Researching the Jazz Age in New Zealand

2017 was an amazing year for me. Getting my first really big fellowship (thanks to the Douglas Lilburn Trust) that allowed me to spend the entire year focusing on a research project…and get paid for it. That project was investigating the Jazz Age in New Zealand: how and when jazz got here (pretty early on and from many places), what people thought jazz was (music, dance, fashion, emotions, ‘other’) and what the local reactions to jazz were (all sorts!). I started this research in my PhD, and I became fascinated with the different ways that jazz was seen by New Zealanders during the 1920s. I’ve shared some of my early research on here before [link to jazz in print], and I really thought that I would actually blog about the research I was doing last year…last year, but no, the research took over my life.


So, what was I doing? Well, a lot of travel frankly. In the past year I’ve been to Hamilton (once), Wellington (four times), Christchurch (twice), Dunedin (once), Melbourne (once), Sydney (once), Canberra (once), and of course in between all that I was doing research at home. If any of you follow me on Twitter you may have noticed this photo of all the library/visitor cards I’ve acquired over the past year- there are too many to fit in my wallet- not to mention public transport cards!

I visited various libraries and archives, tracking down a variety of collections (from specific music collections to people’s personal papers that might include some reference to either the 1920s or jazz), and literally got my hands dirty (old newspapers and photographs are dirt magnets and you can’t always use gloves because sometimes they’ll do more damage to the item than clean bare hands will).


Fragile scrapbooks are also dirt magnets…

What did I find? A lot! Too much to note in one post, but I’ll be doing some blogs on some of the things I found this year. Some of it expanded on things I knew about already from my previous research, but some of it was BRAND NEW INFORMATION™, which was very exciting and led me in new directions of research. The information that I’ve gathered has really brought to life the vibrancy of urban New Zealand during the 1920s. For example, we did not ‘close at 5’ as some commentators would have us believe, and there were plenty of leisure activities for people to enjoy (in other words New Zealand was not a dull and boring place with nothing to do). Adjunct to that is how New Zealanders garnered ideas and popular culture from all sorts of places during the 1920s, so while ‘Mother England’ might have still been predominant, it was no longer as all encompassing as it had been- the shift to American popular culture hegemony is starting to be seen, but there are also other influences from Europe, Asia and Australia to be taken into account.

The new technologies of recording, radio broadcasting and film saw enormous developments in the 1920s, and New Zealanders were dramatically impacted by those changes. We went from silent films to ones with synchronised sound (ok, well, theoretically!). We went from no formal radio broadcasting networks to being able to listen in to a good portion of other countries radio (more to come on that in another blog!). Finally Australasia went from having to import records from the US/UK/Europe to having local pressing plants and recording studios in Australia, which was a major game changer in terms of mass imports of record and the recording of local sound and local music (including those from New Zealand).

Women played much more significant roles in the New Zealand music industry than is usually thought of as performers, leaders, conductors, and musical directors in all forms of musical performance, but in particular dance bands and musical theatre. This means that while the music industry was certainly male oriented, there were a significant proportion of women involved, and they were frequently in a position of leadership. This is very different from established perceptions about women in music during this period (the lone pianist or girl singer), and certainly different from perceptions of women in music in other countries. Again, more on this in another blog!

This is just the briefest overview of  a few interesting bits from my research last year. I’ll be posting much more in the coming months as I gather my thoughts for articles and the book.



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