Early Maori Jazz Musicians

Although I’m not fluent in Te Reo, and I’m not Maori, Maori culture, language and musicians play an important part in the development of jazz. From the earliest years of jazz Maori musicians have been, and continue to be a vital component of the jazz scene in New Zealand. There are too many to cover in any depth in a single blog post, so here are two short profiles of two of the amazing early jazz musicians

Walter Smith (1883- 1963) was born at Nuhaka in the Hawkes Bay into the Ngāti Kahungunu iwi, Smith left New Zealand in 1893 with his aunt as part of a Mormon missionary group to the United States of America. Smith lived in the United States, mostly in Utah and California, until 1913. While there Smith began to pursue music seriously, learning several instruments and studying at the Mormon college Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. After leaving Brigham Young, he joined Ed Montgomery’s Royal Hawaiian Quintette touring the continental United States. About 1910 he formed his own Hawaiian group, the Hawaii–Maorian Quintette, and toured the United States until the Church recalled him to New Zealand in 1913. It is unknown whether Smith became familiar with the ragtime and blues styles during this time, but it seems likely that he heard these styles while touring, and possibly associated with musicians in these genres.

By 1920 Smith had moved to Auckland and established himself as a music teacher and bandleader on the incipient Auckland jazz scene. He was known for his mentorship of young musicians, and his advocacy of women performers. He also became known as something of an impresario as he ran a stable of bands whose repertoire ranged from classical to jazz to novelty music. Although there are no extant recordings of any of Walter Smith’s bands, his Aloha Jazz Band seemed to be particularly popular around Auckland in the 1920s.

Walter Smith Band

Walter Smith Band

Smith’s career as a musician, teacher and impresario in Auckland lasted for the rest of his life, and he was remembered as an amazing teacher and mentor to young musicians, especially Maori musicians, including his nephew saxophonist David Kaumau and nieces Dinah (banjo/saxophone) and Marjorie (piano/saxophone) Greening.

Epi Shalfoon was born Gareeb Stephen Shalfoon (13 August 1904–23 May 1953) at Opotiki on the East Coast of the North Island to a Maori mother (from Te Whakatohea hapu) and Syrian father. He learned piano from an early age and continued with his music studies when he boarded at Auckland Grammar School. Shalfoon discovered jazz circa 1920 while listening to short wave broadcasts, from several countries, but especially the United States. According to his daughter Reo, Shalfoon was particularly attracted to blues–based jazz. At about the same time that Shalfoon became interested in jazz he began to play piano for local dances, both solo and as part of a band. Shortly after this he also taught himself to play saxophone and clarinet. His decision to learn saxophone and clarinet was to give himself more scope as a musician, and the ability to fill in if there were a shortage of front–line musicians.

Shalfoon formed the Melody Boys (the name he would use for all of his bands) in 1924, and from this date rarely ever played as a sideman, preferring instead to lead and manage his own band. Between 1924 and 1928 the Melody Boys were based in Opotiki, and mainly played gigs in the Bay of Plenty, Poverty Bay and Rotorua regions quickly becoming known as a top jazz band in the region. In 1929 Shalfoon moved his base of operations to Rotorua where he opened a music store called the Melody Shop. The operation of this business does not appear to have had a negative impact on his band or the travelling that they did for gigs. The Melody Boys not only continued their travels, but they actually increased their travel range, playing gigs as far north as Auckland and as far south as Wellington. The Melody Boys can also claim the first wholly New Zealand produced jazz recording- a one minute publicity film produced in 1930, which I have written about here.

Epi Shalfoon and Melody Boys

In 1935 Shalfoon relocated to Auckland and in July began his famous residence at the Crystal palace in Mt. Eden, which would last until his death in 1953. The reformed Melody Boys quickly became one of the most popular bands in town. The Melody Boys (like the Croad Band at the Orange Hall) was a training ground for most of the jazz musicians in Auckland. A position in Epi’s band (as it was affectionately known) was a great chance to train your memory (because Shalfoon banned sheet music from the bandstand as it placed a literal and metaphorical barrier between the musicians and their dancing audience), and to collectively work up arrangements for different combinations of instruments (because the band would change configurations depending on other gigs).

Shalfoon emphasised the fact that they were playing for dancing audiences and so all of their repertoire, tempos, form, and improvised solos should always reflect that fact. He was so insistent that the band should take care of the dancers that he would dance a few times each night to test the tempos and how well each piece worked for dancing.


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