It’s really early on a cold and wintery Saturday morning in an otherwise deserted high school in central Auckland. Sounds of warming up trumpets puncture the air. Trombonists slide gaily over their horns, and there is some early morning gentle banter kicking in. These are some of New Zealand’s finest jazz musicians, and they have turned out for no other reason than to join up with fellow musos and have a big band blow. Merv Thomas, an instution in New Zealand music since the 1950s, is passing round the trombone packs. And Neville Grenfell, one of the finest lead trumpeters around is doing the same with the trumpets.
The saxes are a little different. Ben Sinclair represents the third generation in the band this morning – the young ones, still in their 20s. He’s a very fine musician all round. But today he is playing lead alto, as well as organising the line up for the band. Ben is a devotee of all things Basie, adores Marshall Royal and we will be playing some of his transcriptions of Basie charts today. Roger Manins is in the sax section too, and what a musician he is! I’d pay just to come in and listen to him.
But there is no audience. It’s just the band, really getting off on this ensemble kind of playing, instead of the hours spent alone in the bedroom at home with the play-alongs. The two hours fly by in a blur of Basie and other tunes, and for a band that only gets together three or four times a year, it’s not too bad. “Imagine what it could be like with a bit more practice”, says band leader Bernie Allen – a name synonymous with not just jazz in New Zealand, but television music and youth jazz education also. Mike Walker is light on the keys, and Bruce King is driving the band along on drums. You can’t help but play the dots in the right places with these guys behind you. I’ve admired them all forever.
So why am I there? I’m certainly far from one of the above mentioned “finest jazz musicians”. But I can hold my own in a big band, particularly down the bottom end on baritone saxophone. Years of playing lead alto through my illustrious (joking) career mean that at least I know what is needed from a section, and I do my best to sit up under Ben, in support.
Glenn Bartlett and I, and sometimes a few others now in our 50s, represent the second generation in the band today. We learnt at the hands of these first generation masters, and they have continued to influence our musical choices and careers over these last 30 odd years. They too had their own mentors, sadly mostly gone now, but never forgotten in the stories that have been passed down.
There is no generation gap in music, and never has been, and this band is evidence of this. There is mutual respoect. This kind of sociological network is quite hard to replicate in other areas of life, some of which can be quit4 hierarchical. For example, you seldom get it in groups of former employees of an organisation. Such a group may limp on for a while with one person as the key driver, but eventually and inevitably things taper off and people drift away.
This really doesn’t happen with music, particularly if you’ve played together and toured together over the years. Late last year many of us farwelled renowned musician and all round gentleman, Jimmy Warren, who left us a day short of his 98th birthday. Right to the end Jimmy was sharing his musical stories with me and many other musicians. I was lucky enough to record him earlier in the year, and his stories, which date back to before the second world war, will live on. Jimmy’s stories date back to before the second world war. It was touching to see some of the really young ones pay their respects to Jimmy too. Jimmy was also a regular visitor to our Saturday morning sessions, indulging his love for music until the very end.
The baton is with Ben and his young colleagues now and it’s in safe hands. These guys won’t have the same opportunities that we did, with prolific recording opportunities for TV and radio, and lots of live performances. Those days are long gone. Versatility is the name of the music survival game today. These guys are now creating the memories for future musical generations.
So what is it that drags guys like Chris Nielson, Haydn Godfrey, Roger, Ben, Neville, Merv, Glenn, Bruce, Bernie and Mike out of bed at this hour just for a rehearsal? It’s the bug. It’s the bug that bites you early on in your musical life that imbibes in you the inherent inability to say no when the chance for a high quality blow with some top musicians is on offer. And it’s bloody hard to get this out of your system. And I can tell you one thing – there is not much else that wll get me out of bed at 7am on a Saturday morning.