The NZBS Radio Band System

Jazz groups had been a regular feature of New Zealand broadcasting since the industry’s earliest days. However, until World War Two, the majority of broadcasts were relays from cabarets, dance halls, and other venues, rather than from the studio. Studio broadcasts became increasingly popular from the mid–1930s, and by the late 1940s, would become the main venue for local jazz broadcasts as demonstrated in Chapter’s Three and Four. This change was due mainly to the changes in the structure of broadcasting, which led to the creation of the radio band system.[1]

On April 1 1946 the New Zealand Broadcasting Service [NZBS] officially began operations (surprisingly not a joke, though some might have said otherwise). Formed in 1943 by the amalgamation of the National Broadcasting Service, and the National Commercial Broadcasting Service, the NZBS was created to streamline many of the behind-the-scenes procedures, such as purchasing and importing recordings.[2] Initially, the creation of the NZBS had little effect on the broadcast of local, live, jazz in New Zealand; however, that changed when Bob Bothamley (head of dance music) created the radio dance–band system in 1948.

The system was designed by Bothamley to ensure excellent station bands, with innovative (though still mainstream) arrangements, in each of the main cities. Every four months, musicians (including singers) in each city auditioned for Bothamley, and had to meet a required set of musical standards before being accepted into the station bands. Bothamley, would choose who was to be the bandleader, and that person was responsible for writing arrangements, rehearsals and leading the band on the air.[3] While terms of contract differed from band to band, and station to station, the station bands broadcast live at least once a week, and usually two or three times per week. For this work musicians received a weekly salary of £3 7s. 6d.[4]

The configuration of the radio bands were usually that of a big band, with a vocalist and/or vocal group added. Each week, the leaders were given some basic information about what was required for the next week, such as how much time they would be playing for, and what balance of vocals versus instrumental pieces was wanted by broadcasting officials. The repertoire of the bands was mostly mainstream jazz and popular music, but there was some leeway given in terms of arranging styles. The arranging style of the band depended entirely on the leader of the time, and could be anything from sweet swing to innovative expanded arrangements, but had to conform to the dictates of broadcasting policy regarding acceptable material.[5]

Because of the standards enforced by broadcasting officials, the musicians in the radio dance bands had to be of an extremely high standard, technically and musically. They had to have the ability to consistently perform numerous and often complicated arrangements with little rehearsal. Because of these abilities, and the prestige of performing on the radio, other jazz musicians viewed the radio bands as being the ‘best of the best’: they were at the top of the jazz hierarchy in New Zealand.[6]

There was one problem with this system, however: because of the pool of very talented musicians auditioning and re–auditioning, it was difficult to break into. The bandleaders chosen for the contract would naturally prefer to use musicians that they already knew, and in whose abilities they had confidence.[7] However, once a musician was in the system, it became an invaluable opportunity, especially when they were asked by Bothamley to lead a band.

Younger musicians in the bands were particularly happy when Bothamley asked them to lead a band. This was an opportunity to lead an excellent big band, and to find their own leading and writing styles within that format. Leadership gave younger leaders, such as Doug Caldwell, Crombie Murdoch, Julian Lee and Lew Campbell, valuable experience in leading and writing under time pressure, and commercial pressure. It also gave young leaders, and musicians, the chance to become familiar with performing in the studio, which would be invaluable when they were asked to record by the fledgling record labels.[8]

 


[1] Patrick Day, The Radio Years: A History of Broadcasting in New Zealand vol. 1. Auckland: University of Auckland Press, 1994 86-89, 273-275, 283.

[2] Day, 279-282.

[3] Doug Caldwell, Calder Prescott (2010) interviewed by Aleisha Ward; Chris Bourke, Blue Smoke: The Lost Dawn of New Zealand Popular Music 1918-1964167-168.

[4] George Wood ‘N.Z. offers work only for the lucky few’ Melody Maker 1/7/1949.

[5] Int. Doug Caldwell (2009); DHJA Radio Stations File MS-Papers-9018-68 ATL; Bourke 170.

[6] Wood MM 1949, Interviews with Dale Alderton (2002), Doug Caldwell (2010), Calder Prescott (2010), and John Williams (2003), also communication with Bernie Allen.

[7] Wood MM 1949.

[8] Int., Doug Caldwell, Calder Prescott (2010); Bourke,168-170.

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