club whose acclaimed orchestra included one saxophonist. After hearing the Tom Katz band play, he placed his instrument on the stage with a notice: “For Sale Cheap”.
I was reminded of the Tom Katz band by the delightful, scholarly site the Australian Variety Theatre Archive. Its entry on the band says that after its European tours, “Babicci returned home the band continued under the leadership of Ted Case before splitting into two separate ensembles in 1936 – the Kit Kat Saxophone Rascals and Tom Katz Saxophone Six (with four English musicians).” There are some reports that a band billed as the Tom Katz Saxophone Six was still playing in Britain as late as 1947.
Top: from the New Zealand Herald, 2 June 1934. Middle: Evening Post, 10 May 1934. Courtesy Papers Past.
When looking at a book of photographs of Auckland in the 1950s and 1960s, an older friend commented: “This is how I remember it – when there was sunshine on Queen Street”. The tall buildings have obliterated the direct sunlight that once reached the pavement, and much of the character of the shops at street level.
There aren’t many buildings left on Queen Street with the character and history of 436-438, currently occupied by Real Groovy Records, but not for much longer. The building is about to be demolished for – guess – a huge apartment block, with some nasty looking little shops at its base. Rather than a warehouse full of vinyl, CDs, t-shirts and other ephemera of popular culture – some of it treasure, much of it landfill – the shops will now sell phone cards, heat-up meals, and the poison known as RTDs.
The building was originally Auckland’s first large-scale cabaret, the Dixieland. It was built with extravagance and style by an extraordinary entrepreneur, Dr Frederick Rayner. With his wife Edith, an heiress, Rayner emigrated from Canada in 1900. He was a dentist, who made a fortune in Auckland with specialising in high-turnover “painless” tooth extraction, then supplying dentures. He was involved in early cinemas, milled vast tracts of kauri on the West Coast, and sub-divided Piha. His shingled mansion on the slopes of Mt Eden – visible from the motorway – is now owned by another entrepreneur and arts patron.
Rayner was keen to bring to Auckland the entertainment venues he had witnessed during his overseas travels with Edith. For the Dixieland’s opening night, on 11 April 1922, he imported an Australian group, the Southern Dixieland Band. Each afternoon, the band performed for tea dances; at night, the smart set gathered in tuxes and ballgowns to enjoy the 3000 square foot dance floor, and the illegal shots of hard liquor. Tuition classes in the new styles of dance were also available.
The Dixieland popularised jazz in Auckland, said Vern Wilson, a local musician who joined the Southern Dixieland Band aged 18 when they arrived without a trumpeter. “The liquor brought a lot of people in, carrying sacks full of booze into their cubicles. It didn’t cause any problems with the police, and it helped make jazz popular.” Well, it did cause problems, and Rayner ended up in court.
You can read more about the Dixieland – and its ill-fated successor, in Point Chevalier – in Blue Smoke and in Georgina White’s charming Light Fantastic: Dance Floor Courtship in New Zealand (HarperCollins, 2007).
But the departure of Real Groovy from its site pulls down the curtain on what was a vibrant musical precinct in Auckland. With the original Peter Pan on one boundary (on the corner of Rutland and Lorne, now a carpark) and its successor in the block before K Road (which later became Mainstreet), the area is rich in musical associations. For 40 years from the First World War, Walter Smith – the composer of ‘Beneath the Maori Moon’ – taught thousands of pupils the guitar, lap steel, mandolin, banjo and other stringed instruments from his home at 16 Turner Street. (Among his last pupils were Peter Posa and Bob Paris.) In the late 1970s, Rip It Up had one of its earliest offices on Airedale Street – followed in the late 1990s by NZ Musician – and across the road was Charley Gray’s club the Island of Real.
Further up Queen Street were more clubs from the heyday of jazz and swing. The locations of these are often confused. For the record, The Trocadero Supper Lounge, which opened in August 1943 with Pat McMinn singing, was at 380-390 Queen Street. The Metropole was further up, at 506 Queen Street. Walking between the two you would pass Geddes denture company at 492 – a location rented by Real Groovy in the mid 1980s. The Geddes denture jingle ran on radio for even longer than Real Groovy has been on Queen Street, yet the musicians were only paid once.
Real estate has finally caught up with Real Groovy, and it’s amazing it has taken so long. And so a stretch of Auckland’s inner city that was once like walking through sunshine, even at night, will now be shadowed by another anonymous tower block. As Bill Withers sings on a record that might have been 50 cents during the great vinyl dump of the 1990s, and is probably $39.95 in the current fad for 180gm reissues, “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone”.
The ‘Blue Smoke’ story, written for Audioculture.
If there is a “big bang” moment in New Zealand’s music history, it was made by the gentlest of melodies. For a delicate song, ‘Blue Smoke’ carries a lot of weight: it marks the real birth of New Zealand’s indigenous record industry. It was the first song written by a New Zealander to be recorded and manufactured in New Zealand – and released on a New Zealand record label. Most importantly for a pop song, it was a hit, a massive hit. Local sales topped 50,000 copies, and Dean Martin and other luminaries recorded cover versions.
Pictured above: Jim Carter’s band, 1949 – as the Ruru Karaitiana Quintette they recorded ‘Blue Smoke’ with Pixie Williams. From left, Noel Robertson, Jim Carter, Gerry Hall and George Attridge, with Ruru Karaitiana conducting. (Robertson was the regular bassist; on the recording, Johnny McNeely played bass.)
There’s been a lot going on in the land of Blue Smoke.
In 2015 Carter turned 96. Until his early 90s, he was playing lap-steel guitar every day, to keep his chops up and for his own amusement. He enjoys the luxury of watching famous steel-guitar virtuosos on YouTube, something unimaginable when he picked up the instrument nearly 80 years ago.
In February 2015 he was recruited for his first session in decades, perhaps even for over half a century. The request came not by phone but by email. Would he be prepared to play lap-steel guitar on a version of ‘Blue Smoke’ being recorded by Neil Finn? Carter was chuffed to be asked, but was reluctant. “I’ve given up the lap-steel,” he said. “My fingers no longer have the energy to press the strings down. So I’ve taken up the ukulele.”
Left: Jamming with Auckland trumpet player Jim Warren on the ferry to Waiheke Island in the 1940s are Jim McAllum on guitar and Lloyd Sly on piano-accordion. They are on their way to Atwater’s annual picnic. Sly’s family founded the business Sly’s Pianos in 1914, and it still exists today. A multi-instrumentalist, Sly was most proficient on piano, organ, oboe, flute and piano-accordion; before the war he was a member of Epi Shalfoon’s band in Auckland.
l Blue Smoke was only possible thanks to the help and advice of two people: jazz archivist Dennis Huggard and trumpeter Jim Warren. I recently profiled Jim for Audioculture:
WITH A CAREER that spanned the 20th century, a natural ability to swing, and a great sense of humour, it’s no wonder that trumpeter Jim Warren is one of the most popular and respected musicians in the Auckland jazz scene.
At his 80th birthday – 16 years ago – his wife Madeline gave him a new trumpet. These days he gives his “lip” a rest, and prefers to play Duke Ellington standards on his upright piano.
Warren has a phenomenal memory and can recall bands playing in Auckland in the late 1920s: brass bands, soon to be followed by some of the earliest jazz bands in New Zealand. By the late 1930s he was playing jazz professionally, and he heard a visiting swing band. It was a revelation. Sammy Lee and His Americanadians showed him exactly the feel and force with which jazz should be played. More here at Audioculture