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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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 workingmen’s club.
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…