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Top Jazz Performer Drums Up a Storm

Top Jazz Performer Drums Up a Storm

The best jazz drummers in the world tend to be those who’ve enjoyed a great deal of success playing in an orchestra.

But here in New Zealand there’s only one working big band – the Rodger Fox Wellington Jazz Orchestra – and only one spot in it for a drummer. That highly coveted spot is filled by female Wellington drummer Lauren Ellis, whose drum set shines as brightly onstage as her rapidly rising star.

The first thing audiences of Wellington Jazz Orchestra’s packed-out concerts usually notice about Lauren is that she’s female. That’s because she’s one of only two women in the band and perfectly at home with an instrument played mainly by males.

“The audience notices but I forget! It makes no difference – being in the band is all about your ability to make the best music,” she says.

Indeed, its Lauren's ability to send your heart rate soaring as she bashes out one catchy groove after another that originally got her noticed by the best in the business.

After hounding her parents for drum lessons, which she began at age 11 in her hometown of Tauranga, she went on to play in Otumoetai College’s jazz band.

“I first met Rodger Fox when I was 13 as part of a school workshop. He saw me again when I was 15 and encouraged me to attend the New Zealand High Schools January Jazz Workshops at the New Zealand School of Music,” says Lauren.

During her final year of high school, she successfully auditioned for the School of Music and moved to Wellington in 2008 to take up her studies, which saw her perform with the School’s top big band.

“That really inspired me to lift my game as I was playing with much more senior musicians,” says Lauren.

Rodger Fox also provided her with the opportunity to perform alongside a host of international guest artists, including world class pianist Bill Cunliffe, legendary saxophonist Bob Sheppard and popular jazz drummer Joe La Barbera.  

In 2011 Lauren graduated with a Bachelor of Music majoring in jazz performance and specialising in drumming. She achieved her degree with the highest academic honour of distinction.

Upon the completion of her studies she became the substitute drummer for the Wellington Jazz Orchestra for two years. Then last December she received the phone call of a lifetime from Rodger Fox, offering her the position of the band’s permanent drummer. The call has undoubtedly shaped the future direction of her career.

“I enjoy working in a big band environment and, through my individual role as drummer, contributing to the unique sound of the orchestra as a whole,” says Lauren.

“The drummer’s role in a big band is important and requires a solid foundation, including creativity, improvisation, musical taste and intention. The drums are the anchor of the band and, along with the bass, are the driving force. Within the rhythm section there is only one player on each instrument whereas in the horn sections you have 4 or 5 players on the same instrument creating this huge wall of sound. We have to support that as well as focusing on our individual part,” she says.

To date Lauren has performed on three of Rodger Fox’s phenomenal 36 recordings: Midnight Voyage (2011), Funk City Ola (2010) and Run For Cover (2009), the last of which won a Tui Award for Best Jazz Album.

Lauren is looking forward to recording with the band at the famous Abbey Road Studios next year, as well as performing at leading UK jazz festivals, both of which she says will be definite career milestones.

People can see Lauren perform in Rodger Fox’s upcoming October tour, which is being held as part of his 40th Anniversary celebrations. The tour will visit Palmerston North (Oct 24), Wellington (Oct 25), Christchurch (Oct 27) and Nelson (Oct 28).

“Rodger has been my mentor for 10 years now. He has done so much for me, the band and for jazz education in New Zealand. It’s a testament to his hard work that he’s kept the Wellington Jazz Orchestra going for 40 years,” says Lauren.

Lauren also performed in the band’s 40th Anniversary September tour, where she found herself “starstruck” as a result of working with her idol, jazz organist Joey Defrancesco, who was one of three headline acts.

Outside of her work with the Rodger Fox Wellington Jazz Orchestra, Lauren is inspiring the next generation of jazz drummers through a busy teaching schedule. She offers private tuition, works as an itinerant teacher at local schools and also teaches at the New Zealand High Schools January Jazz Workshops – the very workshops that helped kick-start her own career.

“It’s a privilege to now be working with the people who taught me,” she says.


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