The man regarded as New Zealand’s leading jazz guitarist of the 1950s passed away on Saturday 5 March. Mark Kahi grew up in Rawene in the Hokianga, and Auckland. He spent most of his performing career in Auckland in the late 40s and 50s, and Christchurch, where he lived in recent years. Born on 29 December 1926, he was one of three musical Kahi brothers, alongside Alex and Tommy (also a well-known guitarist and teacher).
In the 1950s Kahi performed at the Maori Community Centre in Freeman’s Bay (also passing his skills on to others), in Lou Mati’s band, and as part of Nancy Harrie’s quartet. He often backed Mavis Rivers and played on many radio sessions and recordings for Tanza. In 1952 he was apparently voted seventh best jazz guitarist in the world by a “leading jazz magazine” (Downbeat is often mentioned).
Kahi “had that relaxed style,” veteran jazz bassist Bobby Ewing told journalist Adam Gifford for Waatea News. “He could improvise tremendously. You would have thought you were listening to Les Paul.” This was indeed the impression left upon a reviewer in the July 1954 Australian Music Maker: “Mark’s fiery guitar is reminiscent of the old Les Paul before the gimmicks appeared.” On the Tanza disc Z83, ‘Mark’s Boogie’, he can be heard playing along with himself, in an early New Zealand example of over-dubbing. Kahi regarded Barney Kessel as an influence on his playing, and owned one of his guitars (until it was stolen).
The best place to hear Kahi is on the Jazz Concert 1950 recording, which Jim Sutton rescued, and Ode Records released on cassette only in 1994 (Sodet 467). Kahi’s delicate, lyrical playing comes to the fore on ‘Caravan’ and on ‘High High the Moon’. This show took place in the Concert Chamber on 7 August 1950, billed as “Auckland’s first jazz concert”: ie, the audience sat and listened rather than danced. The tape deserves a proper release on CD, as it is one of the few places to hear live-in-concert the talents of artists such as Mavis Rivers, Crombie Murdoch, Colin Martin, Julian Lee – and Mark Kahi.
Meanwhile, more information on Mark Kahi – and the musical milieu of Auckland in the late 1950s – can be found on-line here at the digitised collection of Te Ao Hou magazine.