A continuum of community, Chris Bourke

New Zealand Jazz Life
Norman Meehan (Tony Whincup photographer)
Victoria University Press, $40.00,
ISBN  9781776560929

In the 1984 “mockumentary” This is Spinal Tap, the fictional rock band was positive about its declining fan base. “We are more selective about our audience,” reasoned one musician. As singer Malcolm McNeill points out in Norman Meehan’s stimulating examination of the contemporary jazz scene, in New Zealand the popularity of the genre is on a par with opera: it is supported by about three per cent of the population. McNeill also mentions that the funding it receives compared to classical music is disproportionately low, and a recent study quoted by Meehan confirms this.

Yet New Zealand Jazz Life is a celebration, not a complaint. Very few musicians in New Zealand have ever made their living solely from playing: since the 1920s, most have had day jobs, either teaching, working for music instrument stores, or in occupations ranging from scientists to sign-writers. The 39 musicians Meehan interviewed for his thoughtful overview convey not a sense of entitlement, but of vocation. Their comments point to the health of jazz in New Zealand, not its demise.

Meehan is a Wellington-based jazz pianist, composer, teacher and writer. Nationally, he is best known as the biographer of Mike Nock (Serious Fun, 2010) and as the composer who set many Bill Manhire poems to music. (Performed by singer Hannah Griffin, accompanied by Meehan, these were released on CD by Rattle: Buddhist Rain in 2009, and Making Baby Float in 2010.)

So Meehan has worked the traps, mingling and making music with older mentors and younger aspirants. This book is the result of many years pondering and conversing about jazz with actual practitioners: veterans who find they still sometimes split $100 for a local gig, the same fee they got in 1980, and their apprentices, who play free jazz to small audiences in pop-up venues.

The issues they discuss with Meehan are presented in a theme-and-variations format. Eight chapter-length interviews are interspersed with chapters in which all of Meehan’s interviewees take up a theme and treat it like a melody, making their contribution to the debate. The issues covered are timeless: how did they discover jazz, learn to play, and when did they commit to it as a career? What is the state of play now, and where to from here? And those perennials: what can we add to an African-American art form? Is there a New Zealand sound? Is working overseas essential?

As a colourful bonus, the book features a portfolio of portraits taken by Tony Whincup, showing musicians whose faces display an intensity of purpose combined with self-fulfilment at doing what they love. All the faces – and all the full-length interviews – are of white, male musicians, and Meehan explores his difficulty achieving gender and ethnic diversity. While there have been many successful women jazz musicians from New Zealand – including pianist Judy Bailey, who left in the 1960s, and trumpeter Edwina Thorne, who came back in the 1990s – Meehan estimates the current ratio of performers to be 10 males to every female. Most vocalists are women, though, and, in recent years, many female instrumentalists have been emerging from the jazz schools.

These issues are discussed by several female interviewees, and their experiences compare with most pursuits: they have been put off by a “guy’s club” atmosphere, and have found men more competitive than collaborative. In the past, says saxophonist Jasmine Lovell-Smith, this was an issue that affected her confidence, though it is less apparent now that more role models are coming through. Composer, pianist and band leader Rosie Langabeer says, “I think culture-makers have a responsibility to be diverse … [employing more women and minorities] would really affect the content of the mass culture media diet for the better.” Māori and Polynesian musicians are also under-represented, though the opposite was true for Māori in the 1960s. The reason, Meehan and others suggest, is possibly financial.

Talk of a “New Zealand sound” usually degenerates into blather about landscape, with globalists dismissing the idea as a by-product of nationalism, but the comments here are more usefully grounded. Musicians compare characteristics such as humility and competitiveness, discuss indigenous instruments, and the versatility required when trying to make a living. Being a magpie of influences, and having to take on diverse gigs, can mean one never specialises, says drummer Reuben Bradley. This can have its benefits, according to Matt Penman, originally from Auckland and now a jazz bassist in New York. At home, Penman was

playing a lot of pop covers, rock covers, a lot of funk … One of the cool things about the way I grew up in New Zealand was having to play this stuff, gigging and trying to make a living. Having to play all these different styles, they all inform each other.

Musicians talking about making music can often be compared to navel-gazing, but this is avoided by New Zealand Jazz Life – its discussions and life stories are exhilarating. It will be read and re-read by earnest music students wanting inspiration about their vocation. The mix of conversations – and generations – gives the feeling that making jazz in New Zealand means you are part of a continuum, and part of a community. Frank Gibson Jr – the internationally renowned drummer from Auckland – connects with his father’s generation, prominent in the 1940s and 1950s, and he mentors more recent generations. But, like pianist Mike Nock, or trumpeter Kim Paterson – whose intellectual intensity and lifestyle experiences give an idea of the sacrifices required, and paths best avoided – Gibson is a collaborator more than an adviser.

This is a generous book, offering philosophy, advice and support, as well as listening and reading tips for the legions of musicians graduating from New Zealand’s jazz schools, competing for gigs (another issue explored). It has a sense of history, describing the influence of earlier players, and the pivotal role that Radio New Zealand once played in recording – and broadcasting – local jazz. But it has an eye to the future, building on decades of work by performing teachers such as Rodger Fox, Colin Hemmingsen, Jim Langabeer, and Paul Dyne. I can see it sitting dog-eared in saxophone cases and cymbal bags, consulted as keenly as Mezz Mezzrow’s Really the Blues was in the 1950s.

Chris Bourke, the author of Blue Smoke: The Lost Dawn of New Zealand Popular Music, 1918-1964 (AUP, 2010), is the content director of Audioculture.co.nz.

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