Learning the jitterbug
During the Second World War jazz in New Zealand was influenced by an influx of American servicemen training in New Zealand, who included many jazz enthusiasts and musicians. The US military’s policy of racial segregation made it hard for black troops to mix with locals, but determined local dancers still managed to pick up exciting new styles such as the jitterbug.
Jazz enthusiast Arthur Pearce (known to listeners as ‘Turntable’) began broadcasting his jazz music show Rhythm on record nationwide on the radio station 2YA in 1937. The show survived for 40 years. From 1951 Pearce opened each night with his signature phrase ‘Any rags, any jazz, any boppers today?’ He extended 2YA’s selection of records by drawing on his large personal collection of jazz of all types and periods. Pearce’s love and knowledge of music made him internationally known, and US singer Gene Pitney referred to him as ‘the oldest teenager in the world’.1
Jazz for listening
In post-war New Zealand, jazz gradually ceased to accompany dancing, and instead became music for listening to, by ever smaller audiences. The first jazz concerts took place in Auckland and Wellington in 1950, with a succession of bands performing the standard American jazz repertoire.
The 1950s and early 1960s were perhaps the heyday for New Zealand jazz audiences, as a string of the world’s greatest performers visited. Buddy De Franco, Dave Brubeck, Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Oscar Peterson all visited in this period, often bringing bands packed with musicians who were world-class soloists in their own right.
Competition from rock ’n’ roll
Public dance halls survived longest in the provinces, where there were fewer opportunities to socialise and perhaps a greater sense of community. Because of its role in courting, dance music kept evolving with its audiences. The arrival of rock ’n’ roll, and the use of electrically amplified instruments, meant that big swing bands sounded out of date. Smaller bands were cheaper to hire, and played the music desired by younger audiences. Formal dance steps could not compete with the popularity of the twist, a worldwide hit song and dance in 1962. It was no longer necessary to link arms and waltz, cha cha or tango. Dance partners could dance separately, using their own improvised steps.
A changing society
Changing social habits also contributed to the decline of the jazz dance bands. Television became available and, from 1967, bars stayed open after 6 p.m. Jazz bands evolved into small combos suited to cabarets and restaurants. Original New Zealand jazz became freely available from the 1960s through concerts and local recordings.
In the 1950s Wellington musicians Don Richardson and Vern Clare promoted many one-night jazz festivals featuring big band, bebop and Dixie styles. In 1963 the first annual National Jazz Festival was held in Tauranga. By 2014 it was believed to be the world’s longest-running jazz festival held on the same site. The festival gave valuable exposure to prominent New Zealand musicians such as Alan Broadbent (who debuted there in 1965, aged just 17), Julian Lee, Judy Bailey, Jim Langabeer and Nathan Haines. It also showcased groups such as the Rodger Fox Big Band and the Auckland Neophonic Orchestra, and many overseas artists. Jazz festivals were later founded in several other cities.