Last May I wrote a post about jazz concerts in New Zealand and a little about the controversies surrounding them. Early this month I spoke at the Cartoons, Comics and Caricatures Symposium at the University of Auckland on one specific controversial incident involving the expensive and new Steinway grand piano at the Auckland Town Hall and the cartoons that surrounded that. This post is an excerpt of that talk focusing on two cartoons produced about it.
On September first 1952 the Auckland Town Hall was the venue for a jazz concert, one of many it had seen that year. The line-up featured prominent local musicians and included an appearance of the New Zealand Jitterbug champions. The concert appeared to have been a success, and the reviews in the newspapers the following day were uniformly positive. However, here is where things get interesting. The review in the Auckland Star (Auckland’s evening paper) on September 2 was situated on page five, but at the centre of the front page was this article ‘Protests over Jazz Pianists’ use of Steinway’.
The New Zealand Herald (the local morning paper) followed this up on the third with an article on page 10 (clearly this issue was less important to the editor of the Herald than the Star) entitled ‘Can Jazz Be Unkind to a Piano?’ and on September 4 with another article boldly stating that ‘“The Grand” is not for Jazz’!
A letter from an audience member who was “appalled to see the hammering with both hands and feet which the Town Hall Steinway suffered” prompted the initial article in the Auckland Star. When the Star enquired into the issue they were told by a Town Hall spokesperson that it was a mistake because when the musicians were granted the use of both the Steinway and the older Chappell grand officials “did not realise that the Steinway would be used for jazz.”
In something of a reply to this article the New Zealand Herald published ‘Can Jazz be Unkind to a Piano’ on September 3. In this article the journalist sought the opinion of the Head of this university’s School of Music, Professor Horace Hollinrake, accompanist Alan Pow, Gordon Short, a judge for the Auckland Instrumental Competition Society, and pioneering jazz pianist Henry Shirley about whether jazz could actually damage a piano. Professor Hollinrake sat on the fence for this stating that “it depends entirely on the pianist.” Short agreed with this stating that some jazz pianists had a light touch, but others used the full weight of the arm. Alan Pow on the other hand believed that the rhythmic style of bass had the potential to do damage to the felt on the hammers, but not the mechanism itself, and Henry Shirley disagreed about the potential of damage to the hammers, but believed that the pedals could be damaged if the pianist was beating time with their foot over or on the pedals.
On the same day in the Auckland Star the jazz musicians in question made a reply to the controversy in the article “We don’t like your Steinway anyhow!” in which the pianists stated that they actually did not like the Steinway- they felt that the action was bad, it was out of tune, and generally inferior to the older Chappell grand and the only reason they used it at all was because the Chappell was in an awkward position on the stage. They further stated in reply to the Herald’s querying article ‘Can Jazz be Unkind to a Piano?’ that they did not need to pound out the bass because they had a good rhythm section, and that the pedals could not have been damaged because they did not use them.
The following day the verdict from the Town Hall was clear: jazz musicians would continue to have use of the Chappell, but there were not allowed to play the Steinway, which would be reserved for concert work only. This stance created a wave of letters to the editor arguing the pros and cons of this, and whether it was overstepping the bounds because the Town Hall and its facilities was meant for use by the community, which included everyone, not just ‘serious’ music lovers. Letter writers debated heatedly whether or not ‘serious’ pianists were more or less likely to damage a piano during the course of a concert that jazz musicians, and also whether any one section of the community had the right to dictate the use community facilities to the council.
Over the next two weeks this controversy continued to be debated in the Star and the Herald (though as an interesting aside- it does not appear to have been scandalous enough to pique the interest of New Zealand Truth), primarily through letters to the editor, but at least one local cartoonist also took up the issue.
The first cartoon to appear was ‘In the Groove’ in the New Zealand Herald on September 4. Drawn by long time Herald cartoonist Gordon Minhinnick this cartoon depicts a “jazz” band hard at play, getting ‘into the groove’ in fact, with a direct reference to the piano controversy in the top right corner by way of a clipping of the article ‘Can Jazz be unkind to a Piano?’ On closer inspection, however, you can see that aside from the prominent grand piano and the vocalist, none of the other players are playing ‘normal’ musical instruments. In front of the pianist is someone playing a row of squeeze horns, while next to him another ‘musician’ is playing a variety of drums. On the left of the pianist there are three musicians who are not playing any recognisable musical instruments: in fact they are playing a bridge (in a harp-like fashion), some drain pipes and what appears to be a faucet (both as horn or wind-type instruments). Further investigation notes the titles that each player (except the pianist) is given: the vocalist is ‘local bodies’ the horns player ‘transport loan’, the drummer represents municipal works, then our three non-instrument musicians are the bridge loan, drainage loan and water works respectively. The pianist (who appears to be the then Mayor of Auckland Sir John Allum) appears to be conducting the band in ‘The Four per cent Drag’ playing the ‘Money Market 650 grand’.
This cartoon serves a double purpose for Minhinnick: he is commenting on both the silliness of the current grand piano controversy, and on the more serious issues that were facing the Auckland region through the government’s budget problems at the time. With regards to the grand piano controversy, this cartoon is ephemera, simply telling us that it happened, and that in Minhinnick’s opinion it was a storm in a teacup that was detracting from the more serious issues of the day. At the same time, however, Minhinnick is also poking some fun here at the issues regarding the Government’s budgetary stance.
This cartoon serves as historical evidence of the Budget issues of 1952. The music on the piano- ‘the 4 per-cent drag’ refers to local bodies wanting the National Government to raise the interest rates to 4 per cent on the loans they made to various bodies for regional works. The issue here is that the then current interest rate (3.25 per cent) was considered to be too far below market rate to increase competitive investment and re-investment of funds that were used by local bodies. However by increasing to 4 per cent the regional governments could potentially re-priotise future spending, with some much needed works moving further up the list for finance. Additionally, with a greater return on the loans, local governments would be able to finance more projects without relying as much on rates income or national government funding.
I was unable to find out what exactly the figure on the inside of the piano lid: ‘Money Market 650 grand’ refers to. Clearly the use of the word ‘grand’ rather than zeros to indicate a thousand is an intentional reference back to the ‘grand’ piano controversy. However, what the figure of six hundred and fifty thousand pounds refers to, asides from an economic or financial issue of some description, is not something that I have been able to discover. The figure was never directly referenced in any of the related articles (for either the budgetary issues or the grand piano controversy), nor does it appear in any of the historical resources that I consulted in preparing this paper.
The second cartoon I want to examine here was also in the Herald and was part of a regular Saturday edition comic strip about the adventures of raffish man-about-town Sam. The Sam strips were also drawn by Minhinnick, reflecting current affairs, and also poking gentle fun at the events and controversies of the day. Minhinnick described the Sam strips as ‘pure fun’, and it is evident that he enjoyed placing Sam (and his adventures, or misadventures) into the events of the day. This particular strip appeared on September 6 just as the controversy was gaining steam in the letters to the editor. In this cartoon, entitled ‘An Ill Wind’, Sam is portraying a jazz musician. He is shown walking into a venue that is hosting a jazz concert (presumably the reader is to assume that it is the Town Hall), walks onto the stage and past both the Steinway and Chappell grand pianos with a wave of the hand before seating himself at the organ to play with the band (you can just see two saxophonists in the right foreground).
This strip seems to take the musicians side in this debate, with the character of Sam rejecting the Steinway. Here, however, Minhinnick uses Sam to poke a little gentle fun at the whole issue by having Sam also reject the Chappell and move onto the organ. Minhinnick does not appear to be making any particular statement about the grand piano controversy here except to say that it was blown rather out of proportion- or as I say in the title of this presentation: No use crying over spilt pianos! This strip contrasts with Minhinnick’s political cartoon examined above in that here he is deliberately keeping the cartoon’s contents strictly within the issue of the concert and resulting grand piano controversy, without reference to any other events. It is clear that the intention here is to make his audience laugh over the issue by having Sam use the most unlikely jazz instrument- the town hall’s pipe organ.
What is interesting about the ‘An Ill Wind’ strip from a historical point of view is that it actually foreshadowed an incident in the following year. In March 1953 there was a controversy over pianist Julian Lee using the Auckland Town Hall’s pipe organ during a concert. Lee was one of the pianists involved in the original incident, who was considered one of the best judges of pianos on the jazz scene and who was very disappointed with the Steinway, but, because he is blind, he was unable to make his way to the Chappell grand. Whether or not there is any connection to the cartoon is unknown, but given that Lee has a rather infamous sense of humour in the jazz world, it would not surprise me if there was some influence from the cartoon in his decision to make use of the organ.
The use of the organ in this concert had clearly been planned well in advance, with the advertising for the concert making repeated mentions that Lee was to play the organ. The compere, Pete Young, also made reference back to the grand piano controversy in his introduction to the section where the organ was to be used. Despite the grumbles in the media about jazz musicians using the organ, the Town Hall clerk deemed the organ a safer instrument for jazz musicians to use stating that it was impossible to damage in the same way a piano could be, and that the musicians had promised to only play ‘straight’ music on it.
The Town Hall clerk Mr T.W.M. Ashby had the final word in this controversy. After seeing an advertisement for a forthcoming jazz concert in October declaring that the pianists would use the Steinway, Ashby issued a statement to the New Zealand Herald, published on September 20 stating that, “there will be no swing on the Steinway”.