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Jazz and dance bands

by Chris Bourke

In New Zealand’s early-20th-century dance-band boom, some bands included jazz in their repertoires. Many US servicemen stationed in New Zealand in the Second World War were jazz players and enthusiasts. Over time jazz became music to listen to rather than dance to.

Early New Zealand jazz bands

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.

    • Evening Post, 1 September 1899, p. 1. Back

Jazz in and after the Second World War

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.

Jazz boom

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.

Jazz festivals

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.


Later 20th and early 21st centuries

Mike Nock

Several New Zealand musicians have achieved international renown. They include pianist Mike Nock, who fell in love with the sound of Charlie Parker’s saxophone as an 11-year-old in the Waikato town of Ngāruawāhia. Although largely self-taught, Nock was playing professionally by age 16 and in the late 1960s became a prominent figure in the US modern jazz scene, playing alongside Chick Corea, Miles Davis and other legendary musicians. Nock taught himself to use synthesisers and other electric keyboard instruments and, with his band The Fourth Way, was a pioneer of jazz-rock ‘fusion’. In the 2000s he continued to play, record and teach music, based in Sydney. He received an ONZM in 2003 for services to jazz.

Still a Kiwi

After 40 years living and working in the US, Auckland-born jazz musician Alan Broadbent was still regularly described as a New Zealand pianist. In that time he worked with many of the greatest names in jazz, such as Woody Herman, Charlie Haden and singer Diana Krall. He also led the touring orchestra for Krall’s husband, rock musician Elvis Costello. Broadbent has received seven Grammy nominations for his recordings and an MNZM for services to jazz. In 2008 he remarked that ‘this is the only profession I know where you can be internationally famous – and broke.’1

New directions

By the 1980s jazz had lost much of its mainstream New Zealand audience and become a minority musical taste. It then revived somewhat in popularity as a younger generation of performers introduced jazz influences into both rock and experimental musical groups. These included the Auckland-based From Scratch (known for playing unique home-made instruments such as banks of PVC pipes struck with jandals), and the Wellington bands Primitive Art Group and Six Volts.

Indigenous sounds

In the 1990s an entirely original and indigenous element entered New Zealand jazz through the use of traditional Māori musical instruments (taonga puoro). The 1999 Wellington Jazz Festival featured famed British reed-player Evan Parker improvising with Richard Nunns, an expert taonga puoro performer. Their recording Rangirua was released internationally on a British label, to admiring reviews. Taonga puoro were also a central feature in the sound of the 18-strong experimental jazz orchestra Urban Taniwha.

Local jazz recordings

The long-running New Zealand record label Ode has been one of the few to consistently include local jazz musicians in its roster of artists. In the 21st century Ode began re-releasing classic jazz recordings from past eras, including a record of Auckland’s first jazz concert in 1950. A more recent label, Rattle Records, records ‘contemporary art music from Aotearoa/New Zealand’ including jazz artists such as The Troubles, Lucien Johnson, Jonathon Crayford and the Wellington Jazz Collective.

NZ Jazz Foundation

The non-profit New Zealand Jazz Foundation (NZJF) was formed in 1980 to encourage education in, and appreciation of, jazz. Its objectives included:

  • creating public awareness of jazz music through the organisation and promotion of jazz performances
  • running workshops and other educational events
  • promoting the appreciation and teaching of jazz.

In 2014 the NZJF ran the annual New Zealand Youth Jazz Orchestra and a National Jazz Workshop for high school students, and supported the Ken Avery Memorial Award, named for a renowned band leader, which offered scholarships to promising young performers.

Jazz studies

Many high-school music teachers have formed their students into big bands, which competed annually for places in the New Zealand Youth Jazz Orchestra. However, until the 1990s, New Zealand’s tertiary institutions were slow to offer courses in jazz. Stalwarts such as Rodger Fox and Colin Hemmingsen filled the gap by training young students to become accomplished players.

Eventually, several universities provided degree courses in jazz, sometimes in combination with other musical genres. Since 2006 an undergraduate degree in jazz performance and composition has been offered at Wellington’s School of Music, run jointly by Massey and Victoria universities.


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How to cite this page: Chris Bourke, 'Jazz and dance bands', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Chris Bourke, i tāngia i te 22 o Oketopa 2014