The son of Ada Mary Hopkinson Pearce and her husband, Astley Hector Cheesman, a painter, Oswald Astley Cheesman was born in Christchurch on 13 September 1913. He was educated at Elmwood School, Christchurch Boys’ High School and Hamilton High School. His interest in music first manifested itself as early as his primary school years, when spare moments would invariably find him at the piano, showing an ability well beyond others of his age. He was first taught the piano by his mother and in his teenage years he studied with Edward Apthorp in Hamilton. He played cornet there in the school band, but later concentrated on the piano and formed a group called the Rhythm Boys, which performed at country dances and at the Regent Ballroom in Hamilton.
On leaving school in 1929 Cheesman worked for the Prudential Assurance Company in Auckland, but after two years this was abandoned in favour of full-time music. Already playing piano with Alf (‘Chips’) Healy’s Wintergarden band at Auckland’s new Civic Theatre, he also worked for a time as pianist at two city tearooms. In 1935 Healy’s band was invited to perform in Sydney, but on their arrival problems with the Musicians’ Union of Australia prevented their playing. Cheesman remained in Sydney, however, and played in a non-union club and with several radio orchestras before taking work as a pianist and accordionist on Pacific cruise ships. Between assignments at sea he led or played piano in dance bands in Wellington, Hamilton and Auckland. In 1936 weekly broadcasts of his band from the New Majestic Lounge in Wellington began an association with New Zealand radio that was to continue for the rest of his life. Two years later, in conjunction with the music retailing firm Lewis Eady Limited, he opened a school of music in Auckland, where he taught piano and piano accordion. For a time he also commuted to Hamilton to teach.
During one of the Pacific cruises Cheesman met Elaine Court, and on 20 March 1939 they were married in Auckland; they were to have three sons. In March 1941 Cheesman was engaged by the National Broadcasting Service to lead a 10-piece radio dance band in weekly programmes. These attracted a large audience, but ended the following year when, on 11 April, he joined the army for war service. After seven months he was posted overseas with the 3rd New Zealand Division in the Pacific. Here he was transferred to the Army Education and Welfare Service, first as bandmaster and then as director of the Kiwi Concert Party in the Pacific. For 18 months he organised and fronted this touring group, entertaining servicemen around the Pacific.
Resuming civilian life at the end of 1944, Cheesman found himself greatly in demand and, among many other engagements, he formed, conducted and arranged music for the New Zealand Broadcasting Service’s Auckland Radio Orchestra. In 1946–47 he was involved with the establishment of the National Orchestra (now the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra) and for the next 30 years he appeared regularly with it as solo pianist or guest conductor.
Seeking formal qualifications, Cheesman enrolled at Auckland University College; he was awarded a diploma of music in 1950. That year, on a six months’ government bursary, he undertook further musical studies in London. After this he continued freelance work, composing and teaching, but concentrated on working with radio ensembles and orchestras, which he assembled according to the needs of the music being featured. For these he arranged and orchestrated the music, played the piano and conducted. A choral group, the Cheesman Singers, contributed to television programmes in the 1960s.
All these various musical enterprises made Ossie Cheesman a household name throughout New Zealand. In 1952 he was chosen as leader of a concert party sent to entertain New Zealand troops in Korea and Japan, and in 1970 he was director of music for New Zealand’s large entertainment group at Expo ’70, in Osaka, Japan. He was also highly regarded as an accompanist, and made many concert tours throughout New Zealand and Australia with internationally distinguished artists.
Cheesman received the Australasian Performing Right Association’s Certificate of Honour, and the 1970 Benny Award, given by the Variety Artists’ Club of New Zealand. In 1972 he was appointed an MBE in recognition of his services to music. Among his other interests were languages, ornithology and golf. He died in Auckland on 29 September 1985, survived by his wife and children.
Although outwardly casual, down to earth, and dismissive of any personal praise, in reality Oswald Cheesman was a hugely talented musician. Perfect pitch combined with instant recall, a photographic memory and phenomenal versatility gave him a legendary place in musical circles. This, and his innate warmth and friendliness, brought him deep respect from musicians in all areas of the profession, from pop stars to symphonic players. His interests and tastes were wide, but he made his strongest mark in the arranging and performance of light music and in this field he has long been regarded as the true pioneer in New Zealand.