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All a Shaw

October 6, 2011

Midland hotel

artie shaw cover 

“When Artie Shaw came to Wellington during the war – that was biggest thing until the visit of the Beatles”. That sentence by my mother, who was a young Wellington jazz fan in 1943, was enough to inspire Blue Smoke. Crowds of jazz buffs would gather outside Wellington’s elegant Midland Hotel on Lambton Quay. When Shaw and his US Navy Band visited New Zealand for 35 days to entertain the GIs about the fight in the Pacific, he was at the height of his fame, and his band included many hand-picked leading swing musicians. The effect on New Zealand musicians was dramatic. Teenage saxophonist Don Richardson, who after the war would be in the Kiwi Concert Party band, and would promote jazz and rock’n’roll in Wellington, told me of his excitement seeing Shaw and band perform in the Majestic picture theatre, above the cabaret on Willis Street:

That was an absolute must. When we found out he was coming we immediately put the feelers out for tickets and were told quite frankly that the only people who would be admitted would be the American armed services and their partners. But I just went there and sort of got in everyone’s way until somebody said “what do you want – what do you actually want?” And I said, “I wanna get in there.” And one guy said, “Oh well give me another 10 minutes if I can’t find some nice young lady who wants to come with me, you’re it.”  And so I waited and the pianist was walking in with two bags, probably the music … I said, “Let me help you.” And so I got to carry the pack in, and went in.

And I loved it. The dynamics and the very, very clean sound. With Artie Shaw all the songs had been carefully orchestrated before he would have done them but he always played and sung which made trying to learn the play them yourself pretty straight forward. I remember getting off the hard-running ‘Frenesi’ and practicing for days.

Jazz archivist Dennis O Huggard has written and published an account of the visit, number 15 in his “New Zealand Series” of jazz discographies and histories: Artie Shaw in New Zealand – 1943 (ISBN 0-9582326-9-5). Shaw’s greatest hit is here. Pat Lawlor’s Old Wellington Hotels says the Midland was opened in 1920 by Joseph Dwyer; when he and his wife travelled overseas, it was run by the musician Frank Oakes, whose efficiency helped it attract many VIP guests. The Spanish Mission-style building was sadly lost in the early 1980s during one of Wellington’s periodic demolition frenzies; the popular oasis Midland Park is now on the site.

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