Kenneth Stopford Avery was born in Dunedin on 24 June 1922 to George Frederick Avery, a commercial traveller, and his wife, Dorothy Alice Stopford. He was educated at High Street School in Dunedin before the family moved to Christchurch. Avery enlisted in the army in 1940, serving in the Middle East and Italy (1943–45). He had learned the saxophone and guitar and continued to pursue musical interests, buying his first clarinet in Italy.
In 1946 Avery returned to Christchurch. He began a music degree at Canterbury University College and formed the River Club Jazz Group. In 1948 he moved to Wellington. He continued but did not complete his musical studies at Victoria University College, instead joining the New Zealand Broadcasting Service (NZBS). Initially he worked in the shortwave section as an assistant production officer, then joined the programming division. He eventually became transcriptions manager. Avery and his team were responsible for organising the programming of material, especially from BBC sources, being sent out to the commercial stations operated by the NZBS. He continued to work in programme management throughout his radio career.
Apart from a brief spell in Hamilton in 1969–70, Avery lived in Wellington for the rest of his life. It was here he met Barbara Aitken, a music teacher. Married on 23 February 1952, they had three daughters and lived in Pukerua Bay and Karori.
As a bandleader, recording artist and songwriter, Ken Avery made a lasting contribution to music in New Zealand. In Wellington he continued his love of jazz, playing tenor saxophone and clarinet in many bands and combos, in particular the Darktown Strutters, formed in 1952. They reunited in 1978 to record the successful ‘Jazz the way it used to be’ LPs. His various groups emulated the styles of the late 1930s and early 1940s, playing romantic and melodic music. Contemporaries have spoken of his ability to read the mood of an audience and to simplify his improvisations, presenting jazz that was accessible.
Avery was a regular performer on radio broadcasts and television, in concerts, and at festivals such as the Tauranga National Jazz Festivals of the 1960s and 1970s. As a musician he was present on many of New Zealand’s significant popular recordings. He and his band backed Johnny Cooper on the first local rock-and-roll record, ‘Rock around the clock’, and later the more artistically and commercially successful ‘One by one’ and ‘Look what you’ve done’.
It was as a songwriter that Ken Avery made his biggest public impact. With his skill at pinpointing trends in music, he noticed the popularity of novelty songs featuring wordplay on exotic names (‘Managua, Nicaragua’) and responded by writing the song ‘Paekākāriki’. He recorded this in 1948 with Bill Crowe and his Orchestra, with Avery on vocals and clarinet. The second disc (after Ruru Karaitiana’s ‘Blue smoke’) to be released on the wholly New Zealand label TANZA, it sold 7,000 copies within a year. Other songs also reflected his wit, his quirky sense of humour, and the love of wordplay he shared with Spike Milligan, whom he admired (and whom he met in 1959). A series of recordings from the early 1960s revelled in New Zealand place names and characters, with vocalists ‘Ash Burton’ (actually journalist Alex Veysey) and Bas Tubert. Of these songs, three (‘Tea at Te Kūiti’, ‘By the dog dosing strip at Dunsandel’ and ‘Gumboot tango’) were revived in the 1990s. Throughout his musical career Ken Avery tried to interest publishers and performers in his songs, with little success. This led him to produce The Ken Avery songbook in 1974 with the help of Clare, the most musical of his daughters.
Ken Avery died in Wellington on 12 June 1983, survived by his wife and daughters. He was a warm, down-to-earth man with great musical talent and a willingness to help other musicians improve their playing. He was a longtime member of the Wellington Jazz Club and a foundation member of the New Zealand Jazz Foundation, an organisation which, after his death, set up and administered the Ken Avery Trust to encourage and support promising newcomers. Through this trust, and through his songs and recordings, Ken Avery has continued to make a lasting contribution to music in New Zealand.