Blue Smoke and all that jazz

Blue Smoke

I went to hear Chris Bourke speak about his new book  Blue Smoke: The lost dawn of New Zealand Popular Music 1918-1964 at the Auckland Art Gallery.

Blue Smoke is a comprehensive look at the Auckland music scene between 1918 when WW1 finished and 1964 when the Beatles arrived in New Zealand and changed the popular music scene forever.  The book, richly illustrated with photographs and memorabilia, captures a time when jazz was a happening thing, crooners and charmers filled the music halls, and the Maori Community Centre was the ‘jazziest, jumpingest place in the city’.

I know very little about music and this session was filled with people in leather jackets, tight t-shirts and vigorous hair who greeted the author enthusiastically and nodded knowingly when he spoke of this jazz trombonist and that jive pianist. I felt totally out of my depth.

However, I was in for a real education. Chris Bourke is former music editor of Rip It Up and Real Groove, and author of the Crowded House biography Something so strong.  He has a quiet, unassuming manner and his breadth of knowledge is astounding. What this man doesn’t know about music in New Zealand, isn’t worth knowing.

He narrowed the field to speak about Auckland in the 1950s and 60s when jazz permeated local culture through films and jukeboxes. Local artists played at venues such as the Crystal Palace, the Orange Ballroom and the Hi Diddle Griddle to bohemians, cool cats and the smart set. People filled the halls and danced the night away in spite of the pubs being closed at 6pm and Prime Minister Walter Nash wanting ‘everyone to be in bed by eight’.

Chris Bourke at Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2012Artists such as Mavis Rivers, Johnny Cooper, Walter Smith and Rush Munro were legends. Ray Paparoa, the ‘Maori Elvis’, emerged on the scene in his teens. The drummer in his band was just 12 years old.

The Maori Community Centre was set up in 1949 as a meeting place for Maori coming to the city for work. It was the place where “the lights were dim, the music was real cool, and there were no restrictions.” Howard Morrison, Johnny Devlin and Ray Colombus cut their musical teeth in the talent quests there. In 1950, Ruru Karaitiana’s ‘Blue Smoke’, became the first pop song to be written and produced in New Zealand. It was a hit. The album Kiwi Nostalgia gives you the flavour of some of these artists.

I thoroughly enjoyed this session. Chris Bourke played excerpts from old music recordings that set my toe tapping. My father-in-law is a mad keen jazz fan. He and his brothers are always swapping recordings they find through friends or online. I now understand what the fascination is. I’m going to buy him this book for his birthday.

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