“When Artie Shaw visited Wellington during the war – that was the biggest thing that happened until the Beatles arrived.”
That hint from my mother was one of the inspirations for Blue Smoke. She was among the crowds outside the Midland Hotel on Lambton Quay in 1943, hoping for a glimpse of her heroes; unfortunately she didn’t have the contacts to get to see any of Shaw’s Navy band gigs in Wellington. (At some of the gigs, New Zealand musicians producing their union cards were allowed in to see the band, and many others snuck in.) Pictured is Shaw on clarinet, playing on board a US troopship.
One of Dennis Huggard’s many booklets on New Zealand jazz is devoted to Shaw’s 35-day tour here (Artie Shaw in New Zealand – 1943, New Zealand Series, booklet #15). I recently came across a couple of items online that flesh out the story of the torrid wartime tour of the South Pacific by the Shaw band. Like the troops who heard their gigs, the Shaw band was exhausted. This page from the PBS site for the Ken Burns Jazz series gives good background information about the musicians who enlisted, and also on the African-Americans in the US services. It features an audio clip of Shaw describing the experience:
Artie Shaw led a Navy band that toured the South Pacific — playing in jungles so hot and humid that the pads on the saxophones rotted and horns had to be held together with rubber bands. Seventeen times they were bombed or strafed by Japanese planes. “I remember an engagement on the USS Saratoga, this huge carrier,” said Shaw. “And we were put on the flight deck and we came down into this cavernous place where they, three thousand men in dress uniforms … and a roar went up. I tell ya you know it really threw me. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing or hearing, I felt something extraordinary. I was by that time inured to success and applause and all that you’d take that for granted after a while. You could put your finger out and say, ‘Now they’re gonna clap.’ But this was a whole different thing. These men were starved for something to remind them of home and whatever is mom and apple pie. And the music had that effect I suppose.”
This clipping is from Wellington’s Evening Post, dated 16 August 1943. Like so much other history, it can be viewed using National Library’s great PapersPast facility.
And here is one of the cyclostyled programmes from a gig before they left Hawaii. It shows the number of great swing players who were in the band, six months before they arrived in New Zealand. When the legendary Wellington broadcaster and jazz aficionado Arthur Pearce offered a whiskey to Dave Tough, he asked “What would you like with it?” the reply was “Glasses.”