The introduction of Bebop to New Zealand

Bebop first appeared in New Zealand in the latter stages of the war. It is likely that bebop made its first appearance in New Zealand on 2YAs Rhythm on Record, possibly in early 1945. Unfortunately, it is not noted who the recordings were by, or what songs were broadcast. However, compère Arthur Pearce (‘Turntable’) recalled being delighted that soon after he introduced the bop recordings into his programme his listeners began to argue the merits (or lack) of this new style of jazz, and how it related to swing and Dixieland.[1] Pearce himself did not particularly care for bop, once saying that: “bop is complex melodically, and sometimes rhythmically. It’s intellectually brilliant, but you can’t dance to it.”[2] He was determined to provide this musical information for his listeners so that they could form their own opinions, without pressing his own opinions of the music on his audience.[3]

Certainly the fans did form opinions. Although little was printed in the press from the fans and listeners in 1945, the merits of bebop became a powerful debate among readers of Jukebox, New Zealand’s Swing Magazine in late 1946 and early 1947. One avowed small group jazz fan (but not a “Dixieland diehard”) described bop as a “banality” and “superficial,” bearing little or no relation to other forms of small group jazz. The writer further believed that bop would have little future, especially in comparison to Dixieland.[4]

In reply to this letter, a modern jazz fan wrote that he could scarcely believe that the Dixieland fan was serious in his criticism of bop. The writer then berated the bop critic for his conservative attitude and used the rest of the letter to “enlighten him if that is possible, and show him just where he has gone astray.”[5] Soon there was dialogue between the two original writers, and other fans began to chime in for or against bop. Fans continued this heated debate about bebop until the magazine ceased publication suddenly in mid–1947.[6]

These debates in letters to the editor were, in one sense, a continuation of the same debate that was taking place in every country to which bop had disseminated. Bebop was also discussed in the meetings of swing clubs around New Zealand throughout 1946 and 1947. There were a number of small lectures (or talks in local 1940s parlance) by club members on the origins of bop and aspects of its style. Fan publications also published explanatory articles, and question and answer style articles to help fans grasp what bebop was and how it fitted into the jazz style.[7]

By discussing and debating the origins and style aspects of bop, fans were uncovering reasons about why bop should be included or excluded from jazz. These discussions occurred in many different countries among jazz fans who focused on whether bop was actually a jazz style, and if it was whether it was a progressive development or whether it was tangential to jazz. In New Zealand the discussions about bop in the swing clubs and in the press continued the formation of a local jazz culture that began in the 1930s.

Music trade magazines, such as Australian Music Maker and Dance Band News and Tempo, began to discuss bebop from circa 1946. In the August 1946 issue of Music Maker the editorial was devoted to describing this new style of jazz. The editorial, by guest editor Wally Norman, was a result of Norman having recently heard some of Dizzy Gillespie’s bop recordings.[8] According to historian John Whiteoak, when this editorial was published, bebop had yet to be heard on Australian radio. This is in contrast to New Zealand’s early bop broadcasts (early 1945) as described above.[9] This is not to say that there were no musicians accessing bop records and experimenting with this new style, but rather that bop had not yet hit the collective consciousness of the Australian jazz scene, and wider public.

Bop marks the first jazz style to be imported into New Zealand without significant support and influence from Australian musicians. In both the Dixieland and swing crazes, the Australian musicians (such as the Linn Smith and Theo Walters bands) who toured New Zealand during the early stages of those phenomena significantly influenced New Zealand musicians’ ideas, and stylistic practices. Whether the lack of influence from Australian musicians affected the stylistic practices of bebop in New Zealand is unknown. However it seems plausible that bop, as performed in New Zealand, emerged differently than it might otherwise have done with the influence of Australian musicians.

The interactions between New Zealand musicians and bebop are difficult to trace. Only a small amount of information is known about how jazz musicians from this era encountered and learned about bebop. Because of the effects of the war, and the American Federation of Musicians recording ban, bebop was not recorded until late 1944 and appeared in New Zealand (on records) essentially fully formed.[10] While Rhythm on Record broadcast recordings of bop, it is unknown if any of the other New Zealand radio jazz sessions did in 1945 or 1946.[11] There were no tours by bop artists until the later 1950s, so the sources for interaction in the mid and late 1940s would have been primarily through American recordings, broadcasts, and music trade press.

In some ways the emergence of bebop returned New Zealand musicians to a similar state as nearly thirty years previously when jazz first arrived in New Zealand. Comparatively speaking, there was only a small amount of information from which to form ideas about this style. In 1945–1947 there were few bop recordings that were readily available in New Zealand (due to the monopoly by HMV NZ), and only a little had been written about bop in the musical or general press outside of New Zealand. However, musicians who were interested, such as multi–instrumentalist Julian Lee, began experimenting in earnest soon after the first appearances of bop in New Zealand.[12]

Musicians’ reactions to bop were only rarely recorded in any of the fan or music trade magazines from this period. Like jazz musicians in other countries, some dismissed it outright (some were unsure whether it was actually jazz or not), some found it exciting.[13] In later interviews and oral histories many appear to have been generally positive about the new style, and believed that the majority of the scene was too. New Zealand musicians described being intrigued by this new style of jazz, and were interested in attempting it.[14] Their initial impressions of bop were that the style needed “terrific phrasing,” and was “only for very hep musicians.”[15]

While New Zealand musicians were curious about bebop, there was little room in the average dance gig to attempt anything more than a few small phrases here and there.[16] The style, they soon discovered, simply was not suited to dancing. While swing could include a certain amount of improvisation without losing the integrity of the dance, bop, with its combination of extended solos, fast tempos, and abrupt endings was the antithesis of the coherence needed by dancers. It was at the formal (organised by swing clubs or individuals with an invited audience) and informal jam sessions that musicians began to experiment with bebop, and where the local style was shaped. Because of this ‘behind the scenes’ experimentation, and dance gigs being the main employment for jazz musicians, it would not be until the 1950s that musicians would be able to play bop regularly on gigs.

Because of the continued prevalence of dances as the primary gig for jazz musicians in New Zealand, bebop went mostly unnoticed by the general public. Unlike its predecessors of Dixieland and swing, bop, as I have mentioned, was not a dancing music. Nor was bop a phenomenon in the way that either Dixieland or swing were. Both Dixieland and swing were phenomena in part because they were associated with dancing, but also because there were international trigger events (the end of World War One for Dixieland, and Benny Goodman’s Palomar Ballroom gig for swing), which catapulted them into the public consciousness. Because of the way bop developed it did not receive the same amount of popular media attention in New Zealand that would have bought it to the attention of the public.

It was not until the beginning of the formal jazz concerts in 1950 that bebop received any significant amount of attention from the general public and local press. These concerts were the first significant performance of bop to the general public in New Zealand. Both the press and the public reactions initially appear to have an aura of bemusement over this style, especially the dress and mannerisms of the performers (who tended towards the American ‘hipster’ style of dress complete with berets and horn rimmed glasses). However, by 1952 bebop, was considered just another part of jazz by the press.[17]

The changing attitude toward bebop in the New Zealand press, and by the public, appears to have occurred because jazz concerts were frequent events over the first years of the 1950s (every two or three months). The frequent exposure to both the music, and the associated mannerisms normalised bop for audiences and the press. The acceptance of bop was possibly also helped by the fact that most of the audience only heard it in a concert chamber, thus subconsciously applying the connotations of art and ‘quality’ music to it.

The advent of live music venues without dance floors in the mid and late 1940s, such as Hi Diddle Griddle restaurant and nightclub in Auckland, also helped foster the small group jazz scene (in the 1940s still primarily swing based jazz), and provide a new economy for jazz musicians. Such venues were often inspired by American nightclubs, or rather the New Zealand interpretation of American nightclubs, with lush dark decor, small stage, and, importantly, no dance floor. [18] These types of venues were particularly important to the performance of bop and the revival of Dixieland in New Zealand, and other small group (non–dance) jazz because the expectations of the audience were different from those in the cabarets. At restaurant, nightclub, and coffee lounge type venues the audience was there to eat, drink, and listen to the band playing.[19]

Bebop appears to have been less divisive among fans and musicians in 1940s New Zealand than in other countries, such as Britain. Although there was a certain amount of sniping among fans, as evidenced by the letters to the editor in Jukebox, there appears to have been less divisiveness between musicians. Perhaps this was due to a smaller jazz scene, a closer jazz fraternity, or perhaps it was simply that musicians could not earn money playing bop in New Zealand until the 1950s. Whatever the reason, the in–fighting that was prevalent on the American, Australian and British jazz scenes between the ‘mouldy figs’ (traditional jazz) and the ‘hep cats’ (beboppers), and to a lesser extent between the commercial swing musicians, and boppers does not appear to have occurred in New Zealand.[20]


[1] Laurie Lewis, Arthur and the Nights at the Turntable: The Life and Times of a Jazz Broadcaster, Excaliber: London 1997, 150, 153-155.

[2] ‘Tolerant Enthusiast’ NZL 3/3/1950, 24.

[3] Lewis, 150.

[4] ‘Concerning “Be-bop”‘ Jukebox, December 1946, 18, March 1947, 14.

[5] Ibid ‘Pro-Re-Bop’ January/February 1947, 11-12, ‘Concerning Be-bop’ March 1947, 14-15.

[6] ‘Jukebox Junked,’ Swing Session June 1947.

[7] ‘Auckland Swing Club News,’ Jukebox, November 1946, 15; ‘Bebop’, Swing Session May 1947 1-2, 4; ‘Bebop’ Swing Session October 1947, 1-2.

[8] AMM August 1946, 1.

[9] John Whiteoak, Playing Ad Lib: Improvisatory Music in Australia 1836–1970, Currency: Sydney, 1999, 249-250.

[10] For a discussion on the AFM recording ban see Russell Sanjek, American Popular Music and its Business: The First Four Hundred Years Volume III, From 1900 to 1984, Oxford University Press: New York, 1988, 217-221.

[11] Lewis, 150, 153-155.

[12] Bourke, 185, 212-213.

[13] ‘Rosoman Reminisces’ Jukebox, April 1947, 3; Whiteoak, 250; Doug Caldwell, Calder Prescott interviewed by Aleisha Ward 2010.

[14] Dale Alderton (2002), Johnny Williams (2003), Doug Caldwell (2010), Calder Prescott (2010) interviewed by Aleisha Ward.

[15] ‘Rosoman Reminisces’, Jukebox April 1947, 3. The term ‘hep’ was American slang for a fashionable or knowledgeable person Oxford English Dictionary

[16] Bourke, 212.

[17] See for example: ‘Jazz Storms the Town Hall’ EP 11/11/1952, 8.

[18] Stuart, ‘Bless my soul, it’s…rock and roll’ Metro, March 1986, 98.

[19] Bourke, 177.

[20] Whiteoak, 250; Bruce Johnson Oxford Companion to Australian Jazz, 36-40; Lewis Porter, Jazz A Century of Change– Readings and New Essays, 173-174; George McKay, Circular Breathing: The Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain, Duke University Press: London, 2005, 98-99. The term ‘hep cat’ was 1940s American slang for a jazz addict or hipster. Oxford English Dictionary.


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