ARTicle Magazine

'But this is American music'

15 February 2017

What does it mean to play jazz thousands of kilometres away from its birthplace, asks Norman Meehan in this edited extract from his ground-breaking new survey of the vibrant local scene. With photographs by Tony Whincup.

Norman Meehan

New Zealand Jazz Life author Norman Meehan.


New Zealand Jazz Life by Norman Meehan with photographs by Tony Whincup (Victoria University Press, $40).

In 1985, after almost 25 years living in the United States, expatriate New Zealand jazz musician Mike Nock said, ‘I don’t believe you can play this music called jazz without first understanding the roots of the music, which come from black America.’ It would be easy to mobilise Mike’s comments in support of an argument which insisted that, for music to be called jazz, it must be faithful to the stylistic traditions of the idiom: 4/4 swing, the blues, certain kinds of repertoire, vocalised sounds from acoustic instruments, the Latin tinge, and so forth. Yet the evidence of Mike’s music reveals anything but fidelity to those values. On albums such as Climbing or Ondas there’s barely a swing feel in sight; blues gestures are only fleetingly evident on records like Touch, and although Mike has recorded and frequently plays jazz standards, many of his albums contain none at all. If acoustic instruments are the criterion for jazz, then Mike’s music with his 60s group the Fourth Way is never going to make the jazz grade.

When Mike associated jazz with black America, I think he was gesturing towards something other than stylistic traditions. Perhaps ‘the roots of the music’ he referred to had something to do with the processes of African-American music, and the attitudes adopted for music making in those contexts, rather than the style features that characterised the music which ultimately emerged?

This idea is not new, and writers have been comfortable suggesting that both style attributes and processes are reasonable ways to talk about what is at the heart of jazz. Musician Jerome Harris identifies two camps in the jazz community who dispute what is, and is not, jazz. He describes these respective camps as adopting either a ‘canon’ or ‘process’ view of jazz. The canon position ‘extols the art’s continuity with past historical practice’ and sees jazz as ‘a music defined by a specific African American-originated canon and socially constituted guild’. Conversely, the process position tends to ‘valorise change, risk, surprise, and the development or discovery of fresh varieties of expression and beauty’, and views jazz as ‘the results of certain African American-originated processes and aesthetics manifested in music.’

These respective positions did emerge in my conversations with New Zealand jazz musicians around what it meant for people in this country – thousands of miles from the birthplace of jazz – to play jazz. Those conversations mainly arose from a couple of questions I included in our interviews. First, what does it mean for (mainly) Caucasian musicians in New Zealand to play music first produced by African-Americans, especially given our geographical and social distance from ‘black America’? And second, is there a style of jazz, or an approach to jazz, unique to New Zealand? The conversations were rich.

'It’s a bit difficult and pointless to copy something else. It’s OK to be inspired by it, though.'

Respect for and adherence to the received styles of jazz was common amongst the musicians I spoke with. For some, it was central to their practice as jazz performers. For those musicians, adherence to the jazz tradition involved a commitment to standard repertoire and interpretive approaches. Doug Caldwell’s elegant, swinging music reveals a deep affection for Teddy Wilson and Tommy Flanagan, and he told me, ‘I really liked the guys from Detroit: Hank Jones still is one of my favourite pianists.’ Doug plays mainly jazz standards or originals cut from very similar cloth. It’s not that Doug can’t play more modern jazz – he has done so successfully in concert with pianist Gerard Masters, for example – but the established styles are those he most loves, and they are the styles to which his music conforms.

Rodger Fox’s music drinks from different wells – Woody Herman, Buddy Rich, Maynard Ferguson – but nevertheless is modelled on the mainstream of jazz. For Rodger, ‘Jazz still is an American music.’ Jennine Bailey shared Rodger’s view of the music as having a kind of true north in the United States: ‘I would say I am faithful to the conventions of the music. When I sing standards and when I sing jazz, I very much think of it as an American idiom. My influences are the albums and people I’ve listened to.’ However, Jennine also admitted that local colour finds its way into her musical work. ‘I’m faithful to the idiom, but my stagecraft is influenced by being a New Zealander; when I’m up on the stage talking, there is a Kiwi flavour.’ Jennine associated that ‘Kiwi flavour’ with flippancy, fun and self-deprecation. Reference to what people thought of as ‘Kiwi’ or ‘New Zealand’ attitudes popped up in a number of conversations.

For Matt Penman, who lives in New York and plays with some of the finest jazz musicians on the international scene, fidelity to the mores of jazz is central to his musical work. That inclination appears to have been part of his complete acceptance on the international jazz stage: ‘The way I look at it, jazz is a language. So, if you can speak the language, you are accepted and jazz musicians don’t care what colour you are. The part of the music that comes from black America is something that I’ve always been attracted to, and is in the way I play. I’ve never got any feeling that I wasn’t accepted – it’s all about how you play, it’s about the music.’

Like Matt, Nick van Dijk confessed a deep love for African-American musical traditions. ‘To be honest I have a huge love of the black vein of jazz, the roots of the tree being from the social difficulties and experiences of black Americans, and their cultural dance music thing, and then all expressed in the blues. I love that sound.’ For Nick, and for many other musicians I spoke with, affection for those traditions did not however result in an excess of piety towards them. ‘It’s a bit difficult and pointless to copy something else,’ Nick said. ‘It’s OK to be inspired by it, though.’

Reuben Bradley

Reuben Bradley.

Reuben Bradley’s music sounds like jazz to me, and like so many New Zealand jazz musicians, he retains a deep love for the music he first heard on records. However, that love does not extend to slavish replication of those earlier styles:

‘I don’t often think about jazz and its roots and how it applies to me, how I fit in with that. I can only be myself. I like the music and I like playing it and I’ve learned a lot from listening to those black guys from the States, but that’s just not me. I can only be me. Like any influence, it’s just an influence – it shouldn’t involve trying to be that. Be yourself, that’s how I think about it. Let's face it, there’s been a million better players who have come before me, who can do it much better, so I can only do it my way.’

Making the music ‘your own way’ has been a cornerstone value of jazz since the music’s earliest days. Commentator Greg Tate has suggested that stamping jazz with a personal sonic signature is the only thing the current generation of jazz musicians owe to jazz history and the jazz tradition. For many musicians, that kind of determination to make one’s own music is why they got involved in jazz in the first place. Jasmine Lovell-Smith acknowledged jazz as an important part of her musical worldview and as contributing significant values to her work, but that did not imply her work needed to be bound by particular stylistic traditions:

‘I don’t think that my music is African-American music. My music is my music – it’s the music of someone who grew up in this country, who has the specific background that I have. It’s also a result of all the time I’ve spent studying jazz, as well as the result of all the other musical experiences I have had singing hymns and choral music, and studying classical voice.’

Jasmine, like others I spoke with, acknowledged that the adaptability of jazz and its capacity to accommodate different styles was an important part of her attraction to the music. For Hayden Chisholm, whose eclectic music accommodates a fascinating array of styles and traditions, the improvisational lessons he has drawn from jazz are what give his music its unique and personal character: ‘I’m a white guy from the South Pacific playing jazz music. Very quickly it’s become something else, jazz music. What I heard on my first jazz records – something I didn’t understand at the time – was an immediacy and, at the core of that, improvisation and getting out a strong message. Over the years I’ve come to understand that kind of intention is still important today and it doesn’t really matter if I’m a white guy from the South Pacific and I’m playing the music in Europe; the music itself has spread out and can be played by anyone. At the heart of that is improvisation: being in the moment, being flexible, being true, but anything can happen. It’s about listening, reacting, creating something beautiful. That’s a state of mind, or a state of living, that you have in your music. I’d say I’m a jazz musician – a few other things as well – it’s probably easier just to say a musician. When you say “jazz” everyone is going to have a different concept of what that means.’

The musicians I spoke with pretty well all made music that lay somewhere between faithful reproduction of existing models from the US and music that possessed none of the style markers of US-originated mainstream jazz, but some of the processes (almost always improvisation, and often spontaneous group interactivity). In some cases that gave rise to utterly unique music, but more often the sounds that emerged were clearly informed by particular overseas models. Now, it’s probably fair to say New Zealand is culturally distinct; living here is certainly different to living in the US and, to a lesser degree perhaps, to living in the UK or Australia. If that’s the case, might jazz made here begin to assume a unique New Zealand character? Could there be a ‘New Zealand jazz’?

John Bell

John Bell.

Rodger Fox was pretty adamant about this: ‘We’ll never get as far as a New Zealand jazz sound. But there is a New Zealand pop sound – the twangy guitar.’ I suggested to Rodger that musicians including Jan Garbarek and Enrico Rava had found ways to mix their regional music (from Scandinavia and Italy, respectively) with their jazz practice to produce new sounds and directions for jazz. Rodger’s response was that, as fine as the music might be, it was not jazz: ‘Jazz still is an American music.’ Rodger’s position makes clear why he has worked so hard to bring US-based musicians to New Zealand and modelled his work on US-originated recordings. Having worked with his big band in isolation for the first few years, he came to the conclusion, ‘We’d got as far as we could; we needed to go to the source.’ Going to the source meant bringing out musicians including Bobby Shew and Bill Reichenbach Jnr in the early days, and in recent years performers with astonishing international reputations: saxophonist Michael Brecker, guitarist Mike Stern, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, vocalists Dianne Schurr and Kurt Elling. Rodger’s work has been an incredible boon to jazz in this country – Brian Smith said, ‘Nobody has done more for the big band in New Zealand than Rodger Fox’ – but formulating an indigenous fingerprint for the music hasn’t been part of Rodger’s agenda. Like Rodger, many of the jazz musicians I spoke with were indifferent to or skeptical about the development of a local jazz.

Brian Smith, who has considerable experience in jazz in international as well as local contexts, was among those unconvinced by the possibility of a local jazz dialect emerging: ‘I don’t think there’s a New Zealand sound in jazz; it all comes from America or England, I think. I wouldn’t say there’s Australian jazz either. The main influence is from America, and that’s what we all listened to when we were young, and still do. It’s broader now and there are players from other countries who are great players. But I don’t think there’s anything that makes people think, ‘Oh, he’s from New Zealand – listen to that note.’

Malcolm McNeill, who like Brian enjoys an international perspective on the music, preferred to think of jazz in international rather than local terms: ‘I don’t think there’s an indigenous jazz. We’re hungry to search for it with the rise of what I’ll just call nationalism, and there is this quest for national identity. You see it in pop music. When I ring the Ministry of Social Development and hear Dave Dobbyn’s track, is it New Zealand music? I don’t know, but it’s trying to be. So, I don’t think there’s New Zealand jazz – I think jazz has universality when it’s played well.’

For some, scepticism about the possibility of a local jazz dialect gave way to suspicion. John Bell was slightly surprised by the discussion – ‘Isn’t it too parochial to worry about that?’ – and Paul Dyne was distrustful about what might motivate a search for a locally distinct jazz: ‘I think most of the attempts have come from the way the arts have been funded over the past few years. People have said, “Well, if you could get a little bit of Māori music in there, a haka in the middle of your free jazz thing, you’ve got a chance of getting some money out of the government.” People have tied it into a New Zealand thing.’ Paul has in fact worked with Māori instrument specialist Richard Nunns – the two have been friends since the 1960s – and released an album of their improvisations, Hikoi, on the Rattle label. I think it is a beautiful album and Paul is justifiably proud of it, but he said, ‘I would be reluctant to call Hikoi jazz . . .’

Short of incorporating indigenous sonic markers – and taonga puoro are an obvious starting point for that kind of exploration – it’s not clear local musicians believe there are actual sounds in New Zealand jazz that could mark it as distinctive. Rosie Langabeer was explicit on this point: ‘All of the actual sounds and forms that I draw from when I make my music have all come from overseas. So in terms of identifying any New Zealand-ness, I think it’s got something to do with the way it’s all collected together, and the way New Zealanders have stolen from all the other places.’

Stealing from all over the place, collecting that stuff together in an individual fashion, making music in our own ways – perhaps in distinctively New Zealand ways? – is possibly most apparent in the original music jazz musicians have composed in this country. Jennine Bailey thought so: ‘There are little jazz communities everywhere. There’ll be a little jazz community in Birmingham, and they’ll have their little foibles, their distinctive sound – distinctive to that place – there’ll be some little different thing. I think original music helps that too – if you’re writing your own music it can’t help but have the flavour of where you’re from. Our identity as jazz musicians is kind of cosmopolitan, but we have identity as New Zealanders as well.’

Hayden Chisolm

Hayden Chisholm.

Identification with the land, both New Zealand’s geography and its flora and fauna, is an idea quite a few writers suggest is central to New Zealanders’ identities. It was unsurprising that a few of the musicians I spoke with mentioned the land as a source of inspiration and national identity. Hayden Chisholm: ‘A good half of my life I have been based in Germany but I still feel very much like a New Zealander; you carry that with you wherever you go. When you talk about New Zealand-ness, every New Zealander knows what you’re talking about. I sometimes think that if you took the lowest common denominator it would be the land: the feeling of the land you get growing up here; being barefoot on the grass; the colours and the smells. Of course we pick up other accents and cultural nuances that we carry with us, but I think the strongest underlying current you take with you, as a New Zealander, is that connection to the land. That’s a very powerful thing, and if you grew up with it, it’s something that will not necessarily pull you back, but will define you in a strong way.’

Mike Nock has linked his musical identity to his New Zealand upbringing and recognised the landscape he knew as a child remains a source of inspiration to him. In the documentary Mike Nock: A Jazz Film he said: ‘Being brought up in a country like New Zealand has quite a few influences on my music. It’s such a beautiful country – I was brought up in a very small town called Ngāruawāhia, and we had a lot to do with the New Zealand bush and the beach, the rivers – and all this stuff kind of gets into the way you view the world. When you are a musician this stuff comes out in some way. It’s not a question of you trying to make it happen or anything like that; it’s just, that’s the way you see things.’ Mike offered an example: growing up with so much water around – Ngāruawāhia is on the confluence of the Waikato and Waipa rivers – he speculated that his own compositions contain what he calls ‘the flowingness of water’.

What musical forms these kinds of environmental influences take is difficult to pin down. Hayden Chisholm speculated that the New Zealand soundscape had made its way into his music and affected the ways he apprehended some of the music he encountered when he began his travels: ‘When I went into the world a lot of the musics I came across really sank in quite deep and influenced me a lot. Some of those musics work a lot with space – emptiness between the notes – and through the sound, the timbre of the instruments. In a place like Taranaki there’s space between the mountain and the sea – these beautiful great distances, the movement of the wind. Without being too banal, the sounds of the wind and the sea, birdsongs, maybe in strange ways find their way into the music I do.’

What struck me was that the majority of the musicians I spoke with who made the strongest links between New Zealand’s landscape and soundscape, and their music, were musicians who had been away from New Zealand for a long time. It’s possible their absence has given them a deeper perspective on the importance of New Zealand’s natural environment to the nation’s artists. It is also possible that their absence had left them with a kind of longing for home, and in particular the natural environment of Aotearoa.

Matt Penman was persuaded that for musicians located in New Zealand, it was important that their environment informed the music they made: ‘If New Zealand is where you’re gonna be, be open to making music that reflects your environment; don’t just try and make American-sounding jazz in New Zealand. I’m not sure I can tell you how to do that. We have the jazz canon and it came from a certain scene, a certain culture. It’s absolutely important to address that, because on many levels that is the highest level of expression that has been obtained in this art form. Saying that, you can’t just try and play like that and have that automatically be relevant. I think you have to make your own music in your own contexts: write your own music; learn the language and then forget it; become really fluent with all the tools but don’t lose sight of the fact that you actually look out and see the Pacific. Don’t think that you can play American jazz in New Zealand and it’s going to make sense – there has to be something in it that is relevant to your culture.’

It wasn’t only expatriate musicians who saw New Zealand’s unique social and physical environment, and its distance from other centres for jazz, as an incentive for creating a locally informed version of jazz. Nick van Dijk: ‘I quite like the idea of carving out a little musical place for ourselves. Self-expression is going to be influenced by our environment, and here we are, isolated on a couple of islands. I like that New Zealand is quite different to a lot of places in the world. That’s a good reason to make music that reflects this place.’

Actually achieving that – jazz or any music unique to New Zealand – remains elusive. While John Bell could see the publicity value in seeking to create a unique New Zealand jazz based on the physical and sonic environment here, he wasn’t convinced it had happened yet: ‘I haven’t really heard many groups recently that I think are distinctive New Zealand jazz groups. We went to Korea with the LippizanEars, and as I was writing a press release for the Korean venues we were playing, I was thinking, ‘What is New Zealand about this jazz?’ I asked my partner at the time, who was in the band and who is Korean, what made our music ‘New Zealand jazz’, and she said, ‘Well, since we’ve been living in New Zealand I’ve been able to listen to birds, so when I play my flutes – especially in the free improv sections – that comes out.’ I thought that was as good as anything and included that in the press release. So the general sonic environment in New Zealand meant she could blow her flutes and think about, well, blackbirds and thrushes mostly; there weren’t New Zealand birds around our place. But the music sounded a bit too much like the Art Ensemble of Chicago to be described as New Zealand music.’

‘I don’t think we have a unique musical flavour. We haven’t been around long enough. But I do think there is a general attitude that we all share, and that affects music.’

As John Bell suggested, discussions about a nationally specific music can simply be an expression of parochialism. They also potentially fuel nationalistic cant. Hamish Keith, writing on New Zealand art, alerts readers to the danger, but at the same time suggests that other, regionally specific qualities might be useful in divining ways in which the art made in a country can reveal things about that country. ‘As Bryan Robertson said, “Nationalism in art is just another form of militant provincialism.” National characteristics, on the other hand, need to be recognised and cherished . . . Art belongs to a place and people not so much by what it says, although that is sometimes the case, as by how it is said.’

Reuben Bradley more or less paraphrased Keith’s conclusions when he said: ‘I don’t think we have a unique musical flavour. We haven’t been around long enough. But I do think there is a general attitude that we all share, and that affects music.’ Many of the musicians with whom I spoke gestured towards what they saw as national character traits or attitudes that might inform music made in New Zealand or by New Zealanders. While it is unlikely that any one of these attitudes is unique to New Zealanders, perhaps their locally specific combinations contribute to a ‘national personality’?

A sense of humour and self-deprecation were qualities Jennine Bailey associated with the New Zealand character. ‘Part of what makes the Flight of the Conchords hugely appealing is their ridiculous Kiwi flippancy and fun, and the way they downplay themselves.’

Related to self-deprecation – which can be unhelpful, and is possibly related to what some see as the bane of New Zealand and Australian artistic endeavour: the tall poppy syndrome – is humility. Commentator John McCrone has suggested that humility is a national trait, and it is a value that emerged in several of the conversations I had with musicians. Trevor Coleman commented on saxophonist Dave Liebman’s virtuosic playing when he performed during the Wellington jazz workshops: ‘It was quite spectacular, but its impact lasted for a short period of time. What really touches you, as a listener, doesn’t need that. I heard Abdullah Ibrahim playing solo piano some years later and there was almost no virtuosity – it wasn’t a necessary part of the music, so it was left aside – yet the audience was spellbound. Such a lot can be achieved with economy of approach, a certain humility; a quality that I look for in people too. Some of the most powerful musical experiences I’ve had have been about very personal, intimate moments shared among musicians and extended to the audience. It’s the antithesis of spectacular virtuosic display.’

Paul Dyne agreed that humility – by which I think he was referring to a sense of self, and an understanding of one’s place and how that could contribute to a greater whole – was central to the music. Paul also identified as problematic a national tendency to competitiveness, to a desire to be ‘the best’. He illustrated this by recounting an experience from his time in Montreal: ‘When I played with Sonny Stitt he had just played a week with Ron Carter in New York – you can imagine how I felt – and I asked him about some musicians, and all he would say is, “He can play.” That’s all those guys ever said about good musicians. They never ever said “He’s better than him”, or anything like that. “He can play”, that’s all it ever was. I think it’s a New Zealand thing; being “the best”. We thrive on hearing New Zealand is the best at this or that – rugby is the obvious one – and we worry if we aren’t the best at cricket or something and feel really sad about it. It’s nonsense, really. It’s not wrong to want to be better, but it’s probably wrong to want to be better than somebody else, because the music doesn’t require that.’

Paul went on to elaborate what I believe is a core value of jazz, although one that is sometimes obscured by an emphasis on jazz as a ‘soloist’s art’: ‘The most important thing about the music is the group experience – it’s everybody wanting the band to sound good and therefore everybody listening and being totally democratic. I think there’s a place for people who are ‘the best’ to pick up a rhythm section and play some wonderful music, but what’s far better is a group of people who get together and try to achieve music that comes from more than one soul. That’s when the music really happens, and it’s hard to do.’

In Lucien Johnson’s view, such a collaborative approach was something he linked specifically to the ways New Zealanders operated. I had asked Lucien if there were particular aspects of local jazz that were specific to their New Zealand provenance. He said, ‘I think there are New Zealand qualities in the music we make here, but I’m not sure I can pinpoint what they are.’ He did go on to say, however, ‘I think we have more of a collective approach to things. In a way we are kind of stuck with each other and so we have to make do with each other’s faults. We have to be much more forgiving and empathetic than you are in a big city. But these faults and these restrictions can be turned into a positive thing – it is possible for that to be beneficial.’

One of the stories New Zealanders like to tell about themselves is that they are people willing to muck in together to make things work. Perhaps that kind of collegial approach, one so vital in jazz contexts, is one that comes easily to New Zealanders. If so, that may be a function of the country’s isolation – which has led to a kind of collective self-sufficiency – or possibly a cultural inclination towards collective action? In any event, if New Zealanders are adept at working together towards common objectives, this can only help their jazz endeavours.

A number of musicians identified a willingness to simply do things, to try stuff even if they didn’t quite know what they were doing, as part of being a New Zealander. Trevor Coleman recalled a residency in Dunedin where, ‘It was jazz, but when I say “jazz”, it was a collection of people doing what they could with what they had.’

Hayden Chisholm also emphasised the importance of simply getting on with things: ‘Making music is mainly about creating a beautiful sound. It’s difficult to put this into words or talk about this – it’s something you’ve just got to do, really. I think that’s a part of New Zealand culture; we just do things. Sometimes in Germany they spend a lot of time talking about things, describing them, breaking things down. It gets a little bit too much, sometimes.’

Just doing things, often without analysis and frequently without seeking to emulate precisely the work of any predecessors, was an idea that came up in many of the conversations I had with musicians. It was often expressed as a willingness – a determination, even – to do things our own way. Harry Harrison:

‘If you look at some New Zealand jazz artists, there’re a lot of different sounds going on. Some are more personal than others, some are derivative and based on established styles that came from America or Europe. But that freedom to just get on with it is reflected in our popular music as well – people just write music and play it. Sure, there are people who do want their music to sound just like a particular trend that’s overseas, but there are others who write in their own way and pull in the players, and it all kind of comes out sounding like itself – because not all our players have been schooled in New York and lived there for five years.’

Jasmine Lovell-Smith, who has lived for some years in New York, agreed, drawing on her own experience to emphasise the importance of finding your own way: ‘I think we do best when we are ourselves, and don’t try and prescriptively follow the Berklee model or some model imported from overseas. When I started playing jazz I was never worried about doing a perfect stylistic imitation of a tradition because a really strict adherence to the tradition wasn’t stressed in my early jazz education. It is stressed a lot more in some educational contexts in the US, but that approach can lead to a very traditional result, which is not the result I am interested in.

‘When I heard jazz I latched on to this idea that improvisation is inventing things, making things up. I like the freedom of that. I did try to make things up in a jazz way – which was related to the rhythmic and harmonic context of the music – but I wasn’t trying to imitate anyone in terms of the specifics of improvisation style, it just didn’t occur to me. For me that was positive, and that aspect of my jazz education was freeing. More recently I have come to see value in doing a more detailed study of the tradition – transcription and analysis, for example – but I think it’s a good thing to have a concept of finding your own voice early on in the process of learning to improvise. I suspect that once you have it you never lose it.’

Paul Dyne, who learned jazz by listening to records and through lots of playing – especially with Doug Caldwell – recalled how it was the aspects of his playing that differed from the canonic exemplars which most appealed to the North American jazz musicians with whom he worked. ‘I think we bring something quite different. I know when I started playing in Montreal, people often said to me, “We really like your bass playing, because you haven’t tried to come through with all the licks and patterns that everybody else has learned” – because they’d spent so much time listening to Paul Chambers and Ray Brown, and so on. I’d done that, and had picked up a whole bunch of stuff, but I’d also brought a whole lot of Timaru to it as well. People liked that – they liked something a bit different.’

Perhaps the emergence of local dialects in jazz may simply come down to a determination to be ourselves. In Matt Penman’s view, that is a quality New Zealanders have in spades: ‘There’s a quiet individuality that I really relate to and that I see in a lot of Kiwis. That’s very “New Zealand” and it’s different from anywhere else; it’s definitely different from people in the States.’

Lucien Johnson

Lucien Johnson.

A final thread that emerged from conversations with local musicians, and which might possibly contribute to distinctive jazz in New Zealand, was to do with eclecticism. Some years ago composer Ross Harris said he had always told his students that the thing that marks New Zealand music as singular is that New Zealand composers are free to do anything; lacking the historical burdens of composers who work in other countries, they can use – and do – anything they want to. This kind of freedom is partly a function of our distance from overseas traditions. Trevor Coleman made a similar observation on behalf of jazz musicians: ‘I’m drawn to so many different kinds of music from all over the world, I wouldn’t want to be restricted by a sense of being from here. Maybe that’s good; maybe we’re not weighed down by a sense of reference. American jazz musicians have to be very aware of what has gone before them. Same thing in Europe – all that great history. We don’t have that basis. There’s a downside: “What do we base ourselves on?” But the upside is we have freedom to base ourselves on a potpourri and instinctive ways of making music.’

In an early essay on the emergence of a distinctive national music for New Zealand, Douglas Lilburn encouraged composers to selectively mine international music for ideas. That kind of deliberate, considered adoption and adaptation is abundantly evident in the music of his pupils Jack Body and Ross Harris, and in a subsequent generation of New Zealand composers, too. It seems to be evident in the music of some of the jazz musicians working in this country, as well. However, there are other, more mundane reasons why New Zealand jazz musicians show magpie tendencies. Reuben Bradley: ‘There are so many university programmes and they output a large number of students. Most jazz musicians I know in New Zealand don’t always play jazz: they’re in other bands, RnB and rock bands; they’re a session dude on keyboards for some singer; they’re the horn section that gets brought in for the funk gig or whatever. In New York everyone specialises, because if you don’t you become known as a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. Here, it is completely the opposite, because we need to do whatever comes our way; there’s just not much work to choose from as musicians.’

This observation was reiterated by Matt Penman. In New York, Matt performs and records more or less exclusively as a jazz bassist, but his formative years in Auckland were characterised by much more catholic working habits: ‘I was playing a lot of pop covers, rock covers, a lot of funk. I was in a band where we wrote our own stuff. A lot of the rock stuff informed the jazz and obviously vice versa. One of the cool things about the way I grew up in New Zealand was having to play all this stuff, gigging and trying to make a living. Having to play all these different styles, they all inform each other.’

This kind of broad musical experience was almost universal amongst the musicians I spoke with, and some saw it as having a positive effect for music in New Zealand. Tom Rainey, who has trained several generations of musicians in Christchurch, was upbeat about the flow-on effects of this kind of musical promiscuity: ‘Jazz is alive here and we have a lot of great performers. They work in a heck of a lot of areas and they enjoy that. The big question is, is that a risk to the art? When jazz was flourishing, the musicians regarded it as a cop-out when Red Garland had to go and play some pop music, or Bird had to go and play an album with strings or something. Even that little bit of compromise – which we wouldn’t even regard as a jazz compromise now – the other musicians would look down their noses at it as a commercial move, as making money for their record companies.

‘I don’t think those kinds of choices necessarily compromise jazz; it’s more the reality of where jazz is in the context of all the other music that’s going on. Jazz musicians do branch out to a broad range of styles; maybe that’s a positive. Maybe that can reflect sociologically, now, where jazz has its place. If we look at the effect the Wellington school has had on the more “rootsy” aspects of New Zealand music and all those influences coming through – there are obviously positive outcomes. If those musicians hadn’t collaborated and worked in different genres we wouldn’t have all that rich music.’

Harry Harrison

Harry Harrison.

Some music made in New Zealand is unquestionably jazz: Doug Caldwell’s albums, more or less everything produced by Space Case and Sustenance, most of the music made by Rodger Fox’s bands, are a few examples. Some musicians have more diverse careers, and have made music that clearly is jazz, as well as music that exists closer to the borders of the genre (wherever they might be). Murray McNabb and Jonathan Crayford have released albums that belong squarely in the jazz idiom (Murray’s Song for the Dream Weaver, Jonathan’s Dark Light) and albums that, in drawing on a diverse range of styles and instruments, in exercising the kind of eclecticism discussed above, might be placed on the borders of jazz, or to some listeners, outside of the republic of jazz (Murray’s Astral Surfers perhaps, or Jonathan’s Big Foot). And there are musicians who may have come from jazz, but whose work, in accommodating a broad range of styles, might find their music described as ‘not jazz’. I’m not terribly concerned with the jazz/not jazz divide; interested parties will make their own determinations on that distinction. Of greater interest is, I think, how those various approaches (which range from fidelity to the jazz idiom to an aversion to any sort of generic purity) reveal themselves amongst New Zealand jazz musicians, and what that might tell us about jazz in this country.

For linguists, an idiolect is an individual’s distinctive and unique use of language. It’s a useful metaphor for jazz performers. The majority of the New Zealand jazz I have auditioned does reveal individual approaches to the music and distinctive instrumental voices, and the available recordings frequently do reveal the idiolects of the musicians involved. I suppose the question the second half of this chapter dances around is: are there jazz idiolects in New Zealand that are distinctive in ways that are attributable to their provenance in this country? Some musicians thought this may be the case. John Bell, in discussing the urgency to produce music that was new, that offered something distinctive, touched on the nationally specific aspects of his music with The Dominion Centenary Brass Band and especially The Spoilers of Utopia: ‘Now I don’t see the point in releasing – it would have to be amazing to consider releasing – a jazz quartet album or even a standard free jazz album. I think the Dodecahedrons’ album was superb; we put a lot of work into it. But there are thousands of free jazz albums out there – that’s really old music, too. You’ve got to offer something new, and I don’t think I did, until the brass band thing, really. I like those albums and I reckon that’s my voice. I still like free improv stuff, but to me that’s an internationalist music.

‘To me the brass band thing is a “home, land and sea” kind of thing. I remember saying to Jim Langabeer that I was trying to steer it away from New Orleans – that’s not my brass band, I’m never going to do that well. I come to it from Anglican hymns. There’s still a strong jazz influence because it began as a project arranging Albert Ayler’s music and arranging hymns in a similar fashion. But it has other influences now, like campusari and Asian brass bands, and mixed instrument bands from around the world that include brass music or rock music.’

For John, jazz mixed with music from other styles – styles close to his heart and relevant to his life in New Zealand – led to music which was both new and which revealed his musical voice, his idiolect. For some listeners, the music of The Spoilers of Utopia is a bridge too far to be called jazz; they’ve told me so. However, I can’t help wondering that if distinctive New Zealand jazz is to emerge, then it might well have something to do with the ways New Zealanders have had to adopt and adapt what they pick up from here and from abroad; with the ways New Zealand musicians just do things, without concerning themselves too much with whether or not they conform to accepted styles; with some of the traits that we associate with being New Zealanders – humility, humour, a DIY ‘doing what we can with what we’ve got’ approach; with belonging to jazz but, given our distance from the international centres of that music, not belonging to jazz.

‘We come from a place,’ Hayden Chisholm said, ‘where there’s a kind of Scottish origin, at the bottom of the South Pacific – belonging but not belonging – which influenced a lot of music here.’ Maybe belonging but not belonging has galvanised some New Zealand musicians to work hard to conform to the styles and rituals of the music as heard on the albums of the greats; they want to belong. For others, perhaps our distance from that tradition, our ‘not belonging’, has been all the permission needed to do it their own way. I don’t really know. But when I listen to C.L. Bob’s Stereoscope, or Initialising by Nick van Dijk’s Efficient Five, or Jeff Henderson with Richard Nunns and Marilyn Crispell on This Appearing World, there’s something about the mix – of genres, of sounds, of attitudes, of the imported and the indigenous – that makes me think this music could only have been made here. I find that pretty exciting.

New Zealand Jazz Life

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