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.
When looking at a book of photographs of Auckland in the 1950s and 1960s, an older friend commented: “This is how I remember it – when there was sunshine on Queen Street”. The tall buildings have obliterated the direct sunlight that once reached the pavement, and much of the character of the shops at street level.
There aren’t many buildings left on Queen Street with the character and history of 436-438, currently occupied by Real Groovy Records, but not for much longer. The building is about to be demolished for – guess – a huge apartment block, with some nasty looking little shops at its base. Rather than a warehouse full of vinyl, CDs, t-shirts and other ephemera of popular culture – some of it treasure, much of it landfill – the shops will now sell phone cards, heat-up meals, and the poison known as RTDs.
The building was originally Auckland’s first large-scale cabaret, the Dixieland. It was built with extravagance and style by an extraordinary entrepreneur, Dr Frederick Rayner. With his wife Edith, an heiress, Rayner emigrated from Canada in 1900. He was a dentist, who made a fortune in Auckland with specialising in high-turnover “painless” tooth extraction, then supplying dentures. He was involved in early cinemas, milled vast tracts of kauri on the West Coast, and sub-divided Piha. His shingled mansion on the slopes of Mt Eden – visible from the motorway – is now owned by another entrepreneur and arts patron.
Rayner was keen to bring to Auckland the entertainment venues he had witnessed during his overseas travels with Edith. For the Dixieland’s opening night, on 11 April 1922, he imported an Australian group, the Southern Dixieland Band. Each afternoon, the band performed for tea dances; at night, the smart set gathered in tuxes and ballgowns to enjoy the 3000 square foot dance floor, and the illegal shots of hard liquor. Tuition classes in the new styles of dance were also available.
The Dixieland popularised jazz in Auckland, said Vern Wilson, a local musician who joined the Southern Dixieland Band aged 18 when they arrived without a trumpeter. “The liquor brought a lot of people in, carrying sacks full of booze into their cubicles. It didn’t cause any problems with the police, and it helped make jazz popular.” Well, it did cause problems, and Rayner ended up in court.
You can read more about the Dixieland – and its ill-fated successor, in Point Chevalier – in Blue Smoke and in Georgina White’s charming Light Fantastic: Dance Floor Courtship in New Zealand (HarperCollins, 2007).
But the departure of Real Groovy from its site pulls down the curtain on what was a vibrant musical precinct in Auckland. With the original Peter Pan on one boundary (on the corner of Rutland and Lorne, now a carpark) and its successor in the block before K Road (which later became Mainstreet), the area is rich in musical associations. For 40 years from the First World War, Walter Smith – the composer of ‘Beneath the Maori Moon’ – taught thousands of pupils the guitar, lap steel, mandolin, banjo and other stringed instruments from his home at 16 Turner Street. (Among his last pupils were Peter Posa and Bob Paris.) In the late 1970s, Rip It Up had one of its earliest offices on Airedale Street – followed in the late 1990s by NZ Musician – and across the road was Charley Gray’s club the Island of Real.
Further up Queen Street were more clubs from the heyday of jazz and swing. The locations of these are often confused. For the record, The Trocadero Supper Lounge, which opened in August 1943 with Pat McMinn singing, was at 380-390 Queen Street. The Metropole was further up, at 506 Queen Street. Walking between the two you would pass Geddes denture company at 492 – a location rented by Real Groovy in the mid 1980s. The Geddes denture jingle ran on radio for even longer than Real Groovy has been on Queen Street, yet the musicians were only paid once.
Real estate has finally caught up with Real Groovy, and it’s amazing it has taken so long. And so a stretch of Auckland’s inner city that was once like walking through sunshine, even at night, will now be shadowed by another anonymous tower block. As Bill Withers sings on a record that might have been 50 cents during the great vinyl dump of the 1990s, and is probably $39.95 in the current fad for 180gm reissues, “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone”.
The ‘Blue Smoke’ story, written for Audioculture.
If there is a “big bang” moment in New Zealand’s music history, it was made by the gentlest of melodies. For a delicate song, ‘Blue Smoke’ carries a lot of weight: it marks the real birth of New Zealand’s indigenous record industry. It was the first song written by a New Zealander to be recorded and manufactured in New Zealand – and released on a New Zealand record label. Most importantly for a pop song, it was a hit, a massive hit. Local sales topped 50,000 copies, and Dean Martin and other luminaries recorded cover versions.
Pictured above: Jim Carter’s band, 1949 – as the Ruru Karaitiana Quintette they recorded ‘Blue Smoke’ with Pixie Williams. From left, Noel Robertson, Jim Carter, Gerry Hall and George Attridge, with Ruru Karaitiana conducting. (Robertson was the regular bassist; on the recording, Johnny McNeely played bass.)
There’s been a lot going on in the land of Blue Smoke.
In 2015 Carter turned 96. Until his early 90s, he was playing lap-steel guitar every day, to keep his chops up and for his own amusement. He enjoys the luxury of watching famous steel-guitar virtuosos on YouTube, something unimaginable when he picked up the instrument nearly 80 years ago.
In February 2015 he was recruited for his first session in decades, perhaps even for over half a century. The request came not by phone but by email. Would he be prepared to play lap-steel guitar on a version of ‘Blue Smoke’ being recorded by Neil Finn? Carter was chuffed to be asked, but was reluctant. “I’ve given up the lap-steel,” he said. “My fingers no longer have the energy to press the strings down. So I’ve taken up the ukulele.”
Left: Jamming with Auckland trumpet player Jim Warren on the ferry to Waiheke Island in the 1940s are Jim McAllum on guitar and Lloyd Sly on piano-accordion. They are on their way to Atwater’s annual picnic. Sly’s family founded the business Sly’s Pianos in 1914, and it still exists today. A multi-instrumentalist, Sly was most proficient on piano, organ, oboe, flute and piano-accordion; before the war he was a member of Epi Shalfoon’s band in Auckland.
l Blue Smoke was only possible thanks to the help and advice of two people: jazz archivist Dennis Huggard and trumpeter Jim Warren. I recently profiled Jim for Audioculture:
WITH A CAREER that spanned the 20th century, a natural ability to swing, and a great sense of humour, it’s no wonder that trumpeter Jim Warren is one of the most popular and respected musicians in the Auckland jazz scene.
At his 80th birthday – 16 years ago – his wife Madeline gave him a new trumpet. These days he gives his “lip” a rest, and prefers to play Duke Ellington standards on his upright piano.
Warren has a phenomenal memory and can recall bands playing in Auckland in the late 1920s: brass bands, soon to be followed by some of the earliest jazz bands in New Zealand. By the late 1930s he was playing jazz professionally, and he heard a visiting swing band. It was a revelation. Sammy Lee and His Americanadians showed him exactly the feel and force with which jazz should be played. More here at Audioculture
Originally published in the NZ Listener in November 2010.
ROCK MUSICIANS AND photographers are natural-born partners: show-offs need an audience, and a Nikon lens loves a show-off. For some photographers, like Auckland’s Bruce Jarvis, the scent of the hunt has been a life-long quest. Shooting first as fans, many become professionals, and Jarvis’s tenacity at capturing live shows secured him access that today’s photographers can only envy.
Jarvis’s work is the backbone of a large-format book Live: Gigs that Rocked New Zealand, that portrays the flamboyant visitors in our midst. From the first international rock’n’roll tour – Johnny Cash and Gene Vincent, in 1959 – to Lady Gaga’s aerobic fashion-show earlier this year, the performers are freeze-framed at the peak of their careers. Some of the images – such as Jarvis’s portraits of a satanic Frank Zappa, an exultant Bob Marley – belong in the rock photo hall of fame. But even more than the performers, it is the settings that resonate. In the background, a vanished New Zealand hovers like a vaguely remembered backdrop.
At the Beatles’ civic reception outside Auckland’s Town Hall in 1964 – how the councillors criticised Mayor Robbie for his generosity – one can glimpse the area now lost to Aotea Square. Out of sight are the 7000 fans who wagged school that morning. Instead, we spot the Market Hotel, one of many Edwardian corner pubs that are long since gone like the Vauxhall Velox seen cruising an almost empty street. Twenty years later, in the same area, a panoramic shot by Bryan Staff shows DD Smash’s drummer Peter Warren surveying a calm, peaceful crowd of thousands. The “Thank God It’s Friday” celebration to welcome the summer of 1984 will soon be renamed the Aotea Square riot.
The surprises often come from the unsung heroes who turn emotion into emulsion: the jobbing photographers rostered on for the day by a newspaper’s picture editor. At the Turnbull Library, saved from destruction, are gems from the files of deceased papers such as the Evening Post. These go beyond the requisite Maori welcome parties, the gimmick poses and the bland equivalents of rock stars kissing babies. Among the treasure are action shots of the Who, smashing their equipment on the Wellington’s Town Hall stage in 1968. Somehow, the Pretty Things’ out-of-control drummer Viv Prince found time to sit for a formal portrait during the band’s notorious tour in 1965. He wears a woman’s leopard-skin hat, the coolest of rimless shades, chain bracelets of the style favoured by bodgies – and across his knuckles, a sticking plaster that testifies to his many scrapes while here.
As glamorous as some of the stars appear – the Temptations, stepping out in the 1970s’ finest flared suits; Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry, elegant in herringbone tweed – it is the species Kiwi Rock Fan that makes these photos special. Invading the Rolling Stones’ stage in 1966 is an ecstatic fan, resplendent in homemade polka-dot mini skirt. Almost as gleeful are the navy-blue helmeted constables coming to Mick Jagger’s rescue.
Parked ostentatiously before the muslin-clad crowd waiting for Rod Stewart at Western Springs stadium in 1977 is a Ford Falcon emblazoned with Radio Hauraki’s logo. Beside it mooches a deejay in denim flares and manky long hair, while staff members or girlfriends attempt cool in satin jackets and bad posture. Their attitude: we are closer to the action than you.
The images also evoke the months of excitement that once came with the news that an overseas act was about to play “the Springs”. Long before the mammoth 1980s shows by David Bowie and ZZ Top, the Auckland speedway amphitheatre had hosted Little Richard, Elton John and Neil Diamond. For the first time we can see the Rolling Stones’ 1973 show in colour, thanks to a roll of film shot by Lloyd Godman. He didn’t need a flash – they played on a sunny afternoon – and it turns out that Jagger’s diamond-studded, low-cut, satin jumpsuit was turquoise.
Presented en masse, many of these shots have a “They walked this Earth” quality. They also answer the perennial question asked of visitors as they step off the plane: how do you find New Zealand? (It was apparently a wide-eyed Australian reporter who enquired “How many of you are there in your quartet, Mr Brubeck?”).
The Beatles look jubilant, although reports later came back that they described New Zealand as being like Britain, before the war. The Rolling Stones – specifically, Keith Richards – said of Invercargill it was “the arsehole of the World”. We remember these jibes, and almost more than the concerts we remember the interaction that these troubadours – grizzly or courteous – have with the locals.
Contrary to their surly reputation, in 1966 the Rolling Stones look cheerful, with their shirts off, enjoying the sun beside their Wellington motel swimming pool. The Guess Who play an après-gig jam at Tommy Adderley’s speakeasy Grandpa’s (sadly, no one was there to record the night in 1973 that Keith Richards turned up with a guitar and sundry other Rolling Stones).
Afterwards, when the litter has been cleared from the town halls and the paddocks that once hosted festivals, the anecdotes turn into urban legends. The Great Ngaruawahia Music Festival of 1973 is now remembered more for Corban Simpson’s nude performance than for headliners Black Sabbath headlining or the early appearance by Split Ends. Two years later, live on stage at the Te Rapa Racecourse, is Slade’s gormless Dave Hill; he is resplendent in an early mullet, a glitter-pasted forehead, a silver frock coat and platform boots. The promoter of this 1975 one-day festival – the cape-wearing Byron de Lacey – sounds almost mythological.
An Auckland school teacher friend says that every year – for nearly four decades – some 15-year-old aspiring guitar heroes in his class ask him the same question. “Sir, have you heard the Led Zeppelin song Stairway to Heaven?” Yes, he replies. “In fact, I heard them play it live at Western Springs in 1972 – before many of us had heard it on record.”
“Really?” they gasp. “Led Zeppelin played … here?”
The Viv Prince shot is from the Alexander Turnbull Library’s collection of Evening Post negatives. The reference number is EP/1965/3179.
Te Ara – the on-line encyclopedia of New Zealand – has just launched its last section, “Creative and Intellectual Life”. So after 12 years’ work, it will be updates only from now on. It’s a magnificent work that covers every aspect of New Zealand life: history, economy, sport, leisure, religion, science. And finally, culture. I was honoured to be asked to write the entries on popular music. The main one, Popular Music, is 5000 words and covers from the Europeans’ first encounter with Maori – it was a musical encounter – in the 17th century, to the success of Lorde last year. The other, smaller entries I’ve written are on jazz and dance bands, and folk, country and blues. The researchers at Te Ara sourced some wonderful photos, film and sound material. Thanks to Ross Somerville, who in 1998 commissioned from me a profile of the legendary broadcaster Arthur Pearce, which led to this kind of work including Blue Smoke.