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Maori Blues

December 6, 2012

For New Zealand’s jazz musicians, Dave Brubeck’s first tour of New Zealand in 1960 was more of a visitation. Brubeck and his Quartet were then at the height of their fame: ‘Take Five’ had not long been out, and was a massive worldwide hit. The tour was anticipated for months in advance, and there were Maori welcomes in Auckland and Wellington. The Listener ran a long report on it by Ray Harris, and broadcaster Arthur Pearce made sure he spent some fact-checking time with both Brubeck and saxophonist Paul Desmond. Wellington saxophonist Lawrie Lewis organised a jazz combo to play the Quartet onto the tarmac at Rongotai airport.


At the Auckland press conference, showbiz journalist John Berry was miffed at Brubeck’s answer to his barbed question about whether “while playing your experimental music, are you concerned that you should swing all the time?” Brubeck replied, “Do you think that a quartet which has won every international award in jazz could do so if it didn’t swing?” At least the question was more intelligent than the Brisbane reporter who asked him on the same tour, “How many of you are there in your quartet, Mr Brubeck?”

Brubeck and PineahaLewis remembered playing a blues on the Wellington tarmac, and afterwards when he opened his eyes found that the two people applauding were Brubeck and Desmond, who had escaped from the official welcome by Philips Records. In Auckland, the Quartet was hongi’d by local cabaret star Kahu Pineaha (right). Brubeck was perhaps disappointed that Berry’s question interrupted his enquiries about Maori music, because the Maori welcomes had a big impact on him. After the tour, he wrote a piece in 6/4 called ‘Maori Blues’, which was on his Time Further Out album, the 1961 sequel to Time Out (the ‘Take Five’ album). When I met him during his 1980 tour, he couldn’t have been more charming.

In 1960s, there were parties after all the concerts. In Auckland, Brubeck complimented local jazzers Crombie Murdoch and Mark Kahi for their performance of ‘Caravan’, and he declared that Nancy Harrie was a “massive pianist”. In Wellington, he met songwriter and saxophonist Ken Avery, and “long hair” musician, violinist Alex Lindsay. They were also taken to the Las Vegas club, which wasn’t as sleazy as it sounds. In Christchurch, guitarist Tommy Kahi got into a discussion with Joe Morello about how perfect pitch helped him tune his drums (Morello was nearly blind; Kahi seemed to think that was relevant). Alan Broadbent was a teenage piano prodigy when he saw the Quartet on this tour, and it had a big impact on him. Auckland pianist Lew Campbell remembered how big the quartet were, and certainly in this picture of Brubeck after an Brubeck with Crombie and Lew Campbell 1960Auckland show, he towers over Campbell (Crombie Murdoch is at left; the pair were part of an octet that played before Brubeck).

Besides ‘Maori Blues’, the other legacy left by Brubeck’s Quartet visiting New Zealand was an album recorded in Wellington by his bass player Eugene Wright after his next tour, in 1962. On The Wright Groove his backing musicians were locals he had met during the earlier tour: drummer Don Branch, Lew Campbell on piano and Lawrie Lewis on saxophone. It was recorded in NZBC’s new Broadcasting House studio on Bowen Street. During his 10 days in Wellington, Lewis’s wife Alwyn took Wright to the Lyall Bay School, where the children were in awe of this big black man. She told me in 2006: “He walked in, drew a bass on the blackboard, and told them all: ‘You’ve gotta vote for me, I’m gonna be the next president of the USA.’ And all these kids went Ohh …”

Besides Brubeck’s music – which did more to popularise jazz in its post-swing years than anything else, George Benson and Wynton Marsalis included – he should be remembered for stands he took for civil rights, refusing to play segregated venues in the US, and to tour South Africa, where the promoters required an all-white band. He never forgot the lesson he learnt during the war, when the black musicians and soldiers he performed with in Europe were denied their civil rights when they returned back to the States.

When Brubeck and his Quartet made his first visit, in 1960, it had been 17 years since another US jazz musician had visited at their peak: Artie Shaw. The effect on the local musicians is perhaps best captured by Ken Avery, in his memoir Where Are the Camels? – A New Zealand Dance Band Diary. After attending a cocktail party for the visitors at the Royal Oak Hotel, Avery and his friends wandered down Cuba Street to the gig:

Alex Lindsay, Doug Brewer and I had purposely booked seats in the Town Hall’s organ loft, right behind the group rather than have seats out in front. This was so that we would feel more a part of the quartet than the audience. Joe Morello’s drumming was something to see, as well as hear. He was the first drummer I have heard leave 4 bars complete silence in the middle of a drum break. The effect was electrifying. His technique and time keeping were exemplary; no matter how much Dave played around with the piano’s tempo, those drums would keep the essential rhythm as steady as a rock. In this, Joe was helped by bass player Gene Wright (composer of “The Wright Groove.”) This quartet would be the most scholarly group of jazzmen ever to visit New Zealand.

Postscript: ‘Take Five’ was, of course, written by the Quartet’s lyrical saxophonist, Paul Desmond: a man whose playing “was as dry as a martini”. In 2006 the former Listener jazz critic Ray Harris recalled the 1960 visit to me:

Well, Arthur Pearce buttonholed Paul Desmond and they went into a corner of the lounge and they were there for a long time, and when they came back, Arthur left, and I remember Paul Desmond saying, ‘Who was that guy?’ ‘Oh that was Arthur Pearce, he does a programme on the radio, Rhythm on Record.’ ‘Well, he knew more about my bloody life than I know about it myself! I’m quite exhausted after all that.’ And that was Arthur.

Harris saw Brubeck as more of an instigator than a leader. “When ‘Take Five’ arrived a lot of people say that was Brubeck but that was Desmond. Would Desmond have been able to create ‘Take Five’ if it hadn’t been for Brubeck? Or the other way around? But up until then, who had ever thought of jazz in 5/4  time? And then we had it in seven-four, and in nine-four. And I remember so well when the Brubeck Quartet was here, we were going out to The Pines [light night cabaret in Wellington], and we were in the car with them, talking about how do you do a 5/4 rhythm. I said, ‘That’s funny, I’ve got to four, but I’m supposed to be … one, two, three, four, five … it’s impossible.’ And they said ‘No, no, it’s three-two, three-two, three-two: one two three, one two, one two three, one two …’ And all of a sudden it’s simple, but no one had thought of that before. And you try to do 5/4 without thinking one two three, one two, you can’t!”

Jeremy Bernstein’s response to Brubeck’s death in his New York Review of Books blog is worth reading for its take on the relationship between Desmond and Brubeck.

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  1. Jazz, Scene |

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