New Zealand Jazz Life- Norman Meehan

Before I begin this review I need to make a declaration. Given how small the New Zealand jazz community is, it’s unsurprising that all the jazz scholars know each other, so yes, the author of New Zealand Jazz Life, Norman Meehan is a valued jazz studies colleague whose work I admire, and yes, he does cite my work in this book. 

New Zealand Jazz Life was published in 2016 by Victoria University Press and was the culmination of almost a decade’s worth of research and interviewing. The result is a book containing eight individual profiles and eight ‘ensemble’ chapters that reflect on different aspects of playing jazz in New Zealand. As Meehan notes in the introduction, as he proceeded with his interviews several themes floated to the surface, primarily around the lack of diversity (gender and race in particular) in the New Zealand jazz scene. While he devotes a chapter (12: The State of Jazz in New Zealand- and more on issues with this chapter later) to discussing these and other issues, Meehan also notes (p.214-215) that he spoke to 4 women musicians in nearly 40 informants. Even with the criteria of NZ musician who had recorded an album as a leader that is a shockingly low figure, at any point in our history let alone in the 21st century. Additionally there is no gender diversity at all in the eight individual profiles, all are of men and precious little ethnic diversity.

This is both appaling and a reflection of the New Zealand jazz scene. Women are on the scene, but are rarely accounted for. Meehan even notes in the introduction that women’s contributions to jazz had been coloured by gender in unhelpful ways and further notes that it’s almost impossible to generalise because each woman’s treatment had been so distinct (p.12). However, I feel this statement might have more impact if we heard more from these women throughout the book, or, even better, if there had been one or more individually profiled.

Even after reading this book several times over the past few years and sitting with the contents, I’m still unsure how I feel about this. All of what I feel around this book is coloured by my occupation as a music historian (specifically on New Zealand jazz), being a woman who has trained and performed as a jazz musician, and also that Meehan is someone whose work I admire. All in all it makes an uncomfortable mix for me, which you will see throughout this review because I have a hard time separating the awesome material in this book from the lack of awesome material that I know Meehan had access to and should have been included (in particular a gender balance). New Zealand Jazz Life could have been a much broader, more inclusive examination of New Zealand jazz lives that could have helped to break ground on how people (both inside and outside of the jazz scene) percieved the performance of jazz in New Zealand.

The musicians that Meehan has chosen to individually profile all have fascinating stories to tell about their journey to and through jazz. I should note that in addition to all being men they are also all from Auckland and Wellington, and it’s sad to not see at least one South Island musician be individually profiled. The generational spread is admirable, ranging from those who began learning in the 1950s through to those who came to jazz in the 1980s and 1990s. Each have their own definition of what jazz is and whether New Zealand has jazz. Some are quite narrow, and some are ecunumically broad. It’s an interesting insight into how people shape their own jazz experiences, conceptions about what jazz is, and the state of play in New Zealand.

A common thread throughout each individual profile is how each musician is ambivialent about the tertiary jazz scene (even the ones who participate(d) as students or teachers), and its impact on a New Zealand jazz style. They all have a concern that ‘jazz school’ has focused too much on the American tradition of jazz (specifically classic repertoire), and not enough on originality. Interestingly (and this is my own particular bias), there is realitvely little mention by any of these musicians about learning about New Zealand jazz traditions or history. While they are all aware of it, there seems to have been relatively little local influence in their educations (most of the examples given for their influences are musicians from overseas), nor does there seem to be much conscious examination of the history in their perceptions of their own practice. Or rather, to be strictly fair, none that is recorded in the interviews and has ended up on the printed page.

Alternating with the individual profiles are the ‘ensemble’ chapters. These chapters all focus on a theme and include material from a range of musicians. In some ways I find these chapters more interesting than the individual profile chapters because you get a sense of the scope of the jazz scene, the different strands that make it up, and how musicians fall into it. These strands give the reader some fascinating insights into the who, how, what, and why- the motivations that keep these musicians playing jazz even when the local scene is frankly pretty bleak at times, and there is little support even from arts bodies for the creation and sustainability of jazz in New Zealand.

As I noted above, I could wish that there had been more investigation into certain aspects, such as gender and race. Perhaps Meehan did not feel comfortable enough to tackle either of those issues head on, or perhaps felt that he was not the right person. Both of these attitudes are fair, however, we need to start these conversations somewhere and someone needs to start them. I feel that this was a missed opportunity for those important conversations to start. In some ways, the light dip into these issues in this book feels even worse because I can see the edges of the beginning of these conversations, but at the same time it feels like they’re being excluded because of the uncertainties about author responsibility. Now I admit, I am in a rather unique reading position because of who I am and the work that I do, and none of this is to say that what is there isn’t good because it is, I just really wish that there was much more of it- a whole chapter rather than a small section therein.

I realise that this has been quite a critical review of the contents of New Zealand Jazz Life, but none of this is to say that it is bad- I want to state emphatically that it is very good! It’s an engaging and interesting book that gives jazz fans a lot of food for thought about both the positives and negatives of jazz in New Zealand. Meehan’s writing style is very approachable, and even when he delves into minutiae it does not exclude the non-specialist reader. While this book is clearly aimed at jazz fans, there is something for anyone interested in performing arts in New Zealand.