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Silver Sax Man

June 5, 2014

Stu BuchananOn the phone, Stu Buchanan was instantly likeable, and I regret that I never met him. The legendary Christchurch jazz musician – sax, clarinet, flute – wrote me a couple of wry letters after Blue Smoke was published. They were evocative and quick-witted and any criticisms were put across in a charming way. (“You’ve left some things out, but you’ve included lots of things I never knew …”). One letter was about his early years in Auckland, where he was an early devotee of the jazz scene, attending the radio dance band live broadcasts at 1ZB’s Durham Street studio, and witnessing some key musicians. If I’d known that I would have made certain I interviewed him, but I had thought his career began after the close-off date of the book: 1964.

Stu entertained thousands in a playing career of over 50 years, and influenced hundreds of Christchurch musicians as a teacher and an organiser of many bands (he formed the Garden City Big Band). As recently as April he was still playing, but he passed away this week. As a composer, he could be quite edgy, but was always accessible. (In 1989 the Silver Saxes of Stu Buchanan released The Beatles Revisited – jazz versions of early Beatles songs, on which he was accompanied by younger Christchurch musicians such as Tom Rainey, Tom van Koeverden and his son, the drummer Kere Buchanan. Another son, Lyn, is also a well-known, highly regarded drummer.)

On Facebook, John Dix described Stu as “warm and wonderful man, a fantastic musician and a Christchurch institution”, and the young Wellington jazz drummer Reuben Bradley said Stu was “probably the world’s best example of a gentleman and a rascal … definitely evident in every conversation and every ballad he ever played.”

In Jo Jules’s lovely 2009 pictorial history of Christchurch jazz, A Passion for Jazz, there is a lively photo of Stu and others having a blow in the Chook Fowler Septet in the early 1960s. The musicians feature many of the A-team of the era: Harry Voice, Mike Gibbs, Rod Derrett, Chook Fowler and Martin Winiata.

Stu was born in 1930, in the King Country, and grew up on a farm. As a child he enjoyed Hawaiian music and jazz. “The atmosphere of their music was very appealing to my childhood ears,” he told Jules …

I whistled and sang a lot as a child and I guess the extemporising area of music had arrived in my whistling world long before I picked up a blowing instrument. So I just mimicked what I had been whistling.

On YouTube there are some clips of Stu playing with the Garden City Big Band in October 2013, at the CD launch for Hey! What’s the Time? This clip is a medley of tunes from the album.

In 2012 I interviewed Stu and another Christchurch music identity, Neill Pickard, for special edition of Blue Smoke for Radio New Zealand that was devoted to Christchurch music from the 1930s to 1960s. Stu’s first-hand observations of characters such as Martin Winiata and “Mal” McNeill are priceless. The programme can be listened to here, and towards the end it features Stu with the New Zealand Jazz Quartet playing ‘Black Orpheus’ from the Peak album Makin’ Tracks. Also at Radio New Zealand’s website is a profile of Stu produced by Sonia Yee.

This Sunday, 8 June, there is a function for musicians and friends to celebrate Stu’s life at the Woolston Club from 5-8 pm. The Garden City Big Band will play some numbers including some of Stu’s compositions.

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