Story: Jazz and dance bands

Page 1. Early New Zealand jazz bands

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Formal balls and country dances

Since colonial times, dances have been an opportunity for New Zealanders to meet, mingle and sometimes find a marriage partner. At a formal ball or a country dance, an evening’s programme would comprise set dances for groups or couples, such as the schottische, the maxina and the waltz. Dance bands provided the music – often four to eight musicians playing instruments such as a piano, violin, cornet, drum kit, saxophone or mandolin.

First jazz bands

Until the First World War, little changed in these dance rituals. Then, in 1916, a new dance step shook up the social order. The foxtrot featured uneven rhythms and changing time signatures. In the next few years even stranger rhythms and musical textures could be heard. This was jazz music – faster, freer and less conventional than the soothing sounds of the old-time dance bands. An early ‘jazz band’ usually meant a dance band with unusual combinations of instruments, including novelty percussion such as cowbells, whistles and rattles.

Colourful music

Jazz evolved from earlier music and dance styles developed in the late 19th century by African-Americans. New Zealand audiences were first exposed to these forerunners of jazz through touring groups such as ‘Curtis’s troupe of coloured minstrels’. Their performance at the Wellington Town Hall in 1899 revealed ‘quite new effects in dancing’. A ‘one-act musical melange entitled Ragtime Opera … afforded yet another vehicle for good singing and much laughter’.1

Early influences

Jazz developed among black musicians in the US, and evolved from earlier musical and dance forms such as ragtime. However, their music made little impact in New Zealand until the worldwide jazz craze of the 1920s and a boom in the popularity of large-scale public dancing. In the 1920s visiting bands from Australia, including the Southern Dixieland Band, Bert Ralton and his Savoy Havana Band and Linn Smith’s Royal Jazz Band, were influential.

Walter Smith and Robert Adams

Two Auckland band leaders can claim that their bands were the first regular performers of jazz as part of their repertoire. The most influential was Walter Smith of Ngāti Kahungunu, from Nūhaka, Hawke’s Bay. He was a music teacher and songwriter (‘Beneath the Maori moon’) who had learnt his craft while studying at a Mormon university in Utah, USA. By 1927 the Walter Smith Jazz Band was regularly performing at Auckland cabarets.

Robert Adams played percussion in pit orchestras accompanying silent films and musical theatre before forming a popular seven-piece jazz band in the early 1920s. Several New Zealand musicians became prominent jazz players in the larger market of Australia. They included Abe Romain, Maurice Gilman and Jim Gussey, all leaders of nationally famous jazz dance bands.

The swing era

New Zealand’s dance boom intensified during the ‘swing era’ of the late 1930s. Cabarets opened in most cities and provincial towns, some offering tuition in new dance styles. Dance bands were competitive, but often swapped members. Especially in the provinces, many of the musicians played by ear rather than reading sheet music.

Professional dance band leaders

Stars of the professional dance band genre in New Zealand include Edgar Bendall, an Auckland pianist and band leader for 50 years. Ted Croad held court at Auckland’s Orange Coronation Ballroom from the mid-1930s until 1955, employing many leading players. In the 1930s and 1940s band leader Lauri Paddi alternated between residencies at two elite venues, the Majestic Cabaret in Wellington and the Peter Pan in Auckland, while in Christchurch, the Bailey-Marston orchestra was the premier dance band. In Dunedin, entrepreneur Joe Brown’s Saturday night dances at the Town Hall were so popular for courting couples they became known as the ‘marriage bureau’.

Epi Shalfoon

The dance band with perhaps the strongest jazz credentials was led by Epi Shalfoon at the Crystal Palace Ballroom, Auckland, for 18 years until 1953. Shalfoon was a Māori-Syrian pianist from Ōpōtiki whose band was known for its emphasis on rhythm, and as a nurturing ground for many of Auckland’s top jazz musicians.

  1. Evening Post, 1 September 1899, p. 1. Back
How to cite this page:

Chris Bourke, 'Jazz and dance bands - Early New Zealand jazz bands', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 July 2024)

Story by Chris Bourke, published 22 Oct 2014