Bart Stokes is only 18 years old in this photo, but he’s in very good company. Stokes is on the left, looking like he’s deciding whether to play saxophone or clarinet. Beside him is Mavis Rivers, and on the far right is Wellington band leader and trombonist Fred Gore. It was taken in New Plymouth in 1950, at the annual Press Ball. Also on stage that night was another star: novelist Ronald Hugh Morrieson, playing guitar.
But to jazz musicians who came through the Auckland scene in the 1950s, it was Stokes who was the star: a saxophone prodigy and virtuoso with exacting standards. Wellington born, he was still a teenager when he began to get some of the best gigs in the city. He was only 20 when he led his own big band in a live broadcast on 2YA in 1952, with up-and-comers such as Jeff Mechaelis, Lawrie Lewis, Tony Noorts and Dorsey Cameron being joined by a veteran rhythm section: Bob Barcham, Slim Dorward and Harry Voice.
Later that year, Stokes began making forays to Auckland where he would soon settle, as well as his close friend from childhood, Bennie Gunn. He caught the tail end of the Dixieland revival, though as a cutting-edge jazz man it was a genre he would later regard with disdain. Again, the gigs were plentiful, with band leaders such as Jock Nisbett, Derek Heine, Len Hawkins. With the arrival of rock’n’roll he agreed to go on tour with a band that included his jazz peers Merv Thomas, Lawrie Lewis and Bernie Allen. But it was one for the money: rock’n’roll was even lower on the pecking order than Dixieland. He led groups such as Bart Stokes and his Music for Moderns and the Bart Stokes Quartet (with Gunn, Ray Edmondson and Galvin Edser) and Sextet.
By 1957, he was one of the regular band leaders in the weekly live radio band broadcasts, a coveted gig which seemed to some like a closed shop of elite players. His arrangements could be experimental, and that didn’t always gel with club managers who wanted a great crowd rather than great bop. He took his jazz seriously – it was art before it was entertainment – but still knew how to have fun. Merv Thomas told me that radio band sessions for 1YA could be uproarious. After the trombonists used their little spray bottles of water - with which they lubricated their slides – to squirt other players, things escalated until other musicians began packing water pistols. When Bart Stokes entered the radio studio with the fire extinguisher from the hallway, and let rip, they knew they had gone too far.
He was busy, teaching music and arranging by day. Lawrie Lewis recalled seeing Stokes write an overture on a plane, without consulting any instrument, when flying down to see Dizzy Gillespie play in Wellington. He handed the score with all the parts to the musicians who played a brief support slot. “That astounded me, that someone had the theoretical knowledge to do that,” said Lewis.
In early 1960, Stokes packed his sax and other instruments (trumpet, flute, bass and piano) in a suitcase and left for England, intending to remain “indefinitely”. He stayed away 21 years, though the sojourn didn’t begin well when his tenor sax and trumpet were stolen in about the third month. Two years later he was in Australia, playing bass for Winifred Atwell, and arranging for television, before returning to Europe. He shared bills with the likes of Johnny Dankworth, Humphrey Lyttelton, Nat King Cole and Shirley Bassey, among others, worked clubs, wrote ballets, led concert and variety orchestras and wrote arrangements and film scores.
He played all over Europe where he was impressed by the variety of work, the efficient and up-to-date orchestras, and the professional respect given to those with experience and maturity. “There’s a quality that sort of keeps you on your toes,” he told the Listener’s Marcia Russell when he returned in 1981. There was still arranging work on offer for Radio New Zealand.
His first love was jazz and tenor sax, he said to Russell, but over the years he kept adding more instruments to his CV; eventually the piccolo and clarinet joined the trumpet, flute, piano and tenor sax. “I discovered over the years that it’s no good trying to write for an instrument if you don’t play it. It just makes a nightmare for the poor devil at the end of it.”
Merv Thomas, Bennie Gunn and Bernie Allen were just three of many musicians who spoke of Stokes’s abilities with a respect that bordered on awe. So it is with great sadness that the jazz community of the 1950s now farewells their brother, who died in his sleep recently in Auckland, aged 82.
The top picture shows Bart Stokes, at left, with Mavis Rivers and, at right, Fred Gore (courtesy Grant Gillanders). The next pictures show Bernie Allen, at left, with Stokes – from the Gisborne Photo News, 1957 (its archive is on-line). Also from 1957 is a shot from the Auckland Town Hall with, from left, Lennie Hutchinson, Bernie Allen, Don Branch, Lyn Christie and Bart Stokes (courtesy Bernie Allen).