In December 1930 New Zealand’s first jazz recording was made: a one minute publicity film of Epi Shalfoon and His Melody Boys performing a Dixieland arrangement of a popular Māori song E Puritai Tama E (also known as He Pūru Taitama). The fact that the first jazz recording made in New Zealand was a film rather than a record is an interesting deviation from the beginnings of most recording industries – even more interesting is the fact that the film was never shown in theatres because of its poor production quality. Although long acknowledged by jazz musicians and fans as New Zealand’s first jazz recording (Dennis Huggard makes a particular note about it in his discography Jazz Recordings of New Zealand 1930-1980), it was not until the film was digitized by the New Zealand Film Archive that it was widely known as a part of New Zealand’s popular music culture and history.
It seems to be an odd choice: making a ‘talkie’ rather than a record. One would think that in 1930 the latter would be easier than the former – however, New Zealand did not yet have a commercial recording industry. There were booths in music stores, department stores, even photography studios where anyone could record and press a small batch (10 or 20) of records, but for commercial recording and pressing musicians had to travel to Sydney. The exceptions to this were the recordings of traditional Maori music made in the late 1920s, and although the material was recorded locally it was on specialist equipment for remote recordings imported from Sydney for the occasions and the recordings were still pressed in Sydney. Since this was the case, and since synchronised sound for film was available in New Zealand from early 1930 (interestingly the equipment was all manufactured locally), it was more viable (practically and financially) for New Zealand musicians to make a film short rather than a record.
When the film print came back from processing, the quality was so bad that cinema managers were unable to use it. Shalfoon refuse to pay the 28 pound bill, and a court case for non-payment by Filmcraft Ltd against Shalfoon ensued in 1931. The case took place in August 1931 and was extensively (and excitedly) reported in New Zealand Truth. It began by outlining the production and the reason why Shalfoon wanted to make a talkie film of the band. The prosecution outlined the situation of the filming, down to where the cameraman stood under a tree. They also examined the process of developing the film- assuring the court that no mistakes had been made in the process, and that the final product was, in the plaintiff’s opinion perfectly fine, thus Shalfoon owed them for the processing costs. The defence rebutted by calling Archibald MacDermott, the manager of Rotorua’s Majestic Theatre, who was asked if the film was of useable quality. In MacDermott’s opinion it was of very poor quality- the sound was useable, just- you may have noted some skips in the audio, which mostly coincide with visual skips. Visually though, the film was useless because you could not see faces properly or importantly the details on the bass drum, which would tell you who the band was. Shalfoon states at the beginning of the film ‘I wish to introduce to you Rotorua’s famous jazz band’, but he does not give the name of the band, however, because of the synchronisation problems Shalfoon actually only says ‘I wish to introduce to you Rotorua’s famous ja…’, so the viewer doesn’t know that they are a jazz band let alone whose jazz band. Looking at the film, the focus is so bad that it could be anyone’s ‘Melody Boys’, as it’s impossible to make out the name on the drum, and everyone’s features are a blur. Eventually the magistrate and court officers viewed the film and also had the Melody Boys perform for them exactly what they had done in the film. Upon consideration the magistrate agreed with the defence and Shalfoon. The film was of very bad quality and useless for promotional purposes, and so he found in Shalfoon’s favour.