Ray Harris, one of the key people who sowed the seed for the book Blue Smoke, has recently died. Born in 1929, Ray was a pianist, jazz broadcaster, and the NZ Listener’s jazz critic for nearly 30 years until 1983. He was also known for fronting an excellent television show on TVNZ of overseas jazz clips, Jazz Scene, which ran on Sunday afternoons in the early 1980s. Tune in and you may catch Billie Holiday or Duke Ellington or Dave Brubeck. How unimaginable is that from our public broadcaster now? For many musicians of all ages it was essential viewing: they’d drag themselves out of bed around noon, enjoy it with the first beverage of the day, then try and hold it together till Radio With Pictures later that night. Now, we have YouTube, but it’s not a shared experience to the same extent.
I met Ray while doing an ethnomusicology course with Allan Thomas at Victoria University. It included a field assignment in which we had to go out and interview local musicians on tape, like aspirant Alan Lomaxes. I decided to ask an older generation of pianists how they got into boogie-woogie. Jeanette Walker, a friend of my parents, suggested I call Ray. He was forthright on the phone – he said it was the nuttiest idea he’d ever heard – but yes, he would do it, as long as I could provide a good piano. (My hidden agenda was to meet someone who would want to pass on the secrets of the genre: there had to be one, other than hard, grinding practice …)
When we met, he was extremely forthcoming, performing lots of examples and saying “The trouble with boogie woogie is that, though pianists love playing it, by the time you’re into your second item at a party, the people are running from the room.” He also described the Wellington jazz scene of the 1940s to early 60s, and he was fascinating, making it sound like it was a really hep town. Details of that interview stayed with me for 25 years, until I realised that the people who knew that world were disappearing and their memories needed to be recorded quickly. I wish I’d had the idea 20 years earlier, but I was too busy writing about a type of music Ray hated: rock music.
When he heard I was embarking on Blue Smoke in 2006 he called and said, we should do another interview. It’s funny reading the transcript, he is enthusiastic and dogmatic, and every now and then there is a dig at rock’n’roll or the Beatles. Ray was an upbeat and generous man, but like a few critics he loved a combative style of conversation. He talked about the people who got him started: radio’s head of jazz and dance music, Bob Bothamley, and the godfather of radio jazz and R&B, Arthur Pearce (aka Turntable and Cotton-Eye Joe). Also, his friends in music, in particular musician/songwriter Ken Avery, singer/broadcaster Bas Tubert, musician/bandleader Don Richardson and many others.
Ray told great stories of visits by musicians such as the Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1960, Jimmy Rushing, the Eddie Condon All-Stars, Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughan, and Ralph Pena and Pete Jolly. And he told me how Wellington’s jazzers in the early 1960s would make a dash to the house bar of the notorious Forrester’s Arms on a Friday afternoon, to see if there were any pick-up gigs offering. On one occasion, they were rewarded with the company of Jimmy Rushing propping up the bar, and on another, Eddie Condon.
He could be tough on local musicians but, unlike many music writers – who are either too shy or disdainful of local music – he got involved in local music making, contributing behind the scenes rather than just through his pen. He was a founder of the New Zealand Jazz Federation in 1970, and its first president, and secretary of the music teachers’ organisation (encouraging them to include some jazz in their repertoire). I’m sure that through his day job – a self-employed accountant – he helped many musicians, too.
So farewell Ray, and thanks. When I run into our mutual friend Colin Morris, who wrote to me about your passing, we’ll have a drink in your honour and make sure the jazz being played is from the appropriate era.
Ray Harris’s funeral is at 1.30pm on Monday 23 November at All Saint’s Church, Moxham Ave, Hataitai. This photo shows Ken Avery and Ray taking time out from their day jobs to record an interview with US musicians Ralph Pena and Pete Jolly at the 2YA radio studio, Wellington, in 1960. From left, Ralph Pena, Ken Avery, Ray Harris and Pete Jolly. It is from Avery’s wonderful memoir, Where are the Camels?, which is available free as a downloadable PDF.