I loved what AUP’s designer Katrina Duncan did with the photo I provided that became the frontispiece of Blue Smoke. It showed a jam session that I now know to be at the Auckland College of Music on 14 August 1945. The photo was horizontal, but she needed it to be vertical. So she cropped it, cutting out the back view of a trombonist wearing saggy arsed pants. It’s one of the only photos cropped in the book, and her eye made it a much better photo.
It turns out there were several photos taken that day. I got mine, left, from two sources – Bennie Gunn and Niel Randrup. Shown above is another shot from the same session: it’s not quite as intense, because the drummer’s eyes are not locked into the bass player’s. But there’s more idea of the intimacy of the session, and how focused the audience was on the playing (except for the guy looking back at the photographer).
The musicians are, from left: Dale Alderton, Cliff Russell, Gordon Hall, Bruce McDonald, Thomson Yandall and Frank Gurr. The latter became a long-serving clarinettist with the NZSO.
The love of jazz was so intoxicating that there were many “official” jam sessions at the time, attended by leading musicians and the most dedicated fans. There is some terrific writing about these sessions in the quite professional New Zealand jazz magazines of the day such as Auckland’s Jukebox and Wellington’s Swing. (Aleisha Ward has recently written about these magazines at Audioculture.)
In Blue Smoke I quoted a description of a jam session in Wellington that took place in the ballroom of the Lyall Bay mansion of Hope B Gibbons. (This massive brick house, which looks like a gothic boarding school, was in the news this week, as it’s rumoured that Peter Jackson is buying it; from 1973 until 2012 it was the embassy of the Vatican’s representative in New Zealand.) Gibbons, a wealthy businessman – whose 1925 office building still looms down on Pigeon Park in central Wellington – had two sons, Barney and Don, who were hipsters and jazz buffs.
The session featured a who’s who of jazz musicians in Wellington in winter, 1942. Doug Gardner described the action in Swing of August that year, just as Freddie Gore stepped up. With his ebullient character, he seemed to dominate proceedings, on “tailgate” trombone or piano:
They played ‘St Louis Blues’, and Freddy lifted up his voice and bewailed the infidelity of his girl friend and his lack of success in affairs of the heart. However Freddy’s is apparently a very volatile temperament, for two numbers later he was vocally declaiming ‘It’s a Wonderful World’. He also produced some very creditable animal imitations with his trombone during the playing of ‘Tiger Rag’.
In 1989 I was in New York when I received a letter from Arthur Baysting. “You’re going to Memphis?” he wrote. “Then stop off in Nashville on the way and go and see this academic. There was a black American spiritual group that toured New Zealand and Australia in the 1880s: they were here six months. Surely some of them must have made a connection with New Zealand and decided to stay.”
When I called the academic on a pay phone, he didn’t want to know – despite my mentioning a mutual friend and a capella scholar who’d suggested the idea to Arthur. I got the firm impression he didn’t want to share his area of expertise, even though I was only interested in a few tips about the New Zealand period. But he grudgingly agreed, we set a date, and a week or two later I got on the Amtrak train from Penn Station and took a journey of quite a few hours to Atlanta, then caught a Greyhound bus to Nashville, passing through Chattanooga. It was one of those journeys of musical geography.
In Nashville I found a motel: it was grimy, in the wrong part of town, but it was affordable. I called the academic about the meeting the next morning. His wife answered. “He’s not here,” she said. “He’s gone to Virginia to track down some rare records”. I explained what I was there for. In a caring way, she said, “So: you’ve set up a meeting. You’ve come to Nashville, by train. You’re in a motel, alone – and you don’t know anyone here?” That’s right, I said. “Mm.” She said. “He’s done this before.”
So I spent the weekend in Nashville, visited Studio B where Elvis recorded, the Country Hall of Fame, and the Grand Ole Opry. The latter, no longer at the Ryman Auditorium but in Opryland, a dedicated park on the outskirts of the city, was quite a wacky experience. It was still run like an old-time radio show. Top of the bill was Loretta Lynn, who did just a couple of songs; there were also lesser names such as Little Jimmy Dickens. On a Sunday afternoon, I caught another Greyhound and headed to West Tennessee. And that, as Tom T Hall would say, is how I got to Memphis.
Weeks later, I got a letter from my mother in New Zealand. She’d been talking to someone she knew, and when asked what I was up to, said I was doing some research on a black gospel group who came to New Zealand in the 1880s. “Oh I know someone whose grandfather was in a group like that,” said the friend. “She’s very proud of him.” When I got home to Wellington months later I got in touch with the grand-daughter: her ancestor was indeed a member of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, on their 1887 visit. And she had his diary …
This piece was written for William Dart’s much-missed journal Music in New Zealand and published in 1991. Recently, a friend of mine, Gabor Toth, has written a more thorough piece on the Fisks and R.B. Williams for the Wellington City Library website. If the internet had existed back then, or digitised newspaper resources such as the wonderful PapersPast, I wouldn’t have had to leave home to do the research. As it turned out, I didn’t anyway.
R.B. Williams: New Zealand’s Fisk Jubilee Singer
By Chris Bourke
Music in New Zealand, issue 12, Autumn, 1991 © Chris Bourke
Above: R.B. Williams with his children: Nell Williams, Robert Bradford Williams Jr and Vera Jane Williams, c. 1901
Picture a black American talking to a Maori elder on the banks of the Wanganui River in 1887. The American has come to New Zealand to sing gospel music, but has decided to stay here to study law. Hearing this, the elder offers the aspirant lawyer a case about to come up on the Maori Land Courts. ‘My first case!’ writes the American in his diary. ‘But the chief tells me I must learn Maori before I can hope to practise successfully for his people.’
It sounds like something out of Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, or one of Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s fantasies. But that black American – Robertson Bradford Williams – went on to practise law in New Zealand, meet Caruso and Nellie Melba and become active politically in Wellington. His colourful life is something fiction writers would be reluctant to invent.
Williams was born in Augusta, Georgia, in 1861 – ‘the year the Civil War began’. He received a BA from Yale University (where he also played baseball) before returning to Georgia to teach–and give lectures on the evils of alcohol. Then he joined the Fisk Jubilee Singers, one of the first groups to perform negro spirituals internationally. With the Fisks, Williams toured England, Australia and New Zealand, arriving here in 1886.
In Melbourne, Williams met and married Katherine Josephine Burke. They settled in Wellington, living in Bowen Street, Tinakori Road and Wadestown. In 1889, while in Napier performing with the Fisks, he received a telegram from the Attorney-General, Sir Robert Stout: ‘You have been admitted to the degree’.
Williams practised law from an office in Lambton Quay, and also in Taumarunui. He became the choirmaster of the Wesleyan Church in Taranaki Street (not taking anyone who was under 18, thinking singers ruined their voices if they started too young), and stood unsuccessfully for Parliament. However in 1902 Williams became the Mayor of Onslow Borough. He died in Otaki in 1942.
Jane Paul, a grand-daughter of Williams who lives in Wellington, describes him as a tall, handsome man in a bowler hat and white scarf. He was a tenor, and was once said to have a voice ‘to charm the angels out of heaven’.
Paul is fiercely proud of her grandfather, and she treasures the diary he kept while touring New Zealand and Australia in 1887. His handwriting is often indecipherable, but the diary tells the story of an arduous journey through both islands. The tour lasted seven months, and besides his discomfort, the diary reflects the depth of his religious faith, his love for ‘Kate’ back in Melbourne, and the generosity of his hosts throughout New Zealand.
But he also shows a concern for the primitive lifestyle of the Maori and an interest in the Treaty of Waitangi. The level of alcohol abuse in the young country disturbed Williams, whose only vice seems to have been betting on horse races.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers travelled around New Zealand by boat, train and horse-drawn carriages, performing in just about every town, small or large. In Hastings, 600 people paid to see them, while 200 more listened outside. But the tour was slow going. On 13 January, 1887, the troupe left Waipukurau: ‘We have a ride of three hours by train to Dannevirke, then by coach 17 miles to Woodville,’ reports the diary. ‘Coaching is so hard. Conversation on the way very lively and instructive. We are in the heart of the famous 70 mile bush. Nice hall to sing in – Woodville is only 15 years old.’
‘January 14: Today we start for Palmerston through the beautiful Manawatu gorge. Oh, such scenery: rugged grandeur, steep cliffs, narrow and dangerous roads. All of us in high glee. We pick ferns on the way. Arrived in Palmerston sick and hot. A flat, stony and dusty place, not at all pretty. Sing in good concert to full house.’
From the Manawatu, the troupe travelled to Wanganui. Along the way Williams read a book on etiquette, ‘giving valuable hints in conversation and conduct in general company’. His reading during the tour – Shakespeare, the Bible, law books, a history of New Zealand – reflects a thirst for knowledge, or self-improvement. Despite his Yale degree and many talents, Williams worried about an uncertain future: ‘Went to bed early, contemplating with disquiet my nomadic career.’
I found this photo years after writing this story, when wandering through the Alexander Turnbull Library. It was from an exhibition they’d had, and I ordered a copy. Bill Egan has recently written to tell me the dapper musician in Napier is not a member of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. His name is Hosea Eaton, and he visited New Zealand and Australia in 1877 as one of the Georgia Minstrels. More details and some Arcadian pictures here .
After suffering from the heat in New Plymouth (‘gladly anticipating departure from this awful place’) the Fisks returned to Wanganui via Hawera. As Williams learnt about the struggles of the Maori he became distressed:
‘January 28: Visited [Hawera] land court; case conducted through an interpreter. Natives sat in the back.
‘January 29: Back to Wanganui. Saw the largest assembly [of Maori] yet to come under my observation. Drink oh drink is their curse. Wandered among them all day, visited their camp in the rain, and saw why it is that their mortality is so great. Oh, how the Government of NZ must answer for the misery of this fine people. Heard natives discussing the question of disposing of their land. Such oratory I never heard. Saw them eat their ‘tucker’ or ‘kai’… Talked to army people re land case. Complicated land laws.’
Williams saw more of the effects of colonisation near Masterton. ‘February 7: Visited the Maori Pah, saw their meeting house – very like Arabian or Turkish mosques. Tribes about here are called the Ngati Kahunganu [sic]. Interesting people, they do not give many ‘curios’, though they live better at this pa than any other I have visited. Oh, but they are dirty and lazy and such drunkenness among them.
‘February 8: Travel again through the gorgeous Rimutaka. Someone amongst us compares the scenery with African nature. This much is sure, the panorama is grand. Nothing like it I have seen. I was shown the lake, which according to the treaty with the natives is not to be disturbed. Stipulated in Treaty of Waitangi, 1840, it is a fishing ground.
According to his grand-daughter, when Williams died he had developed a taste for whiskey. During his first tour of New Zealand however, he was still a prohibitionist and the effects of alcohol on our society shocked him:
‘March 17: Every loyal Irishman out today. Full of bad whiskey and colonial beer. The effects … always make one pugnacious. Went to the races but lost my money at the totalisator.
‘April 12: My experiences were varied and numerous. Saw all grades and classes of people. Helped to feed the totalisator. On my way home saw some disgraceful conduct on the part of men and women, all drunk, all obscene and all white. I don’t ever want to hear of depraved coloured people again.’
At the end of May, the Fisk Jubilee Singers sailed from Bluff for Australia. ‘All excitement and joy at a speedy return to our Melbourne home and my Kate/ writes Williams, but a love for New Zealand had been firmly established.
‘May 27: Well satisfied with our stay in Invercargill, impressed with its great possibilities, as with all of the colony – it is exceptionally rich in every season.’ The Muldoonian economic policies of Julius Vogel caused him to make an astute observation, however: Too much borrowing will ruin the best country in the world.’
Williams spent the rest of 1887 in Australia, but returned to New Zealand the following year with the Fisk singers. The diary hints that he may have worked towards his law degree in Sir Robert Stout’s office, before being admitted to the bar in 1889.
He continued to give public performances after settling here, however. A review in the New Zealand Times of 4 September, 1890 records:
Mr R. B. Williams too was suffering from a cold, but it did not rob his voice of its peculiar sweetness and charm. We cannot accord unqualified praise to his interpretation of Blumenthal’s Message’, which was marred by several wrong notes. Mr Williams’ best effort was Bishop’s ballad Tvly Pretty Jane’, which he sang very well and tastefully. All his songs were vociferously applauded, and he was repeatedly recalled …. The concert ended at a commendably early hour, 9.45 pm.
Speeches toasting Williams before he returned to America for a six month holiday in 1911 suggest he was a popular member of the Wellington legal fraternity: ‘Very many years ago Mr Williams came to Wellington a complete stranger,’ caid C. P. Skerett, KC. ‘All he had was a sturdy courage, a good University education, and a predilection for law. One could understand what courage was required by a gentleman in his position, but with indomitable courage, honesty, and straightforwardness, allied with his perseverance, made him a very successful practitioner.’
There was more romance about Williams than any other lawyer in Wellington, said the city mayor, T. W. Hislop. Williams’s achievements were ‘evidence of the injustice of the great war that took place in America 46 years ago. He was worthy of a high place in the citizenship of any country.’
The Fisk Jubilee Singers c. 1905. National Library of NZ, PA1-q-242-477
The Fisk Jubilee Singers introduced negro spirituals to New Zealand, and the world. They originally consisted of eight singers and a pianist, all students at Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee, one of the United States’s leading black universities. They set off in 1871 to raise money for their university, and became known internationally.
By 1880, when the university ended its sponsorship of the group, they had toured the northern USA, England and Europe. They sang in the White House and before Queen Victoria. Later groups continued to use the name for commercial purposes, and New Zealand received visits in 1886-87, 1888-89,1904-05, 1910, 1918 and 1924.
Frederick J. Loudin led the Fisk group to visit New Zealand in 1886. It was during a tour of Britain (of limited success, though they did perform to 5000 people in Hull, birthplace of slavery abolitionist William Wilberforce) that entrepreneur R. S. Smythe saw them and invited the Fisks to visit Australia and New Zealand. They played 60 concerts in Sydney, 40 in Adelaide and 30 in Brisbane, and their New Zealand tour lasted seven months.
‘Such a feat would be impossible today,’ reported the Dominion in 1942, on the occasion of R. B. Williams’s death. ‘Let it be said that Mr Loudin amassed a fortune, and when he retired built a beautiful home in Ravenia, Ohio, which he called Otira after the famous gorge in New Zealand.
‘Later visits here by the Fisk Jubilee Singers were not so successful. But the Singers were the first to introduce to New Zealand that type of evangelical song known as the negro spiritual, and after they departed it was common to hear such numbers as “Steal Away”, “On That Great Morning” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” sung in some of the nonconformist churches.
‘Such songs have never been better sung. The modern manner of vocalising them academically has robbed them of their native rhythm and sense. It was a revelation to hear the Singers in their slave hymns, in voice expression, and sometimes in action, they simply lived the lyrics.’
Williams’s diary hints at some bad feeling towards Loudin. He mentions looking for him in ‘public houses’ and finding ‘the old man at the Empire, where I understand he played billiards all day’. On 17 February, 1887, he writes, ‘Somebody asks old man Loudin about his business in the papers. He replied ambiguously and evasively.’ And the next day, “The public are duped – the old man is the only genuinely happy man in the lot.’
But Loudin’s upbringing was no easier that that of any other black who grew up at the time of the Civil War. J. B. T. Marsh’s 1886 study. The Story of the Jubilee Singers With Their Songs details Loudin’s early life. When Loudin was born in Charlestown, Ohio, his grandparents – having been stolen in Africa – were still slaves, though his parents were free. (They were changing the law in Ohio.)
Even though they were free, blacks still lived under the shadow of slavery. The Northern States, though they had abolished slavery, still fostered cruel prejudice,’ writes Marsh. ‘In some respects this ostracism was even more complete and unchristian in the free than in the slave states.’
Although Loudin’s father had given generously to a college, when it was time for his children to go there, he was ‘coolly informed that they did not receive coloured students’. Loudin went to school in Ravenia, where seats were assigned according to a pupil’s place in class. ‘As he progressed, other parents withdrew their children because he was sitting above them.’
Loudin converted to Methodism when young, but when he applied to join the church choir, was refused because of his colour. He didn’t go back. He trained as a printer but couldn’t get a job as white workers wouldn’t work beside him. Once, in Cleveland, Ohio, he could only get a hotel bed by saying he was a slave travelling ahead of his master.
Loudin went to Tennessee after the Civil War, and joined the Fisk Jubilee Singers prior to their second visit to Britain in 1875. He became manager and director of the Fisk company in 1882.
When the Fisks first started performing the spirituals in public, it took special courage. Doug Seroff in his essay, ‘Nashville – Historic Capital of Spiritual Singing’ quotes Maggie Porter Cole, a soprano from the original group: “The boys and girls could remember how their parents had sung the songs when they huddled together by river banks and on hillsides to worship, and the children felt that those things were sacred. They were for God and for their parents’ talks with God, and they were not for white men’s ears.’ 
Another member of the original group said, It was our fear that the coloured people would be grieved to have us expose the ignorance and weakness incident to the days of our degradation. We did not realise… how these were genuine jewels we brought from our bondage.’ 
But the Fisk Jubilee Singers of Nashville demonstrated how useful black religious singing could be in the days of freedom. The first tours of 1871-1875 raised funds to operate the Fisk University, and eventually to build Jubilee Hall, the first permanent building in the South dedicated to black education. The achievement lead the theologian Rev. Henry Ward Beecher to say, ‘We talk about castles in the air, that is the only castle that ever I knew, built by singing from foundation to top. 
The success of the Fisk Jubilee Singers quickly led to many imitators, raising money for black causes or private entrepreneurs. Indeed, the Fisks were not the first black singing group to visit New Zealand. The Original Georgia Minstrels arrived in 1877, only a dozen years after the end of slavery. They were led by the flamboyant Charles Hicks, who like R. B. Williams couldn’t resist betting on horses, losing a fortune while he was here.
As their name suggests, the Minstrels’ music was popularized, without the religious element of spirituals. But the Fisk Jubilee Singers have had their critics too. In his Black Gospel, historian Viv Broughton writes:
For all their great international success though, the Fisk Jubilee Singers were something of an anomaly, eccentric to the norm of black music at the time. The audiences they sang to were white, and the spirituals they sang were tailored accordingly. The Fisks were the first, but certainly not the last, black American artists who dressed up the image and dressed down the music in order to cross over to the white market. As they themselves were quick to reassure the genteel church-goers who flocked to hear them, they had ‘purged the songs of all ungainly africanism’. 
1. Doug Seroff, ‘Nashville – Historic Capital of Spiritual Singing’, in Gospel Arts Day: A Special Commemoration, Fisk University, Tennessee 1988, p. 2.
2. Doug Seroff, op.cit., p. 2.
3. Doug Seroff, op.cit., p. 3.
4. Viv Broughton, Black Gospel: An Illustrated History of the Gospel Sound, Blandford Press, Dorset 1985, p. 13.
Various undated newspaper clippings relating to R. B. Williams, late eighteen-eighties to 1911, in the possession of Jane Paul. [H.D.] ‘Coloured Evangels – Memory of the Fisk Jubilee Singers’, Dominion, 5 June, 1942.
Maurice Hurst (edit.), Music and the Stage in New Zealand, Chas Begg, Wellington 1946.
J. B. T. Marsh, The Story of the Jubilee Singers With Their Songs, Hodder & Stoughton, London 1886.
Jane Tolerton, ‘On minstrel trail, Helen got a bonus’ and ‘He came, he sang, he stayed’, New Zealand Women’s Weekly, 8 October, 1984.
R. B. Williams, Diary of 1887 (unpublished).
Charles Reagan Wilson & William Ferris (edit.), Encyclopaedia of Southern Culture, University of Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1989.
Lynn Abbott & Doug Seroff, Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889-1895, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2002.
Cite this as: Chris Bourke, ‘R.B. Williams: He Came, He Sang, He Stayed’, Music in New Zealand, issue 12, Autumn, 1991, pp. 50-51.
They arrived on board the RMS Tahiti in November 1926, billed as “America’s greatest aggregation of coloured entertainers”. Their visit brought laughter, music – and also tragedy. The Ferris Jazzland Revue Company wasn’t the first black troupe to visit New Zealand – we had been welcoming tours for almost 75 years – but it was among the first to billed as “a real jazz band” from the States. Bert Ralton’s Savoy band had been here two years earlier, but that was an amalgam of US and British musicians, all of whom were white.
The Jazzland Revue Company was more in the vaudeville genre, though it did include “four girls who are splendid musicians” – together the ensemble played the “jazziest of jazz”. The group’s pre-tour publicity suggests there were a blackface act without the makeup:
Plantation melodies and pastimes hold a high place in this show, as does the special dancing numbers which include the “Charleston” as only the dusky steppers can do it …
They included an “element of minstrelsy” in the show – the Cake Walk – and a female impersonator was in the cast.
The show offered “Southern Sunshine by Southern Stars” and toured throughout New Zealand in late 1926. However about two weeks into the tour, tragedy struck. Robert Murray, one of the performers, died suddenly in the Napier hospital on 6 December 1926. An inquest declared that the cause was heart failure, resulting from peritonitis, aggravated by an anaesthetic. (N Z Herald, 8 December 1926, p. 14.) However the troupe carried on with the show: there is an advertisement in the Herald of 29 December 1926 for a concert in the Auckland Town Hall that night.
These images are from a J C Williamson programme held in the Ephemera collection of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. The programme was for the Jazzland Revue’s shows at the Theatre Royal Christchurch – six nights from 22 November 1926. This was their repertoire:
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”.