Arthur Pearce: The Godfather of New Zealand Radio Jazz DJs

Arthur Pearce

Arthur Pearce had been hooked on jazz since he first heard the ODJB in a dance class in 1922; the interest quickly turned into obsession and Pearce soon became known as the walking encyclopaedia of jazz in Wellington. In 1935 he somehow succeeded badgering the 2YA authorities into allowing him to present a special one–hour programme on jazz. Being a Duke Ellington devotee he chose Ellington’s music as his topic. The programme caused uproar among listeners who were not at all used to hearing hot jazz (let alone black American jazz bands) on the radio, but despite the controversy the stations’ programmers thought that Arthur was good compère material. Two years later in 1937 Pearce was asked to host a new dance music programme for them, he agreed and began hosting the Modern Dance Music session on Friday evenings. Under Pearce’s auspices the Modern Dance Music session soon began playing more swing and other hot jazz (as opposed to light or commercial jazz and dance music) records. Over the last years of the 1930s the session evolved into an hour of jazz recordings, the majority of which were American recordings.

By the end of the decade the programme, now known as Rhythm on Record, was the programme to listen to if you were a jazz fan or musician as Pearce not only had the latest jazz recordings, but also less known recordings and artists that were harder to acquire in New Zealand. Musicians and fans from this era credit Pearce, known on air as Turntable, for their knowledge of the minutiae of jazz, especially American jazz. The effect that Pearce had on the audience is evident in several tales of Rhythm on Record fans being in the United States and being able to stun American jazz aficionados with their intimate, minute, knowledge of American jazz. Rhythm on Record was the most influential programme in bringing New Zealand audiences foreign, particularly American, jazz. Pearce was insistent that there was an audible difference between dance music and jazz, and British and American jazz, and he would regularly present these differences to the audience; a feat unheard of on New Zealand radio in those early years

Pearce’s passion for jazz shone through in the efforts he made in sourcing records and their accompanying information (side personnel, composition information, et cetera). His passion for educating the audience about jazz was aptly demonstrated through the political battles he fought to keep Rhythm on Record at the same time each week, and in convincing station and National Broadcasting Service officials to allow him a freer hand with music selection. It was the most focused, knowledgeable, and influetial jazz programme on New Zealand radio during the late 1930s and continued to influence musicians and fans until Pearce retired from broadcasting in 1977, just over thirty years after he had made his first broadcast.

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