Blackface was still acceptable when the Tom Katz Saxophone Band first toured New Zealand in late 1928. The band had been formed 10 months earlier, apparently by Sydney conductor and brass player Will Quintrell. It was led by Sam Babicci, who played in the orchestra at the Tivoli theatre in Sydney. The Tom Katz Saxophone Band was known for its energy, humour, intricate marching and virtuosic playing – as well as its blackface makeup and comic bellhop outfits. After touring Australia and New Zealand over the next seven years, Babicci took the act to Britain.
The six musicians played every saxophone in the instrument’s family, and – in a preview of the Katz act on 6 September 1928 – the New Zealand Herald wrote that the band could produce “remarkable results from the saxophone, their items ranging from modern jazz music to old favourites from such musical comedies as Floradora. In addition to their playing a feature of their act is their dumb comedy, while they also indulge in singing many of the numbers they play.”
“In addition to their playing a feature of their act is their dumb comedy …”
Their technique was so accomplished it intimidated some New Zealand musicians. In Dunedin, they performed at the Regent Theatre as part of a film programme. Local music identity Walter Sinton recalled that afterwards, with their black makeup removed, the Tom Katz band appeared at a function at Dunedin’s Orphans Club whose acclaimed orchestra included one saxophonist. After hearing the Tom Katz band play, he placed his instrument on the stage with a notice: “For Sale Cheap”.
I was reminded of the Tom Katz band by the delightful, scholarly site the Australian Variety Theatre Archive. Its entry on the band says that after its European tours, “Babicci returned home the band continued under the leadership of Ted Case before splitting into two separate ensembles in 1936 – the Kit Kat Saxophone Rascals and Tom Katz Saxophone Six (with four English musicians).” There are some reports that a band billed as the Tom Katz Saxophone Six was still playing in Britain as late as 1947.
Top: from the New Zealand Herald, 2 June 1934. Middle: Evening Post, 10 May 1934. Courtesy Papers Past.