Vern Wilson (left) was one of New Zealand’s first jazz trumpeters, performing at the Dixieland Cabaret on Auckland’s Queen Street from its opening in 1922 (now the site of Real Groovy Records). An oral history interview with him is at the Auckland Public Library. I sent my notes of it to trumpeter Jim Warren, who began playing in bands in the late 1930s. His response gives a good idea of Auckland’s musical life in the 1920s:
“The early days in the Ponsonby Boys Band must have been invaluable, and the band must must have been a splendid teacher, as so many of those boys went on to be professional musicians, including Jim Gussey, who led the ABC [radio] band in Sydney for years. Then again, the family Vern came from was keen on the kids playing music, and being in that sort of environment would certainly help. I can remember the violin teacher Henry Engel being spoken of as a very good player and teacher when I was a kid … I am pretty sure that he was an original member of the National Orchestra. There were a number of German musicians who came to NZ in the early days. The Engel family were one group. The Hellriegels were another, maybe the Volkners as well.
“Vern’s natural ability and his good teachers must have shot him ahead of so many young guys. He was doing so many very professional jobs at a young age. The time he spent as a violin maker’s apprentice with James Hewitt was interesting to read about. There is a John Hewitt from that family who runs a violin and stringed instrument shop in Dominion Road. He told us he makes very good ukuleles, which he exports mainly to Japan and, I think, to Hawaii.
“There is mention of Doc Rayner’s cabaret on the point. That, of course, was at Point Chevalier. Jim [right] and Pat Watters played there and would argue about each other’s playing on the way home, get out of the car and have a fight. Both very good players.”
During the “Jazz Age” and the dance boom of the 1920s, Wilson played in all the key spots: the original Dixieland Cabaret in Auckland’s Queen Street (opened in 1922 and now the site of Real Groovy Records); the barge at the Civic that hydraulically ascended from the Wintergarden in the basement to the theatre above; in the big bands of Ted Croad and Chips Healy and Walter Smith. He also travelled New Zealand as a pit-band musician for vaudeville shows. In Blue Smoke I mention his description of how the latest music in the 1920s and 1930s arrived via the ships’ bands that came back from their regular trips to the US; and the hostile welcome Chips Healy’s band received from the Australian Musicians’ Union when it tried to secure a foothold in the music scene there in the mid 1930s.
Wilson’s oral history is fascinating: he tells stories of ratbag musicians such as the singer who came out of Mt Eden jail and within hours was on the stage at the Roxy, singing ‘The Prisoner’s Song’; of Auckland after hours, walking girls home in the early hours after the trams finished; of gigs before microphones (musicians used megaphones); playing balls for the Governor General in the late 1920s; of the shift from old-time dances to jazz styles; the Americans visiting during the Second World War … and how much he hated the mute.
A photocopy of an image from the Weekly News of 11 September 1935, showing the second Dixieland Cabaret – situated on Auckland’s Point Chevalier, facing west – after it suffered the fate so common to nightclubs: it was gutted by fire.