This is Part 2, read Part 1 here.
New residencies and concert series sprang up all throughout Aotearoa during the pandemic. Saxophonist Jimmy Rainey, who was living in Amsterdam until 2020, described to me how musicians sheltering from the storm came together in their home town of Ōtautahi/Christchurch through a series of gigs called the 03 Sessions.
“I moved back to Christchurch about two years ago just as the pandemic was kicking off. I’d been overseas, there were a bunch of cool musos who’d come back around the same time…Christchurch has always had a large expat music community, a lot of people in their 20’s heading off…So there were a bunch of great musos that’d just come back, and there really weren’t a lot of opportunities for original, improvised music going on. It was really barren! Basically 03 Sessions started off, we just hired a room in town…we did it super DIY, koha, every week. It was a jam session in the early days, we’d do an hour set and there was a really good session afterwards. It was just about the hang to be honest!”
The 03 Sessions quickly morphed into a premiere concert series, showcasing original music to frequently packed houses. Rainey expressed some surprise at the success of the group, which has presented over fifty shows now: “…for something that was just a pretty casual jam session and originals gig, it’s pretty crazy looking back on the last 18 months, just seeing how it’s grown.” However, pandemic or no pandemic, it was clear to him that the Ōtautahi jazz scene needed a shot in the arm: “Just having a gig in mind, you can be like “oh I’m going to start this band and we can have a gig on a Thursday and we’ll get forty people to come down…it’s so powerful, we haven’t had that down in Christchurch, continuously [although] here’s been periods of it, like with Orange Studios and the New Music Collective.”
Does Rainey think this activity can be sustained as Aotearoa slowly opens back up to the rest of the world? “It’s hard to know, and the future will tell over the next year or two whether or not the people who have come back are wanting to stick around.” After years of making music in the pandemic, he’s taking the long view: “I think you can change those attitudes and make places more appealing…Obviously the scenes change over the course of years and decades.”
Further south, not one but two concert series presenting jazz began during the pandemic. The Dunedin Jazz Club (DJC) arose pre-COVID, supporting a youth jazz orchestra and staging occasional shows. When the pandemic hit, organiser Will Martin told me “many of the residencies in popular bars and cafes disappeared and jazz musicians were forced to curate gigs and charge a cover fee for performances. This has led to a new culture of creating one-off concerts with more focused repertoire, more rehearsals and more targeted marketing.” The DJC led the charge, putting on monthly concerts at the Hanover Hall (home of the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra) with help from Dunedin City Council funding. With last-minute cancellations now the norm for event organisers, the club minimised risk by inviting out-of-town musicians to collaborate with local rhythm sections, in a similar fashion to the Trioglodyte residency. In Martin’s view, this has led to an increase in interest and audience attendance: “audiences are now aware that they must attend these concerts as the same material will not be presented again”. Certainly, the numbers don’t lie: the series has a loyal following, with 100-150 tickets sold for each event.
Despite this success, Martin is blunt about the long-term sustainability for jazz musicians. “The viability of jazz concerts in the current climate is only possible due to the lowly paid status of jazz music in Aotearoa…and the DJC is essentially run by volunteers.” Nevertheless, he is optimistic about the direction jazz culture in Dunedin is heading: “One can only hope that audiences grow and become more prepared to pay true concert prices for music that is complex, satisfying and unique. I have hope that this is the case, because audiences in Dunedin have changed their expectations from expecting free jazz in bars and cafes to being prepared to pay $25 on a regular basis.”
More info about the Dunedin Jazz Club can be found on their website: https://dunedinjazz.club/
Meanwhile, the Albany Street Jazz Loft series began presenting concerts in the newly refurbished Playhouse Theatre, providing a platform for exploratory, boundary-pushing contemporary jazz and improvised music. Singer and organiser Karin Reid told me a lot of work had gone into previous projects by the Dunedin Jazz, Cabaret and Performing Arts Trust, which as the name suggests took a diverse approach to their programmes. A tilt at creating a Dunedin Jazz Festival in 2016 didn’t take off, despite strong national support, and the Trust pivoted toward smaller initiatives “that could serve…a niche [for more experimental jazz] in Ōtepoti”. Reid, like Rainey, was spurred on by what she saw as a lack of opportunity: “The Jazz Loft project mainly came about to support original jazz and improvised music that could provide a point of difference from the more mainstream jazz on offer in Dunedin”.
However, despite an auspicious beginning, ongoing restrictions have hit hard, and the Jazz Loft made a difficult decision to put their concerts on hold rather than operate under vaccine pass rules, blunting their “brilliant momentum”. Reid’s exhaustion is palpable: “We have lost time, energy and money and the building of a fantastic following, which will take time, energy and money to build back up again.” The Jazz Loft primarily books out-of-town groups as part of their commitment to variety, which creates a problem when trying to budget for and organise around potential last-minute cancellations, which Reid says “may translate to [higher] ticket prices or not being able to provide as much remuneration to our artists – neither of which feels good or is sustainable. We are in [between] a rock and a hard place.” The easing of restrictions gives Reid cause for optimism, but she worries audiences won’t bounce back: “
Although this article is focussed mostly on new activity, Reid’s woes are echoed throughout the scene nationally, and the tenacity of Aotearoa’s long-running jazz concert series ought to be acknowledged here: Tāmaki Makarau’s Creative Jazz Club and newer indie outfit 151 Improv both took a hammering under the region’s frequent, interminable lockdowns, while Te Whanganui-a-Tara’s Wellington Jazz Cooperative doggedly kept concerts going under all but the most severe restrictions. These and many others are poised to present more shows and welcome bigger crowds and international bands as restrictions ease.
Empty venues crying out for performers, a resourceful, DIY-minded pool of talented performers, and a public willing to part with their money for some rare live entertainment. In my home city of Te Whanganui-a-Tara/Wellington, many of these same trends are evident, but with an added twist – space is at a premium, with rents higher than anywhere else in the country. Although the city has a famously active jazz nightlife in its compact Cuba quarter, home to a number of supportive bars and venues, the pressure of the pandemic has taken its toll: the closure of The Third Eye in late 2020 wiped out the jazz big band residency Arthur Street Loft Orchestra, and the Rogue and Vagabond’s incredibly popular weekly Sunday jazz series is on hold until crowds can gather without social distancing again.
Saxophonist Chris Buckland, the booking manager for The Rogue and Vagabond, has taken a typically multi-pronged approach to the limits placed on live music by COVID. Upstairs from the Rogue, cocktail bar Bedlam and Squalor has been hosting ticketed gigs by local acts while the downstairs bar is quiet. At the same time, Buckland is releasing live albums from past gigs at the Rogue on his new Thelonious record label.
The plan was always to host music at Bedlam (which opened towards the end of 2020) says Buckland, “but it would have been different…very different. I’m not sure it would have been better, just different!” The government health requirements for seated audiences at separate tables influenced a move towards a more acoustic, intimate musical experience. Piano trios have been a common feature, and the New Zealand School of Music donated and delivered a piano to the venue, a real boon.
How does Buckland approach curating these gigs in the current environment? “My motivations are things I like, and things I think people will come to, because there are costs involved…so it has to work. I wish I didn’t have to think about those things, but you can’t have empty bars with [only] musicians all the time.” Clearly the symbiosis between hospitality venues and musicians has been thrown into even starker relief as the pandemic drags on. In some ways, this has been of benefit to the musicians: the gigs at Bedlam are well attended (within the limits of social distancing) and the ticket prices are decent. Groups often earn more than the usual guarantees that have remained largely static over the last few decades, and the positive difference of playing intimate music to a close-listening audience is palpable. “It’s always been my goal that you can do one good gig and pay your rent with it, and we’ve achieved that on a few” says Buckland. Will this way of working continue as restrictions ease? “Depends…now that things are opening up and being a bit more normal, people aren’t as motivated [to pay] to go to this special thing.”
When the pandemic kicked off in 2020, Buckland also took the opportunity to support local musicians through the Thelonious platform. “When Creative New Zealand had that lolly scramble…they were doing [funding rounds]…every week or every couple of weeks maybe…it was like ‘I’m sure I can give some people some money’…I had all these recordings I wanted to get out, and the bottleneck was me. [Buckland mixed the first Thelonious releases himself]. The obvious solution was to get other people to mix them”. Buckland’s successful funding application allowed him to release six more live albums through the label, with various local engineers mixing and mastering. Like Henderson, he still has a large backlog of recordings to work through, “Oh yes, there’s a lot!…which I think mostly come about from people having a bunch of time to think about stuff”.
Thelonious Records in on Bandcamp: https://www.theloniousrecords.co.nz/music
These new jazz labels and concert series from Aotearoa’s largest cultural centres are only a few of the more prominent outpourings of creative activity and community organisation that has taken place over the last couple of years. Anecdotally, I’ve seen an explosion of house concerts and informal jam sessions in Te-Whanganui-a-Tara as musicians seize any opportunity they can to perform, and I would not be surprised to hear that the same is happening across the motu. The innovation, flexibility, and drive represented here ought to be celebrated, and yet even the highest profile events are merely a blip on the national cultural radar. Seldom does print press or radio acknowledge the music coming out of these initiatives, and television appearances remain all but a distant memory. Certainly this needs to change, and more dedicated jazz journalism would be a welcome addition to the national scene.
Furthermore, with Aotearoa now in Orange Alert Level settings and the borders opening, the return of international touring bands and an uptick of both popular and classical music performances are imminent: jazz musicians, fans and audiences will need to work hard to retain the opportunities gained during the pandemic. To me, it seems clear that there are plenty of boots on the ground willing to do the mahi to present high quality jazz concerts and release local jazz on independent labels: these efforts, perhaps more so than individual projects, should be generously funded. For now, however, jazz remains firmly in the cracks. Thriving may not be the word exactly, but surviving, surely: like the lichen, tenacious (whatever the weather) and when conditions are right, it’s growing. Take a look – you might be surprised where you’ll find it.
This is Part 2, read Part 1 here.