The Elusive Miss MacDonald

The title sounds like start of a good mystery novel, and it certainly is a mystery of sorts. One of the things I discovered in my Lilburn research last year was that women were a far greater part of the music scene in the 1920s that I knew (and I already thought that they were pretty visible). When I was in Dunedin and Christchurch in particular I kept running across references in papers and collections about local women who were bandleaders, conductors or section leaders. In fact at a rough estimate from what I gathered from programmes and advertising I would say that during the 1920s nearly 40% of local band/orchestra leaders were women. And of course, that’s not including the usually un-named side musicians who could equally be men or women.

In the midst of the research rush, this is all very exciting, but there was one rather glaring problem: they were almost always advertised as Mrs or Miss [surname], not even a first initial. Now, this may be a southern thing- I’ve researched a number of women on Auckland’s jazz scene who were advertised with both first and last names, but the further south I travel research wise the less likely it is that women are fully identified in advertising or reports of gigs. There were some exceptions, such as Miss Margaret Middleton, but mostly I’d be lucky to even see a first initial, as is the case with Miss E. Tilleyshort. Both of these women were bandleaders in Christchurch alongside Miss MacDonald (or Mcdonald)- my elusive title character and real bandleader.

Despite not having clues to her identity, I can tell you a bit about Miss MacDonald’s career in the 1920s. She was a pianist who performed as a solo pianist and an accompanist, and who ran several bands. It appears that she was something of an impresario running everything from small jazz bands to full dance orchestras (with string sections). She had a regular gig playing for the Christchurch Art Gallery dances, but also regularly played for dances at the Winter Garden and for the Christchurch Jazz Club. She also played for dances outside of Christchurch central- in Riccarton, Halswell, and New Brighton. These gigs could comprise of solo piano work, or one of her bands, seemingly dependent on the type of gig, how classy it wanted to appear, or how large it was going to be (needless to say, the bigger the gig the more likely it was going to be a band playing). She would also regularly play for charity shows accompanying singers and dancers, and worked as an accompanist for other artists.

What she played also depended on the gig. Miss MacDonald’s repertoire seems to have been wide and varied and easily encompassed classical material through to the latest jazz hits. I don’t know if she created her own arrangements for her bands or whether she composed her own music. However, it seems likely that she would have arranged for her bands as stock arrangements could only take a leader so far and sometimes they were uninspiring, or you couldn’t find one for a particular piece.

By all accounts she was a popular bandleader and musician, and much in demand around Christchurch during the 1920s. It’s hard to tell if she had a lasting impact on the scene, either through her own actions or those of people she worked with, but it would be fascinating to find out what her legacy to the Christchurch jazz scene was. It seems that she was quite supportive of other local jazz bands, and perhaps took a hand in suggesting rising bands that would be good for the ‘extras’ at a dance (while the band is taking a break), but did she do more? Did she influence other women to be performers and leaders? Did she teach in any capacity? There are so many blanks in Miss MacDonald’s career that need to be filled. With more research, I hope that I can fill in some of the blanks about her career and maybe identify her more fully. With a first name I could track her through mentions in social columns in the newspapers to a certain degree and perhaps paint a proper picture about this elusive pianist and leader.

Miss MacDonald serves as an example of the many women who were performers and bandleaders in the 1920s of whom there is very little trace left. In such a year as 2018, with the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand, the stories of women like Miss MacDonald need to be found and told to fill in the blanks of New Zealand’s music history.




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