Reflections of a former muso

It’s almost 30 years since I retired from commercial piano playing and thinking about that today made me feel positively creaky. Strangely, even after all that time, I still see myself as a muso.

I guess it all started with Florence Miller, my music teacher in Lune Street, Oamaru. I say ‘guess’, because what she taught me was far from the music I was later paid to play. I was her rebel student, and though I’d faked my way to honours in a Trinity College exam, what I really wanted to do was play popular music, especially rock ‘n roll. I asked Mrs Miller to get me such music, but it was beyond her comprehension.

Finally she relented and promised to get some pop sheet music. But first I would have to master two difficult classical pieces.  The old biddy strung me along on this mastery business for months, but finally I was note-perfect and she had to give way.

Under the Double Eagle MarchThe great day of the pop music unveiling arrived.

Out it came with a limp flourish: J F Wagner’s Under the Double Eagle March! Indeed it had once been a hit tune – for Sousa’s Band in 1913.

That was too much for me. I stuck around for short while, then stayed away from pianos for 18 months. I didn’t want to play my classical pieces, but I couldn’t play anything else either. I had no idea how to play anything without a written score and knew no one who could show me. Certainly there were no music teachers in Oamaru who could have helped.

Then I came across an Australian music book called Zella’s 5-2-1 Method. This explained what chords were all about and showed how to read and apply chord symbols, like F and C7, that were printed above the treble stave in popular sheet music.

Zella’s method was actually pretty crappy and it took years to weed her vamp style out of my playing, but she had set me on the right road. Or if not the right road, then a road that would suit me once the bumps were smoothed out. Today some classical piano teachers take a more applied and practical approach to harmony, but in those days most classically trained pianists were as useless as a radio without electricity unless they had music in front of them or had memorised the music note by note.

I could now play ‘by ear’ and it became a matter of pride that I didn’t need ‘the dots’ any more. I would eventually realise that a modicum of sight reading was useful when playing at a higher level, including accompanying visiting singers and playing in pick-up groups. Finally I saw some point to what Mrs Miller had taught me. (Actually there was more…I now have a large collection of classical piano recordings.)

By my last year at school, now in Palmerston North, I fairly competently bashed out pop hits and watered-down ragtime à la Winfred Attwood and Russ Conway.

I was asked to play at a couple of 21st birthday parties. Unexpectedly, I was paid. Amazing! What an incentive to study and practice! I thrashed the piano for hours and listened to a lot of music, which by this time included blues and jazz.

Hoping more money could be made out of this music thing, I rang the secretary of the local musicians’ union, Alf Ganderton. Alf insisted on auditioning me and made me learn some  old-time dances – the Maxina, Veleta, Destiny Waltz and a Gay Gordons medley.

The Gay Gordons

The Gay Gordons dance. I worked up a medley for this that included Maori Battalion Marching Song, I’ve Got a Loverly Bunch of Coconuts, Hello, Hello, Who’s Your Lady Fair, and more. (Google Images.)

With these already mostly passé dances in my repertoire, I did the occasional gig – usually passed on to me by Alf when he was double-booked.

(I would later work for Alf in a very different capacity during university summer holidays. He was foreman of the Longburn Freezing Works’ smallgoods department, where I worked for several seasons. Alf had a fat, hairless huhu grub of a head and was known to the workers as ‘Screaming Skull’.)

During my first year at Massey University I formed my first real band, with Ross Silcock on alto sax, Andy (?) on bass guitar and Vaughan Bryant on drums. I advertised myself by playing a lot on the piano in the campus« refectory building. Other musos would turn up.

We did a few gigs, though I still made most of my money playing solo piano at 21sts and weddings. Then the Family Hotel in Rangitikei Street opened the city’s first garden bar and gave me a regular Saturday afternoon job.

The following year we added two good musicians: clarinet and sax player Ken Cottier and trumpeter Bruce (?). A few other musos came and went.

One of the year’s highlights was setting a world record for the continuous playing of the Tin Roof Blues. This was easily achieved because no one else had attempted the feat. We lasted 16 hours before retiring, pissed as newts, with the self-awarded record and a small amount of attention from local media.

At the clock tower in the square in Palmerston North, setting a world record for the continous playing of the Tin Roof Blues. By this stage our drummer had left, afrter destroying his snare drum.

On the clock tower sound stage in The Square, Palmerston North, setting a world record for the longest continuous playing of the Tin Roof Blues. By this stage our drummer had departed, almost paralytic, after destroying his snare drum. There were more musicians than this, but a couple of them would usually be taking a break in the nearby Railway Hotel.

Cutting my teeth in the music business: with the Massey Jazz Band in 1964, playing at a university ‘woolshed hop’. This was one of the more decorous gigs we played. There were some grubby occasions. (Click to enlarge)

The next year things got a bit flasher. Bruce had dropped out of uni, Ross moved aside and we became the Massey Swing Quartet (with abject apologies to the Benny Goodman and Pete Fountain quartets).

Massey Swing Quartet, playing at the 1966 NZ Universities Arts Festival jazz concert, which I organised. Left to right: Vaughan Bryant, Ken Cottier, Lindsay Savell, John MacGibbon.

Massey Swing Quartet, playing at the 1966 NZ Universities Arts Festival jazz concert, which I organised. Left to right: Vaughan Bryant, Ken Cottier, Lindsay Savell, John MacGibbon.

Pre-Aardvark – my first residency in Wellington. The John MacGibbon Quartet at the Skyline Cabaret, ca 1970. This band was later resident at the Grand Hotel in Willis Street. We entertained in the lounge bar on Friday nights and on Saturday nights we  played in the restaurant for ‘dine ‘n dance’.

In late 1966 I moved to Wellington and took a job in the economics section of the NZ Dairy Board. Musically, things looked up. I did solo gigs (some now elevated to licensed restaurants), played with pick-up bands for balls in the Town Hall, then formed my own bands. We played in residencies and also in local halls throughout Wellington and the Hutt Valley, for weddings, 21sts, company socials etc.

I was mightily impressed with a piano I played in the Town Hall. It was a massive Steinway grand that would be rolled out of air-conditioned sanctuary just for me.

For a while, my signature was on the Wellington Town Hall Steinway beside that of Lili Krause. It was removed.

For a while, my signature was on the Wellington Town Hall Steinway beside that of Lili Krause. It was removed.

Inside the piano, on the iron frame, were signatures of big-name pianists who had played the instrument. I added my own in a space next to Lili Krause. Next time I played the piano I looked for my signature but it had been removed. Funny that…

I first retired from professional playing in 1975, when I broke up my band Aardvark. We’d enjoyed a fair bit of success on the Wellington scene, including being being the first resident group at the swanky, brand-new ‘international’ James Cook hotel. That lasted for about three years, then we moved to residencies in the Abel Tasman and Waterloo hotels. Those were days when people went out for what was known as ‘dine and dance’. We also did recording work and outside gigs including quite a few engagements at Harry Seresin’s famous Settlement cafe in Willis St – a magnet for Wellington’s arty set.

Aardvark installed as resident band in Wellington’s flash new James Cook Hotel. Me on the left. Mike Loader singing. A very baby-faced Bruce McKinnon on drums (he had toured the world as a 15-year old boy wonder with the National Band and was a 16 year old underage music degree student at Victoria Uni when he joined us). On bass guitar is John Trethewey, one of the best natural musicians I ever had the pleasure of playing with. We started out wearing suits and ties, but soon went casual.

It was getting harder and harder to keep a good band together. We had great musicians – people like bassists Clint Brown (still playing with the Waratahs), John Trethewey, Paul du Fresne and Peter Don, and drummer and future NZSO principal percussionist Bruce McKinnon. Mike Loader was our lead singer and though he lacked the soul and ‘feel’ I really wanted, he’d cut his teeth on the professional Asian circuit and was a good front man. And he was totally reliable, which counts for a lot in the music world.

I never wanted to be fully professional, though I did have opportunities. I had another career and was content to play every Friday and Saturday with extra nights from time to time, especially towards Xmas each year. But I shared the bandstand with some players who wanted to work more often and tended to move on to full-time opportunities. That was a hassle, and so was a growing inability to handle the late hours. That was partly caused by advancing age but mostly by the advent of babies who prevented me sleeping in.

One memorable outside gig: a Christmas concert at Mt Crawford Prison, with Aardvark augmented by some of the better local musos. We kicked the show off with Work Song (“breaking up big rocks on the chain gang / breaking rocks and servin’ my time”). We’d been nervous about playing this song, but they loved it. After Work Song, and especially at the end of the concert, the prisoners treated us to ear-splitting bashing of spoons on tin plates. Initially it was a bit of a worry – were they working themselves up to a riot? But it turned out to be just their way of expressing appreciation. Poor Kathy had to endure a lot of cat-calling and wolf whistling. Top: Kevin Clark, myself, Rodger Fox, Clint Brown. Centre: Kathy Saunders, a TV personality. Bottom: Dave Parsons, Mike Loader, Bruce McKinnon. The photo appeared on the front page of the Evening Post. (Click to enlarge)

It had been good fun. Lucrative as well – Aardvark was reputedly the best-paid band in Wellington and the extra cash certainly helped Liz and I as young marrieds. But I gave it all up and concentrated on my day job.

Then, two years later we moved to Cromwell, where I succumbed to pressure and started playing again. I was the best piano player  in Central Otago – by default. Back then the standard of music in those parts was very low. While I’d been an above-average commercial pianist in Wellington, some others could play better – certainly in their specialties. My saving grace was versatility. Now I was the local maestro, but only in relative sense. It always felt a bit false to me.

Some of my musical friends in Central Otago. Playing a duet with another pianist, Les Richardson, with Geoff Stevens on bass. This was at the Stevens’s home in Alexandra where many fun times were had.

I enjoyed playing again in Central Otago. I formed a little trio with Geoff Stevens from Alexandra on double bass and Dick Fraser, from Cromwell on drums. They weren’t good players, but they were enthusiastic and fun to be with. We played in Alexandra, Cromwell, Tarras, Lowburn, Luggate, and Wanaka. We kicked off live music at Olivers, the soon-to-become famous restaurant in Clyde started by Fleur Sullivan and John Brain (who had been assistant chef at the James Cook when I played there). Fleur installed an antique grand piano that looked fantastic but was unplayable – like most pianos in Central Otago. I ended up buying a Yamaha CP30 electric piano in self-defence.

We did the odd gig in Queenstown – an oasis where there were good musicians. I also played solo piano in Queenstown, mostly filling in at the Coachman restaurant, then the flash eatery in town – and resisting invitations to make it a regular thing. I was amused one night in the Coachman when some Americans were astounded to hear me playing the blues. How could a non-American do that?

My musical stamping ground in Central Otago, with an extension to Okuru on the West Coast (marked ‘A’), where I played at the notorious Whitebaiters’ Ball.

One night after a gig at the Coachman, I went to a musos’ jam session. There I was invited to play keyboards with a country and western band at the annual Whitebaiters’ Ball at remote Okuru, south of Haast on the West Coast. Definitely one of the highlights of my musical career.

No, it was the lowlight. I’d done swanky stuff in Wellington, but this was the opposite side of the coin. Truly a gig to treasure.

The revelers were a rum bunch who’d crawled from under rocks in the dank West Coast bush. They could have been cast in the movie Deliverance, except it hadn’t been made yet.

About 11pm, word passed around: “It’s all on.” Scores were to be settled. But not yet. They still needed several more hours of heavy drinking and the occasional twirl around the dancefloor. Then at three in the morning came the perfect brawl: floor awash with beer, macho snarling,  lurching fisticuffs, broken glass, blood and weeping women.

Astonishingly, no one was seriously hurt and, most important, the band was unscathed. We should have been behind chicken-wire like the band at a country bar in the Blues Brothers movie. (I once played behind a barrier like that, at a NZ Universities Winter Tournament ball held in the cattle pavilion at the showgrounds in Palmerston North. We needed protection from flying beer cans.)

My final gig in Central Otago was on the last day of 1979, celebrating New Years Eve at the Lowburn Hotel, then under sentence of death by dambuilding. A few days later I left Cromwell and moved to Sydney. That was the end of commercial playing, other than a paid background music gig a few years ago in Greytown – an unpleasant struggle against a horrible piano in the local workingmens’ club.

Scene of my final band gig on New Years Eve 1979 – the Lowburn Hotel, on a site now 20 metres beneath Lake Dunstan.

Me, playing the Lowburn pub’s old goanna. Like most Central Otago pianos, the Squire & Son instrument was barely playable and I spent most of the gig on my Yamaha electric piano. (Click to see the animals better)

Lowburn pub Sunday School, 1 January 1980

Public bar in the Lowburn Hotel, New Year’s Day 1980. We had played there the night before and I went back to collect my electric piano and amplifier, taking my camera with me. This was a Sunday and the usual ‘Sunday School’ was operating. Back then bars were not supposed to open on Sundays, but the local cop wasn’t concerned. He probably drank there as well. More of the pub’s stuffed animals and birds can be seen. There was also an imitation frozen lake with a couple of curling stones on it.  (Click to enlarge)

Over the years, in parallel with my band playing, I was pianist for musical theatre and revues. That started at Massey University, where I played for the annual capping concert. I did other revue work there as well, and continued it later in Wellington.

In the late 60s/early 70s I had a solo gig playing for a class at the Daniels-Bayley Academy of Dancing in Cuba Street. That was fun. The instructor, Valerie Bayley, was pioneering jazz-dance in New Zealand and I developed a good rapport with her. The music choice was entirely mine, and I had to sense what styles and tempos would be appropriate, like the old-time pianists at the silent movies.

When I moved south to Cromwell, my musical credentials had preceded me and the day I arrived, I was told I would be pianist and musical director for the local musical society’s production of the Pajama Game. That was my first and only Broadway musical. I faked my way though it, and the following year I directed the society’s musical revue, which we took on tour to Alexandra, Bannockburn and the [very first] Queenstown Winter Festival. Later, in 1984 when I was working as a press secretary, I played for a music hall put on by parliamentary staff and politicians.

I still do some unpaid appearances, in presentations about my book Piano in the Parlour and occasionally at Martinborough’s Wharekaka retirement home. No public blues, rock ’n roll or jazz, and sometimes I really have a yearning to get back to that again. Difficult though, without an an electronic keyboard and amplifier, and a band.

I still play every day to amuse myself and thank my parents for starting me on piano in the first place. Imagine if I had been given a trombone…

I first retired from playing back in 1975, when I broke up my last band Aardvark, which had enjoyed a fair bit of success on the Wellington scene, being the first resident group at the swanky brand-new James Cook hotel. That lasted for about three years, then we moved to residencies in the Abel Tasman and Waterloo hotels. Those were days when people went out for what was known as ‘dine and dance’. We also did outside gigs and some recording work.
It was getting harder and harder to keep a good band together. We had some great musicians – people like bassists Clint Brown, John Trethewey and Paul du Fresne and drummer and future NZSO principal percussionist Bruce McKinnon. Mike Loader was our lead singer and though he lacked the kind of soul and ‘feel’ that I wanted, he was a great front man and entertainer who had cut his teeth on the Asian circuit and he was totally reliable. Which counts for a lot in the music world.
I never wanted to be fully professional. I had another career and was content to play every Friday and Saturday with extra nights from time to time, especially towards Xmas each year. But I shared the bandstand with some players who wanted to work more often, and tended to move on to better opportunities. That was a hassle, and so was a growing inability to handle the late hours. That was partly caused by advancing age but mostly by the advent of babies who prevented me sleeping in.
It had been good fun. Lucrative as well – we were reputed to be the best-paid band in Wellington, and the extra cash certainly helped Liz and I, as young marrieds. But I gave it all up and concentrated on my day job. Then, two years later we moved to Cromwell, where I succumbed to pressure and started playing again. I was the best piano player  in Central Otago – by default. The standard of music in those parts – back then anyway – was abysmal. While I’d been a better than average nightclub pianist in Wellington, several others were better than me. Now I was the king, and though the adulation was nice for a while, it became embarrassing. They really didn’t know any better and I felt a fraud.
But I enjoyed playing again in Central Otago. I formed a little trio with Geoff Stevens from Alexandra on double bass and Dick Fraser, from Cromwell on drums. They weren’t good players, but they were enthusiastic and fun to be with. We played in Alexandra, Cromwell, Lowburn, Luggate, and Wanaka. We kicked off live music at Olivers, the soon-to-become famous restaurant in Clyde started by Fleur Sullivan and John (?), who had been chef at the James Cook when I played there. Fleur installed an antique grand piano that looked fantastic but was unplayable – like so many pianos in Central Otago. (I ended up buying a Yamaha CP30 electric piano in self-defence.)
We also did the odd gig in Queenstown – that was a musical oasis where there were some good players. I also played solo piano in Queenstown, mostly filling in at the Coachman restaurant, then the flashest eatery in town. I resisted invitations to make it a regular thing. I was amused one night in the Coachman when some Americans told  me they were astounded to hear me playing the blues. How could that be possible for a non-American?
One night after a gig at the Coachman, I went to a musos’ jam session in a local pub. As a result of that I was asked to play keyboards with a country and western band at the annual Whitebaiters’ Ball at the Okuru Hall, a few kilometres south of Haast on the west coast. Definitely one of the highlights of my musical career. Well, really it was the lowlight. I’d done some pretty swanky stuff in Wellington, but this was a gig to treasure.
The revelers were a rum bunch who’d crawled out from under rocks in the dank West Coast bush. They could have been cast in the movie Deliverance. About 11pm word was passed around: “It’s all on.” Scores were to be settled. But not yet. They still needed several more hours of heavy drinking and the occasional twirl around the dancefloor. Then at three am the perfect brawl started: floor awash with beer, broken glass, fisticuffs, blood, macho snarling and weeping women. Astoundingly, no one was seriously hurt. Fortunately the band was unscathed. We should have been behind chicken-wire like the band at a country bar in the Blues Brothers. (I did once play behind a barrier like that, at a NZ Universities Winter Tournament ball held at the showgrounds in Palmerston North. We needed protection against flying cans of beer.)
My last gig in Central Otago was on the last day of 1979, celebrating New Years Eve at the Lowburn Pub, which would later be demolished to make way for the new Dunstan hydro lake. A few days afterwards I left Cromwell and moved to Sydney. That was the end of commercial playing, if I don’t count one paid background music gig a few years ago in Greytown – an unpleasant night of struggling with a horrible piano at the local workingmens’ club.
I still do a few unpaid appearances, in presentations about my book Piano in the Parlour and occasional sessions at Martinborough’s Wharekaka retirement home. No blues, rock ’n roll or jazz, and sometimes I have a yearning to get back to that again. Very difficult though, without a band. And without an electronic keyboard and amplifier.
And I play most days to amuse myself and give thanks to my parents starting me on piano in the first place. Imagine if I had been given a trombone…
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6 Responses to Reflections of a former muso

  1. Guy says:

    Enjoyed reading that. Cool pix too.

  2. Moon Over Martinborough says:

    This was great. You should write more about those crazy gigs you did. I could read an entire story on the Whitebaiters’ Ball alone!

  3. John MacGibbon says:

    There are a few more stories that could get told and I might get round to them over the Xmas break.

    Wouldn’t it have been great to have had a little digital camera at the whitebaiters gig?

    I thought at the time that it would have made a good story for the NZ Listener, which I had written occasionally for. But it really needed photos to work for that magazine.

  4. Martin Hanssen says:

    Enjoyed reading this. John Trethewey who played bass in Aardvark was also the bass guitarist of the Wellington band Dream Machine in 1969/1970. John was only 15 or 16 at the time and was already an impressive bass player. John took over from his brother Mark. The singer was my brother Hans Hanssen and the drummer was Dave Longhurst. Think I have a photo in a shoebox in the attic of the Dream Machine line-up with John.

  5. Helen Lagan says:

    Very much enjoyed reading this – what a great slice of musical history ! I knew John Trethewey in the mid-70s and met up with him again several times over the intervening years. A great musician and all-round good guy RIP John

  6. Anne Kreeger says:

    As an old friend of John Trethewey from his London days, it was very sad to learn of his death via this blog. Would somebody please be kind enough to email me as I would be grateful for an update on John’s “post London” days. We lost contact in the mid 80’s.

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