Auckland based pianist Alice ‘Al’ Clarke was one of New Zealand’s earliest- and longest active bandleaders on the dance/jazz scene. She shortened her name to Al when she began leading bands in the 1920s because she thought that Alice sounded too prissy. Because of this many people (who had not seen her) thought she was a man and newspaper reports of her bands sometimes mistakenly say Mr rather than Miss. While this might have been seen as a problem, to Al Clarke it was actually useful because it was harder for women bandleaders to get gigs in the early and mid-twentieth century (and she seemed to get a kick out of the mistaken identity).
Unlike many musicians she never played the cabaret circuit, and preferred to play for weddings, birthday parties, company or society dances (such as Oddfellow clubs or Masonic lodges). Not that she lacked for work rejecting the cabaret circuit and was kept busy throughout the year with a variety of gigs. She also seemed to enjoy being able to play a wide variety of music at these gigs (for both dancing and listening), than could be done at a cabaret. Clarke led combinations from trios through to 12-15 piece orchestras depending on the type of gig. She also played solo gigs- what we might now term cocktail piano at restaurants, hotels, and social clubs.
Unlike the majority of female musicians in the 1920s-1960s she did not give up performing after marriage- and even kept her maiden name professionally. This makes her something of a rebel for her generation (her husband too for that matter). Almost all women musicians gave up their performing work when they married during this period (as a sign that men were able to take care of them), especially the instrumentalists. The only other female instrumentalist that I know of pre-1960 who didn’t give up her work after marriage was pianist Nancy Harrie, but she married a fellow musician who understood why she should keep performing. Vocalistes also mostly retired on marriage, though some, like Al Clarke and Nancy Harrie, married men who understood that this wasn’t just a job it was a vocation. There is also the fact that singing was a more gender appropriate job- even in a cabaret band- than playing an instrument professionally.
Clarke was well known as a strict, but fair bandleader- tolerating alcohol consumption on the gig, but not sloppy playing or scruffy dress. She also paid her musicians above the union rate, which was very important in the Depression of the 1930s when people were scrabbling to survive. Paying above rate meant the difference between not having to choose between paying the rent or eating three meals a day. However, paying above rate for the rest of her career indicated a deep respect for the musicians she worked with and made it clear to them that she wasn’t just in it for the money.
What is also interesting is that she almost always led bands of male musicians. There was one exception when she co-led the Gala Girls with Elsie Nixon in the early 1930s. Most women when they led bands, led ‘all girl’ bands or mixed bands. This could have been sheer pragmatism on her part. In an age when women were more likely than not to give up their jobs at marriage if not before, it’s hard to schedule an entire season of company balls (April-November) if you’re not sure of which musicians will be available/willing/able to take on the gig. Also as a married woman who continued to perform it’s likely that she would give short shrift to those who quit.
Like most professional musicians in New Zealand Clarke had a day gig- musical gigs simply didn’t pay enough to be able to survive on performing alone unless you were a superstar (and those I can count on my fingers). She worked as a song plugger first at Robertson’s and then later at Lewis Eady’s Music Store’s. She would perform the latest sheet music for customers and try and entice them into purchasing it. She also worked in the record divisions dealing with the latest imports. These work activities also informed her performing because she could keep up with the latest trends and insert them into her gigs.
While Al Clarke was most active between the late 1920s and mid-1940s she was a well-known figure on Auckland’s music scene into the 1980s. In addition to the types of gigs I’ve outlined above she also spent a decade as the resident pianist at Kawau Island’s Mansion House (“I played the piano all night and went yachting all day”), and accompanied various choirs. She was clearly a woman who happily embraced all aspects of being a professional musician.