Wellington After Hours
In the last few years before six o’clock closing came to an end, at about 5.00pm on Friday afternoons Wellington’s jazz fraternity would dash to the seedier side of town. They were heading to the Forrester’s Arms, on Ghuznee Street. This was perhaps the capital’s most notorious pub, one that made the bohemians that hung out at the Duke of Edinburgh look effete (among them, Ruru Karaitiana, 60s stoners, wannabe writers and aspiring film-makers such as Hugh McDonald and Geoff Murphy). The Forrester’s had a whole different vibe; when my brother mentioned the place around the age when boys start going to pubs, my father said sternly, “Well that’s the place to go if you’re intent on a criminal career.”
The jazzers were heading to the Forrester’s to get an hour’s drinking in before the publican called “Time, please.” They mingled in the house bar, while the criminal fencing went on in the public bar. The musicians talked shop, as musicians do, and found out where the gigs were happening over the weekend. Ray Harris, former Listener jazz critic, said the front bar was for “the other people” –
“ … the back bar was really for the jazz musicians – from five to six in the back bar was really a fun time. It was a bit of a hike to get there by five o’clock. But if you weren’t there by five o’clock you might not get in. It was a fun time. For instance, when Eddie Condon came to New Zealand with his bunch of strolling players, that was a fantastic time because they were such good guys to be with.
“We had a number of the members of the band up at the Forrester’s Arms, and I remember dear old Jimmy Rushing being there. Fancy walking into the back bar of the Forrester’s Arms and there’s Jimmy Rushing.”
Jimmy Rushing, the gigantic blues shouter and swing singer who performed with Count Basie for 13 years; Eddie Condon, legendary white Dixieland revivalist, guitarist and drinker. Also on that tour were Bud Freeman, PeeWee Russell and Buck Clayton. All packed into a bar next to the Te Aro Post Office, in what was once Wellington’s brothel district (and probably still is).
Among those present that night in March 1964 was Wellington jazz stalwart, Ken Avery (pictured above). For ages now I’ve been meaning to blog about Avery’s memoir, the best available by a New Zealand musician. It’s full of such wonderful stories and insights, that I’ve been procrastinating about it, not knowing where to start. Avery is now best known for writing ‘Tea at Te Kuiti’ and other novelty songs that evoke New Zealand’s suburban 1950s as effectively as a Neville Lodge cartoon. He wrote a swag of tunes, including ‘Paekakariki’ and ‘The Gumboot Tango’, but he was also a dedicated member of Wellington’s jazz fraternity, playing saxophone and clarinet in dance and jazz bands, organising countless gigs and playing countless balls. He also performed on New Zealand’s first rock’n’roll record, the unfairly maligned version of ‘Rock Around the Clock’ recorded by Johnny Cooper.
Avery’s book Where Are the Camels? – A New Zealand Dance Band Diary is a local equivalent of George Melly’s classic muso-memoir, Owning Up. He wrote it in the early 1980s, just before his untimely death in 1983. For years photo-copies of Avery’s manuscript have been passed around local musicians, like a zamizdat novel in an oppressed society. About 18 months ago his daughter Clare turned the manuscript into a handsome book, that is full of terrific anecdotes, photos and memorabilia. (Clare is pictured at right with her father. There is also a great image of the 19-stone Rushing squeezing himself into two seats on a NAC plane between Auckland and Wellington.)
In it are stories of gigs that went wrong, bad pianos, dodgy club owners, unreliable musicians – and magic nights when the music flowed like mercury. Avery describes his encounters with visiting musicians such as Dave Brubeck, Buddy De Franco, Ralph Pena and Pete Jolly, as well as locals including Bill Hoffmeister, Terry Crayford, Jack Claridge and the notorious Bill Crowe. When the Beatles came to Wellington, Avery secured the loan of an acoustic guitar for Paul McCartney, but his NZBC manager stonewalled his chance of delivering it in person.
All this and more – including his thoughts on bad pianos, dodgy reeds and the effect of the Beatles on songwriting – is featured in Where Are the Camels? Copies of this 146 page book can be purchased online at the website Clare has set up. Most generously, the website features a free, downloadable PDF of The Ken Avery Songbook, which includes full transcripts of many songs, observations about their writing, and fascinating memorabilia. On the cover is a picture of Avery with one of his heroes, Spike Milligan.