Rodger Fox has been playing, teaching and promoting jazz in Wellington for more than 40 years. Graeme Tuckett caught up with the still busy master trombonist to hear how it all began and to discover what the capital’s music scene was really like in the flared-trousered 1970s. Photography by Anna Jamieson

The Interview: Rodger Fox

Rodger Fox 3

Pro­fes­sion­al musi­cians are made of dif­fer­ent stuff from the rest of us. Every­body knows this.

A musi­cian is end­lessly youth­ful, their joy in life will remain unfaded, and they will march on — burn­ing bright to the last, spared the dim­ming of the twi­light years — until they expire with the moment and majesty of a col­lapsing sun, prob­ably at the hands of a jeal­ous wife or hus­band, or by slam­ming their head once too often into the rim of the Rolls-Royce’s steer­ing wheel, as it plunges to the bot­tom of anoth­er hotel swim­ming pool.

Or, y’know, that’s the myth some of us would like to believe. It’s non­sense, of course. All the pro­fes­sion­al musi­cians I know cer­tainly enjoy what they do, and they mostly retain the glor­i­ous humour and camarader­ie that people who spend their lives work­ing at some­thing they love, with people they respect, always do. But musi­cians still wrinkle and fade and seize up like the rest of us, with only a few appar­ent immor­tals to sus­tain the legend.

So, I was kind of unpre­pared for my first glimpse of Rodger Fox. All I knew about Rodger at this point was that he had been around all my life. My Mum and Dad used to drive from Hamilton up to Auck­land to see The Rodger Fox Big Band play in the mid-1970s, nearly 40 years ago. Which means I walked into Rodger’s office at the New Zea­l­and School of Music expect­ing to meet a man of around my Dad’s gen­er­a­tion. But, no.

Rodger appears to be in his late 50s at the most (I find out later he is actu­ally 61). He has smooth and unmarked skin, a full head of dam­nably lus­trous hair, a pair of eyes that actu­ally do twinkle, and a laugh and grin quite promis­cu­ous in their will­ing­ness to appear suddenly.

In short, alone in all the world, Rodger Fox looks exactly like his own pub­li­city photos.

 

I was 19 or 20 when I star­ted the Rodger Fox Big Band, he tells me. We were pretty suc­cess­ful from the get-go.

 

So that explains the age thing. And yet, it explains noth­ing at all.

Rodger Fox - Qunicy Conserve - outside Bleta Bus

 

Most bands star­ted by 19- or 20-year-olds, even if they go on to suc­cess, are grumpy little foursomes of spotty shoegazers. But Rodger pulled togeth­er 18 of the country’s best jazz, soul, rock and funk musi­cians, and mel­ded them into one fero­ciously well-dis­cip­lined ensemble, who then rehearsed and honed their sound until they could genu­inely claim to be of inter­na­tion­al stand­ard. (My Dad was no slouch at his jazz. He grew up play­ing noth­ing else, and he sang well enough to appear on the under­card at Soho’s Ron­nie Scott’s a couple of times. He always rated The Rodger Fox Band as worth the drive to go and see, and he made a spe­cial point of see­ing them at the Montreux Jazz Fest­iv­al when he was there.)

So what I really want to want to know is: how is it that a kid from Mana Col­lege had the gump­tion to do what he has done at all?

 

I star­ted out try­ing to learn the viol­in. My par­ents were both musi­cians, my Dad espe­cially — I’ll tell you more about him in a minute — but they had this idea that you shouldn’t teach your own chil­dren to play, that it was bet­ter to go to a teach­er. So I got packed off to the nuns to learn violin.


And, I gotta be hon­est, viol­in wasn’t my thing. Basic­ally, I used to affect a case of hic­cups. I got quite good at that. With­in minutes of the les­son start­ing, I’d be out­side the con­vent with these spasms rack­ing my body, then I’d duck back in at the end and scratch out a couple of notes. Pretty soon the nuns summoned my par­ents to a meet­ing, and told them that young Rodger might not have the mak­ings of a viol­in­ist. So my Dad found me a trumpet…

          Rodger Fox - Mana College band 1981  My Dad was a viol­in­ist him­self, and a trum­pet play­er. He was heav­ily involved in the brass bands, and he became the music dir­ect­or for the New Zea­l­and Army Third Divi­sion band. And they were sta­tioned up in the Pacific, with the Amer­ic­ans mainly. So he got exposed to the music the Amer­ic­an bands were bring­ing over, y’know, the jazz and swing that Glenn Miller was play­ing. So he began to use a lot of that music with the Third Divi­sion brass band, and in time he brought a lot of it back to New Zea­l­and. And, you can ima­gine, it was a very dif­fer­ent sound for the New Zea­l­and brass band scene, which were based more on the Eng­lish col­li­ery bands… it was a revolu­tion. This music was unheard of back here.

            So that was the house­hold, one minute you’d have my moth­er teach­ing piano, with some kid thump­ing out Bach, and there’d be Paganini on a viol­in some­where, and the next minute there’d be Glenn Miller or Woody Her­man on the turntable. It was pretty eclectic.

            Dad was con­duct­ing and arran­ging too, and get­ting a good repu­ta­tion at it. We went from Inver­car­gill to Gore, but in the 1950s… there wasn’t much there for the fam­ily, and, well you know, there wasn’t much going on if you weren’t intend­ing to be a farm­er. So he applied for the job of head of music at Mana Col­lege. And we moved up here. I was ten.

            I went to Mana after a few years. I even had Sam Hunt as my Eng­lish teacher.

 

We talk here for a while about Sam. Rodger tells me that Sam was a legend among the stu­dents. In his stovepipe black jeans and fringed suede jack­ets, try­ing to do his work in an Eng­lish depart­ment staffed by middle-aged men in col­lars and ties. It’s a bril­liant image, but it came at a price. Sam was clash­ing so badly with his own head of depart­ment that he was ban­ished from the build­ing that housed the Eng­lish classrooms. It was Rodger’s fath­er, who had a spare room in the music build­ing, who gave Sam a place to teach. Rodger goes on to tell me that he also had Ray Hen­wood as a sci­ence teach­er, but that is going to have to be a story for anoth­er day.

 

Rodger took to cor­net and trum­pet, and rose up quickly through the ranks of the school bands. And then, as Rodger tells it:

 

It was one of those con­ver­sa­tions. My Dad came home, it was around Christ­mas, I was 13, and he says to me, “Have you got your trum­pet?” So I ran upstairs and fetched it, and when I got back down he took the trum­pet, handed me a trom­bone, and basic­ally told me I had six weeks to learn it. He’d just found out that all his trom­bone play­ers had left school, and he needed me to step up. So that was it, that’s how I became a trom­bone play­er. Luck­ily I took to it pretty fast.

            Years later, I look back, and I know it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. There’s always ten trum­pet play­ers around for every two trom­bone play­ers, so I was in demand…

            I played in the Wel­ling­ton Youth Orches­tra, the loc­al brass band, and then I got into the New Zea­l­and Youth Sym­phony Orches­tra. It was 1967, and the gov­ern­ment was keen on appren­tice­ships, and the sym­phony orches­tra got onto it. They had put togeth­er a nation­al train­ee orches­tra as a train­ing scheme for pro­fes­sion­al musi­cians. So I applied for that, and I got accep­ted. It was a three-year apprenticeship.

 

There’s a moment on the tape here, of me swear­ing loudly in amazement at this little insight into how much this coun­try has changed in a generation.

 

But, a couple of weeks later, I get anoth­er let­ter, telling me that there hadn’t been enough retire­ments from the orches­tra, and my appren­tice­ship basic­ally got can­celled. It was one of those days I guess. Because, that night there’s an ad in the Even­ing Post, “Brass play­ers wanted”. The band was Quincy Con­serve. I was 17 years old.

 

Quincy Con­serve — and there are clips on You­Tube to back me up on this — were a red-hot jazz/funk/rock beast. They owed a chunk of their sound to the New York funk super­group Blood, Sweat and Tears, but they were also a tight, lean, and fant­ast­ic­ally enter­tain­ing and dance­able unit in their own right. Rodger turned up, played one audi­tion, and was on stage that night.

 

So I called up my Dad, and I said, “You know that clas­sic­al trom­bone career I was going to have… well I’ve joined a rock band.” And he said, “As long as you do it the best you can, that’s all we want.” And that was that.

 

So you had one the biggest gigs in town?

 

Yeah, I guess so. We were play­ing four gigs a week at least. We were house band at the Down­town Club, and we were also stu­dio band for EMI. There’s not much out of New Zea­l­and on record between 1970 and 1973 that we weren’t on.

            What people for­get, is how much more work there was around then. For every­one, but espe­cially musi­cians. There were three or four bands, all with brass sec­tions, all play­ing in Wel­ling­ton half the nights of the week. The bars all stayed open until 11pm, and the clubs would be open until 2am, and there would be a band play­ing every­where you went.

 

One day, I have to do a piece for Fish­Head on that myth — put around by journ­al­ists who clearly nev­er got invited to the good parties — that Wel­ling­ton was a bor­ing town until the liquor com­pan­ies took over Cour­tenay Place in the 1990s.

But for now, there is so much of this story left to tell, and no space left to tell it.

Rodger star­ted the band that still car­ries his name with­in three years of join­ing the Quincy Con­serve. Real­ising there was a gap for a ded­ic­ated jazz ses­sion band, he pulled togeth­er a group, and had them in pay­ing work with­in three months.

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In the 40 years since, The Rodger Fox Big Band has played all over the world, and earned good reviews wherever they have gone. Louis Bell­son, Joe Wil­li­ams and Michael Breck­er have all per­formed with them.

Rodger still runs the band, and keeps the aver­age age of the roster at around the mid-20s. Today they sound bet­ter and more skilled than ever.

Rodger is also a seni­or lec­turer at the New Zea­l­and School of Music, and leads the school’s highly regarded jazz ensembles. He’s had more influ­ence on Wellington’s music scene than almost any­one else I could name. And yet, all of that might have to wait for anoth­er piece, anoth­er month. As with all good Wel­ling­ton stor­ies, this one is still being written.

About Graeme Tuckett

Graeme lives on the Kapiti Coast. He fits bouts of writ­ing, broad­cast­ing and busi­ness own­er­ship between his many and var­ied leis­ure activities.

About Graeme Tuckett

Graeme lives on the Kapiti Coast. He fits bouts of writing, broadcasting and business ownership between his many and varied leisure activities.

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