Old but restless jazz comes to the rescue

00:04, Nov 13 2012
HIGH NOTE: Nathan Haines’ new album "sounds as good as any international release, ever".

The release of the 2013 Woollaston Nelson Jazz and Blues festival programme last week had me thinking again about moments in New Zealand music, such as those awkward moments in the 1990s when your kids were watching a video by a New Zealand band for the first time and, as soon as the New Zealand On Air logo was displayed at the end of the clip, the kids said the band sucked.

About the time the internet arrived and Headless Chickens folded and the tide was going out on the Finn-Dobbyn era, it seemed as if everything good was coming from off shore.

The golden age of 80s touring bands stuttered to a close and by the end of the 1990s, Kiwi radio had turned its back on local music in favour of Dire Straits and Sting. Kiwi musicians were hurting and in dispute with Television New Zealand over video play, and audiences had stopped supporting local bands.

It was a toxic cocktail of cultural cringe and tall-poppy-ism. Kiwi popular music almost had the life sucked out of it. By 2000, airplay for New Zealand bands was under 2 per cent. If it wasn't dead, Kiwi music was on life support.

In the background, however, another part of the music industry was flourishing. In Wellington and Christchurch, new jazz schools began to enrol students in degree courses. Students taught by talented educators learned the dark arts of jazz: reading music, improvising, reharmonisation, arranging and performance.

Under the radar, while Kiwi pop wrestled with its low hum, jazz continued on a slow and steady upwards trajectory.


Making it in the pop industry is hard. Making it in the jazz world is brutal. The deep history of jazz, its coded discipline and the peer approval required to move a jazz career forwards can be overwhelming for the beginner. It requires much individual self-belief and years of practice.

Despite these challenges, New Zealand jazz has come of age. New Zealand jazz saxophonist Nathan Haines played at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in London last week. He has just released an album, The Poet's Embrace, which sounds as good as any international release.

Similarly, great albums have been released this year by chanteuse Whirimako Black (The Late Night Plays was produced in Neil Finn's Roundhead studio) and Auckland pianist Kevin Fields. His album Field of Vision is one of the best jazz albums I have heard in the last five years.

A couple of months ago, Rodger Fox took his Wellington Jazz Orchestra to Capitol Records in Los Angeles to record a new album. Far North-born bassist Richard Hammond, now based in the United States, is currently on tour with Grammy award-winning jazz vocalist Patti Austin.

New Zealand jazz musicians are now appearing regularly as sidemen on international shows.

Ironically, if you check the lineup of almost any successful Kiwi rock or pop outfit, you will find that somewhere behind the scenes there is a graduate of one of our jazz courses directing the music. It finally feels as if musicianship is king again, and that's great news for New Zealand music at large.