Fascinating Rhythm: Australian and American Influences on Swing in New Zealand.

It’s a fact of scholarly or academic life that when you write articles for journals or conference proceedings that occasionally during the peer-review editorial process that you end up with an article that you didn’t actually want to write. It’s often a case of different ideas about what you think you’re writing, what you actually wrote, and what the reviewers and editors think you wrote and where they think you should take it! This has happened to me recently and in amongst my mental (and sometimes vocal) grumbles about this is not how I wanted this article to go I decided that I have the perfect forum here to present at least some of that material the way that I did want it: more history less historiography. Don’t get me wrong I don’t have anything against historiography, but that really wasn’t the point of the article- I didn’t spend hours upon hours sitting in front of a microtext reader looking at old newspapers to do that. So, dear readers, I present to you a short article about the American and Australian influences on swing in New Zealand.

Introduction: Early Swing in New Zealand

To the general audience, swing arrived in New Zealand early in April 1936 with the title song from the American film The Music Goes Round and Around. The New Zealand press noted that this song was part of the latest vogue in novelty music, introducing New Zealanders to “a new tempo called ‘Swing Rhythm'”. Although not an immediate hit with New Zealand audiences, by mid–1937 swing was a familiar component of New Zealand’s entertainment scene, and beginning to dominate the social dance scene.

Although this was a new trend to the general public, dance musicians and dedicated jazz/dance music fans began encountering swing in the early 1930s through artist such as Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson. Through collecting records and listening to overseas broadcasts, New Zealand jazz/dance musicians and fans managed to stay up-to-date with the latest musical trends. As a result, aspects of swing music (as interpreted by New Zealand musicians) were presumably being incorporated into modern dance music from the early 1930s.

While New Zealand dance music in the early 1930s did not discard 1920s jazz conventions entirely (according to New Zealand’s first jazz DJ Arthur Pearce New Zealanders “liked a bit of ginger” in their music), the trend towards nostalgic old-time music and dances during the Depression years (approximately late 1929-1937) resulted in limitations on musicians in exposing swing to general audiences.[1] As a consequence of this trend, audiences were somewhat mystified when the swing craze arrived. In a similar set of circumstances to the arrival of jazz in the early 1920s, the New Zealand media too appeared to be confused about what ‘swing’ was. Was it a feeling? A change in rhythms? An approach to jazz music? A dance? Some reporters described it as a brand new music, while others an extension of the jazz from the 1920s.

By mid-1936 the swing craze had taken hold in the United States and a broader audience in New Zealand was discovering swing. Dedicated dance music fans in New Zealand were already aware of the trend, and began to form rhythm and swing clubs.[2] These clubs helped promote swing among dedicated fans and the general audience.

The influence of American swing was important to the evolution of the New Zealand swing scene, but Australian swing was equally influential. This paper explores one aspect of the Australian and American influence on the New Zealand swing scene: the bands that toured New Zealand in the 1930s and early 1940s. Three bands were particularly influential on New Zealand swing musicians: Theo Walters Personality Band, Tut Coltman’s Swingstars (both from Australia), and Sammy Lee and his World Famous Americanadians from the United States. In this paper I examine the tours and activities of these bands and explore some of the ways they influenced the New Zealand swing scene during this period.

The Tours

Theo Walters:

The Theo Walters Personality Band debuted at the Majestic Cabaret, Wellington, in September 1936. Known for their emulation of Benny Goodman’s swing style,[3] the quintet quickly became popular with Wellington dancers and musicians. During their residence they regularly broadcast on radio, primarily via relay on 2YA. The New Zealand Radio Record and Electric Home Journal enthusiastically previewed the Walters band’s first broadcast in Wellington. Though short, the article covers many topics: triumph at 2YA’s coup, gratitude that Walters was willing to take a pay cut to come to New Zealand, and details such as personnel; the members, according to the article were “all specialists”. Included in the article is part of the programme for this broadcast. Interestingly, the only piece on this list that is now considered a jazz standard is Tiger Rag the rest appears to be a mix of popular songs (presumably arranged in a swing style), such as A Beautiful Lady in Blue and original compositions such as Walters novelty song Woboididdy. This indicates that the repertoire was chosen to appeal to a wide audience, and that Walters conception of swing was primarily in performance practice.

In early 1937 the Walters band departed Wellington for Auckland and a residence at the Peter Pan Cabaret. By now the Walters band had expanded to an octet featuring New Zealand musicians: Baden Brown and Jim Watters on saxophones, Vern Wilson and Phil Campbell on trumpets, and George Campbell (brother to Phil) on bass. The Theo Walters Band debuted at the Peter Pan on January 23 for a three-month residency.

However, their first Auckland engagement was not at the Peter Pan. Prior to their arrival they had been contracted by station 1ZB to play a starring role in the Community Sing at the Auckland Town Hall on January 22. The Radio Record article that announced this event concluded that the Community Sing, and its related broadcast would be good publicity for the band, gaining them a wide audience.

The Auckland correspondent for Australian Music Maker and Dance Band News stated that the Walters band was “of educational value” for the local jazz scene. The band was known for their instrumental versatility, and for their showmanship. This was markedly different from many New Zealand bands during this time as New Zealand musicians’ concept of showmanship was, according to contemporary reports, virtually non-existent.[4]

The Walters band equally impressed Auckland musicians and the dancing audience. Reports in Australian Music Maker indicate that their musical and comedic presentations between dance sets had patrons gathered around the bandstand. Reports in newspaper’s women’s columns also indicate that the columnists were extremely impressed by the band, calling them “masters of syncopated rhythm,” and praising their swing arrangements and musical versatility. Their repertoire, as published in the reports, appears to have been popular and novelty music such as We’ll Make the People Sway, and I Adore You.

From late 1937 to 1939 the Walters band toured through provincial towns of New Zealand allowing fans from outside Auckland and Wellington to see the band. Throughout their tour the Walters band regularly broadcast on local radio, usually via relay from cabarets or theatres, but also in-studio, such as for the re-opening of stations 3ZB (in Christchurch) and 4ZB (in Dunedin) as part of the National Commercial Broadcasting Service in late 1937. These two radio performances firmly established the Walters band on the South Island scene.

Returning to Auckland in November 1939 the Walters band split its time between residency at the Peter Pan, theatre, and radio engagements. During this period the band expanded again to become a twelve-piece big band that included some of New Zealand’s best jazz musicians: brothers Jim and Pat Watters and Gordon Lanigan on saxophones, trombonist Brian Marston, and trumpeters Phil Campbell and Jim Warren.

In mid-1941 Walters negotiated a contract with Auckland’s 1ZB radio station for his band to be the 1ZB house band. It was rumoured that this contract was the highest paid broadcasting contract in New Zealand. This was surprising to the musical community because the New Zealand Commercial Broadcasting Service was notoriously parsimonious. This contract, whose terms remain unknown, meant that the Theo Walters band became the most prominent swing band in New Zealand. The band’s primary programme, Band Waggon, was touted as a half-hour showcase of their abilities, and they also provided music for a number of other programmes during the course of the week. This contract did not last long however, as the band disbanded in late 1941 when Walters joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force.

Tut Coltman:

When the Tut Coltman Swingstars debuted in Wellington on September 30 1937 it was a triumphal return for Coltman as an earlier iteration of his band had been popular in Wellington when they had resided at the Adelphi Cabaret in 1931-1932. During this tour the band resided at the Majestic from October 1937 to July 1938, and regularly broadcast via relay on 2YA. In addition to the relays, the Swingstars performed in studio for the light entertainment programme Revudeville and Rhythm on 2YD. Although it is unknown exactly what role the Swingstars played in Revudeville and Rhythm– whether as a backing band, a central feature, or both- the show played a significant role in expanding their audience from dedicated dance and swing fans to more general listeners.

A mix of Australians and New Zealanders, the Swingstars were popular among dancers and musicians, and Coltman was noted for encouraging the arranging abilities of his musicians. By the end of their residence at the Majestic the Coltman band featured many of the best Wellington jazz musicians, including saxophonist Bob Girvan (also one of the bands arrangers), and drummer Alan Brown, and was considered a “first class band” by the Wellington correspondent to Australian Music Maker.

In August 1938 the Swingstars, now consisting of mostly New Zealand musicians, embarked on a national tour. The band toured the lower North Island until October, before moving on to the middle North Island then onto the upper North Island in late 1938, before heading back down to Mount Maunganui and Tauranga for Christmas/ New Year’s gigs. Most of these gigs were one-night stands in small towns, with occasional longer engagements in larger towns. In 1939 Coltman took the Swing Stars to the South Island touring small towns, before taking a residency at Frascati’s Cabaret, in Christchurch in mid-1939. The Swingstars remained in Christchurch, until late 1939 when they returned to the North Island for summer engagements in Mount Maunganui, and Tauranga. The band remained there until Coltman decided to return to Australia in February 1940.

Sammy Lee:

Sammy Lee and His World Famous Americanadians (a mix of American, Canadian and English musicians) took over the Majestic Cabaret residency from the Swingstars in July 1938, and remained there until early May 1939. This was the first time that New Zealand had experienced a North-American swing band, and they made an enormous impact on the Wellington scene.

Wellington audiences and musicians were astounded by the sound of the band, in particular the brass and rhythm sections. They were also impressed by the Americanadians repertoire, which included the latest American swing hits and experiments in Latin American dance music. Musicians and audiences were impressed by the band’s flair, performance style, and versatility, as they created sophisticated floorshows as well as playing for dancing.

As with the Walters and Coltman bands, the Americanadians regularly broadcast via relay from the Majestic, and also as part of the light entertainment programme the Sunshine Show on 2YA. Similar to the other bands discussed here, the Americanadians broadcasting activities helped to establish a broad audience base. In addition to establishing a wide audience the Americanadians became noted for their skill at broadcast performance, which was occasionally contrasted with the lack of skill demonstrated by local bands.

By the time the Americanadians left Wellington for a residence at Cabaret Metropole in Auckland in May 1939, they were the most popular band in Wellington. Their performance style, repertoire, and originality appealed greatly to audiences and musicians. As in Wellington, the Americanadians impressed Auckland audiences and musicians during their residence at the Metropole. Newspaper reports indicate that audiences were enthusiastic about the Americanadians arrival in Auckland, with people crowding around the bandstand listening intently. Musicians’ views were equally rhapsodic with the Auckland reports in Australian Music Maker particularly praising the repertoire choices and the work of the brass section.

The Americanadians also made regular broadcasts in Auckland, mostly via relay from the Metropole, and later the New Dixieland Cabaret. Although the Americanadians did not tour as either Coltman or Walters did, their presence on New Zealand radio gave them a nationwide audience. By the time the Americanadians left New Zealand in July 1940 it appears that musicians in the South Island were just as impressed by the Americanadians as their North Island counterparts.

As with the other bands discussed in this paper, the Americanadians saw some personnel changes during their residence in New Zealand. The stature of the Americanadians was so exalted that when replacement musicians were required the local musicians who were hired (including multi-instrumentalists Norm D’Arth and Roy Lester) gained immediate prestige among their peers. It is unfortunate that little has been recorded in the press about their experiences with the Americanadians other than generalised comments about how good the band was. However, New Zealand musicians (from outside the band) from this period cite the Americanadians as a strong influence on how they approached swing, and the instrumental timbres that became desirable within the local swing band context.

Influences on the New Zealand swing scene

The bands discussed in this paper influenced the evolution of the New Zealand swing scene in a variety of ways. All three bands were known for their showmanship and press notes focus on their flair and style. Their showmanship strongly affected local perceptions of how to perform swing, and how to make the band the central attraction for the audience. Influences were often demonstrated through extra-musical aspects of performance such as choreography for sectional solos or standing up to take an individual solo. According to reports this aspect of showmanship was enhanced and refined by local bands during the late 1930s.

Musically showmanship was demonstrated by an increase in tailored arrangements for bands. The bandleaders discussed here all encouraged their musicians to compose and arrange specifically for their bands. The tailored arrangements were not necessarily more complex than what New Zealand bands were playing, but rather they highlighted the bands best features. This led to an increase in New Zealand musicians using tailored arrangements, or composing for specific combination. This skill proved useful during and after World War Two with utilisation of radio bands and the creation of the radio band system, which required bandleaders to write numerous arrangements for a variety of combinations every week.

Influences on swing performance practices primarily centred on rhythm and sound. Press reports made frequent reference to these bands use of rhythm and how crisp it was. The idea that the rhythm was crisp covers several different factors. From the perspective of the women’s columnists (and the dancing audience), ‘crisp’ rhythm included tempo, how well the band executed rhythmic ideas, and how well the rhythm suited dancing. To Music Makers columnists ‘crisp’ rhythm was influenced by a variety of factors ranging from the purpose of the arrangement (dancing or floorshow), to performance practices (and the precision of technique), and broadcasting techniques. Influences around sound appear to focus on quality and volume. While most comments in the media were vague (the comment ‘excellent sound’ was common), musicians from this period have articulated the differences in sound in varying degrees of detail. Of particular note are the statements regarding the Americanadians sound. It would seem from comments in the ‘Notes from NZ’ columns in Music Maker that the Americanadians sound was quite different from other bands (including Walters and Coltman) in New Zealand during the 1930s. Trumpeter Jim Warren, who attended many of the Americanadians Auckland gigs, is one of the most articulate observers of their sound. In interviews he has recalled that none of the local musicians had ever heard anything like the sound of the Americanadians, and that the brass “could really blow”. By this Warren refers to both volume and quality: he and other musicians were impressed by how the Americanadians band could fill up venues with their sound. Warren was also impressed by the timbral quality of the brass, which he described as big and shimmery: very different from the qualities that New Zealand brass players (who mostly came to jazz from the brass band tradition) had preferred until that point.[5]

An important part of influencing the New Zealand swing scene was that as original personnel left the groups New Zealand musicians replaced them. These bands became excellent forums for education in technique, performance practices, and arranging. For musicians outside of the bands they provided models that they could emulate in terms of sound, showmanship, stage behaviour, and other performance practices such as improvisation.

In terms of influencing the popularity of swing among New Zealand audiences these bands were instrumental in bringing swing to the masses. Through touring and regular radio broadcasts these bands quickly popularised swing outside of dedicated dance music/jazz fans. This could not have been accomplished in the same time frame by local bands that rarely toured, and although they broadcast regularly were not given the same amount of press exposure that touring bands were. Music Maker praised all three bands for their ‘education’ of the audience, but singled out Coltman in particular for including small towns on his tours, taking the time to introduce swing to the locals and making it accessible to a wider audience, rather than just to jazz fans.

The bands of Walters, Coltman and Lee were important in establishing swing as the newest form of jazz/dance music in New Zealand. Their strong presence physically, in the press, and on radio became the backbone of the New Zealand swing scene. These bands presence greatly boosted the incipient swing scene, and they provided much needed competition for established jazz bands to improve their performance. In conclusion the Walters, Coltman and Lee bands were vital to the development of swing in New Zealand and, more broadly, to the development of professional skills that musicians could utilise in the practice of jazz/dance music both in live performance and radio broadcast.


[1] These limitations included the conventions of dances, which began and ended the evening with a waltz, and the structure of dances themselves, which did not allow for extended manipulation of rhythm or extemporisation.

[2] Before World War Two these terms were not entirely interchangeable in New Zealand: rhythm clubs referred to clubs for listening to swing music, while swing clubs were for those who wanted to dance to swing music. Although there was an overlap in activities, the aims of the clubs and the way they promoted swing generally centred on one or other activity.

[3] Goodman’s swing style in the 1930s arose primarily from Fletcher Henderson’s arrangements that relied on sections working almost as a single instrument, and set sections against each other melodically and rhythmically. This type of arrangement required precise technique from musicians, with the final effect of seemingly simple, but highly swinging music that was markedly different from many bands of the time.

[4] According to reports New Zealand bands did very little to make themselves the centre of attention. This is in contrast to touring bands such as the Walters band whose musicians would do things such as stand up when taking a solo; do basic choreography when there was a section feature, pay attention to each others solos, and so on.

[5] Pianist Doug Caldwell described the sound of New Zealand jazz brass players from this period as being light and without vibrato- to fit better in a brass band, the usual forum for early training. In contrast, Caldwell described the American jazz brass sound as rounded and heavy, with a shimmery vibrato.

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One comment

  1. […] and New Zealand; Auckland musicologist Alisha Ward has recently written a lengthy account of his influence on New Zealand musicians. Other curiosities keep popping up: he is featured on the Australian sheet […]

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