So…why jazz? or There was jazz in New Zealand?!

Throughout my PhD whenever I told someone what my thesis topic was (Jazz in NZ 1920-1955) I’d get one of two questions: So…why jazz? or There was jazz in New Zealand?! In light of those questions I thought I’d write a bit about each of them.

Firstly: why jazz? Well it all started back in when I was doing my Bachelor of Music (Performance, Jazz) at the University of Auckland. In stage three we had to do a research project, and I was talking this over with my flute teacher and mentor Bernie Allen, when he suggested that I do something about jazz in New Zealand. I can’t even remember what he said exactly now (something about some great stories to be told about jazz in the 1940s and 1950s), but it flipped the proverbial switch: jazz in a New Zealand context was not something we covered in any of our courses even though we were being taught by some pretty prominent musicians who had been in the field for (at that point) upwards of 40 years. Essentially, I got curious! I decided to do my research on the influence of the American troops on New Zealand jazz arising from their residence 1942-1944 (oh, yes, and that’s another ‘?!’ statement: yes, there were US troops stationed in NZ during WW2, but more about that in another post). From there, I was hooked!

Despite a detour to the States to do my Masters degree at Rutgers, Newark (MA, Jazz History and Research), when I decided to do my PhD after returning to New Zealand, the ‘jazz in New Zealand’ bug still had me firmly in its grip, and I wanted to know more, and more importantly, I wanted to know more about the early years of jazz– the years where there are only a very few musicians who still recall any of them first hand left. I’m passionate about trying to fill in this rather large gap in New Zealand music history, even though I know that there are details that are lost to the ages, and others, which I’d like to find, pragmatically, I know I probably never will. I’ll detail some of my tales of research at a later date, but suffice to say that I still want to know more about how jazz got here, how it developed here, and adapted to the local musical conditions.

So now to the second statement: There was jazz in New Zealand?!

This semi-incredulous statement always amused and bemused me (and yes, I’ll admit, occasionally frustrated me!). When I first started my research, my instinctual reaction was, well of course there was (insert mild exasperation here)! But as I went on, I realised that people were genuinely surprised to discover that jazz was actually imported to New Zealand, and that it arrived in the late 1910s, just as it did in other parts of the world.

I can understand part of the idea behind the statement: most New Zealanders over the age of, say, 25, were raised with the idea that back in the day (anything pre-1990-ish) New Zealand was ‘closed’*, and while there is a small kernel of truth to the idea, it has be perpetuated by a lot of different people in a lot of different forums, and has been blown all out of proportion. Of course link this attitude with the ideas surrounding jazz (nightlife, alcohol, sex, dancing, drugs, dens-of-iniquity), and you can understand why people find it surprising. It seems that until people actually think about it they think that people in New Zealand had no fun things to do after 6pm (when the pubs closed) and were in bed by 9pm. Not true! People generally find it more surprising when I tell them that there were dances nearly every night (except Sunday’s) during the 1920s–1950s and that each main town had one or more high-end dance halls if not actual cabarets. Taking a look through the newspapers of the period (and believe me I did a lot of that during my research), there were plenty of after-hours activities for people to do from the sedate to the risqué, and while there were peaks and troughs (notably the Depression years and the early years of World War Two), people did have fun and yes, that night-life included jazz. If you’re curious to see some of this yourself have a look at the amazing Papers Past, a newspaper digitisation project by the National Library of New Zealand, which is becoming increasingly helpful to me in my research.

*Many a joke has been made about New Zealand being closed, and I wouldn’t mind betting that someone, somewhere on the Internet has complied them.

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