RODGER FOX GETS OUT THE FUNKBy Howard Davis
By now a living New Zealand legend, band leader and trombonist Rodger Fox has performed with some of the biggest names in the jazz business, including Louie Bellson, Bill Reichenbach, Chuck Findley, Randy Crawford, Bobby Shew, Lanny Morgan, Bruce Paulson, Diane Schuur, Arturo Sandoval, David Clayton-Thomas, and Joe Williams, to name only a few. His Big Band has performed at some of the largest jazz festivals in the world, as well as playing twice at the International Association of Jazz Educators, and concerts in London, Singapore, Australia, Poland, and the USA. Fox was winner of the 'Tui' for New Zealand Jazz Recording of the Year in 1981, 2000, and 2012, and a finalist in 1984 and 2001. Over the past four decades, the various Rodger Fox Big Band ensembles have released over three dozen full-length albums.
Fox was born in 1953 in Christchurch, but spent his childhood years growing up in Invercargill, Gore, Hawera, and Wellington, always surrounded by music. His grandfather was a brass band conductor who was instrumental in the development of the Ratana Church brass bands in the 1930s and taught at Ratana Pa, while his parents were music teachers who played dance band swing. "Growing up in our household was a unique experience," says Fox. "At any given time I could walk past my mother giving piano lessons in one room and into the lounge where four tuba players were practicing with my father.”
When he was seven, Fox was given a violin, but hated playing it. He started piano lessons at eleven, followed by cornet and trumpet. “I wanted to play trumpet,” Fox says, “but the summer break before I was about to start at Mana High School in Porirua, my father came home and asked me for my trumpet. He took it off me and handed me a trombone. All the trombone players in the school band had left, so I had to learn it in six weeks.” Fox spent his early teenage years studying classical trombone and was accepted into the National Youth Symphony Orchestra in the mid-sixties. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra offered Fox an apprenticeship 1969, only to inform him just weeks prior to starting that a mistake had been made and the orchestra already had its full quota of trombone players.
Fortuitously, Fox saw an ad placed by Malcolm Hayman, leader of The Quincy Conserve, in 'The Evening Post' looking for brass players. “This was the age of Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears,” says Fox, “and Quincy Conserve was as close as we got in New Zealand. I think I got the job because I could read music well, although I couldn’t improvise at that stage. Not long after I arrived I was made redundant when [saxophonist] John McCormick wanted to get back into the band, but I was soon in the line-up again. There weren’t that many accomplished brass players around.”
Fox spent five years with The Quincy Conserve and credits Hayman for much of his musical education, not just in terms of playing, but also with the business side: “Malcolm had a reputation for being a fierce leader and hard taskmaster, which he was, but he had no tolerance for anything less than one hundred percent, and that is a good attitude in music. And it was great money in the early days. It was a family joke that I made more money than my father, who was Head of Music at Mana College!”
“A defining moment in my life was when I was eighteen and came across an album by Woody Herman’s big band. From that point on I looked at the possibility of forming a big band and that opportunity surfaced in 1973. The radio bands, which had been so important to brass players for decades, had wound down and it was frustrating wanting to explore big band music without playing it.”
The Golden Horn Big Band (named after the Wellington music store where he was working at the time) was formed when Fox found himself shut out by the older kids of Wellington's big band scene: "They wouldn't let us play really, so I though if they wouldn't let the young guys play I'll form my own band, and that was it." Despite some initial resentment from Wellington’s older brass players, as the number of performances gradually increased, so did acceptance. Tony Noorts was the first old-school player to join and others soon followed, but it was still mostly “long hairs,” hankering to play big band jazz.
In 1975 Fox was approached by the manager of the 1860 Tavern to present a Saturday afternoon jazz combo. Culling the line-up from Quincy members, these weekly performances became an institution and within a year led to a residency: “I think it was right time, right place. Artists like George Benson, Chuck Mangione, and the Jazz Crusaders were being played on the radio. There was Steely Dan and the Average White Band, Weather Report, Return To Forever … jazz seemed to have grown an audience.”
Meanwhile, The Golden Horn Big Band was playing the New Zealand jazz festivals, mixing an old-school repertoire with more modern fare: “Most of the players, the brass players, were from commercial bands, who joined up because it was a rare opportunity. The trombone is cumbersome, but it's cool because it's almost become hip. When I was playing it in the rock bands it wasn't hip and when I started out there weren't many players. I was the only trombone player in rock bands in the early 1970s, so I played on a lot of records.”
In 1978, the re-named Rodger Fox Big Band played Sydney’s premier jazz venue, The Basement, and the Sydney Musicians’ Club. The same year, Fox' friend Alan Nelson returned from the Montreux Jazz Festival, where he had met festival director Claude Nobs and raved about Fox' band. “If they can get here, they can play,” Nobs told Nelson. It took two years to raise the required $68,000, but Fox remains diplomatic about the lack of government support his big bands have received over the years: “Alan Highet, then Minister of Arts, arranged a $15,000 grant and that remains the only grant the big bands have ever received, although APRA gave some assistance to get us to Montreux.”
The Rodger Fox Big Band played at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1980 and 1981, with both performances recorded and released in New Zealand. In 1980, following a performance at Trillo’s in Auckland, Fox met American trumpeter Bobby Shew, who was impressed by the band’s prowess and became instrumental in getting American players to guest on concerts and tours. In 1984, Fox led the horn section for New Zealand tours by the Four Tops and Temptations: “The Four Tops were fine but the Temptations were arseholes and wanted to know why us white guys were sitting at the back of the bus. We were given our own 12-seater for the rest of the tour.”
In the late 1980s, obliged to strip back the big band to a mere twelve members, Fox toured and recorded two albums with blues singer and harmonica player/guitarist Midge Marsden. Other New Zealand vocalists he has worked with include Ray Woolf, Mary Yandall, and his partner for the past 16 years jazz/ blues singer Erna Ferry. He worked with Tommy Adderly on a number of jazz promotions in the 1990s, including taking over The Gluepot bookings for a brief period, and is still serves as Artistic Director of the Manawatu Jazz & Blues Festival.
The number of “name” players who have guested with Fox runs into dozens, including Louie Bellson, Michael Brecker, David Clayton-Thomas, Randy Crawford, Charlie Musselwhite, Diane Schuur, and Joe Williams. He has also collaborated with Alan Broadbent on 'Journey Home' (Best NZ Jazz Recording, 2011 NZ Music Awards), guitarist John Scofield (recording at New York’s Vanguard Studios), and classical pianist Michel Houston for an album and an upcoming tour. An even more unlikely pairing was with Richard Clayderman, who Fox insists is “actually quite a good jazz pianist."
Now a senior lecturer at the New Zealand School Of Music, Fox received an honorary doctorate of music from Massey University in 2005, was made an officer of the New Zealand Order Of Merit in 2007, and has received no fewer than six jazz gongs at the NZ Music Awards. Long before his abilities as a teacher were acknowledged, Fox attended overseas workshops and completed a correspondence course with the Berklee College Of Music. As a promoter, he brought Randy Crawford and Maynard Ferguson to New Zealand, and is particularly proud that he persevered in getting Michael Brecker over here: “I tried for eleven years, but I got him in the end - possibly the greatest sax player in the world.” In 2012 Fox’s Wellington Jazz Orchestra gave five US performances, followed by an album recorded at the legendary Capitol Records studio in Los Angeles.
Last October, Fox rekindled his interest in jazz fusion and assembled four other crack musicians to produce an album of funky grooves and tight jazz fusion moves that hark back to the music he was listening to as a teenager. Three road gigs later, they entered the studio to record the eponymous 'Funkbone Experience' and are now touring the North Island to celebrate the release of the first small group album Fox has produced for eight years. With the help of a research grant from Victoria University and using the school's recording studio, Richard Caigou engineered the album tracks, which were played live with only a few percussion and keyboard overdubs re-mixed and mastered by Fox' long-time collaborator Talley Sherwood Tri-Tone Studios in Los Angeles. Fox was fortunate to enlist Dave Mathews (keyboard player with Santana) on the album, which features both original material and tributes to Fred Wesley, Sonny Still, Grant Green, George Duke, and The Crusaders.
The touring band is anchored by bass player Dewayne Pate, who has worked with a wide array of artists, including Huey Lewis and The News, Boz Scaggs, Maria Muldaur, Pat Benatar, and Charlie Musselwhite. He’s been a columnist for Bassics Magazine and recently toured with trumpet virtuoso Arturo Sandoval. Keyboard player Matt Harris is co-director of jazz studies at California State Northridge University and has toured, written, and recorded with such jazz legends as Maynard Ferguson, Buddy Rich, and Diane Schuur. Guitarist Nick Granville is one of New Zealand’s leading fusion players and a guitar tutor at the New Zealand School of Music, while drummer Lance Philips is jazz programme leader at the New Zealand School of Music as well as percussionist with the Dancing With the Stars band.
Fox explains that jazz fusion was popular in New Zealand from the 1960s to ‘80s, but then gave way to other styles: “it’s time to reinvent its vibrant sound for New Zealand audiences.” He’s looking forward to playing again with a smaller group, as it allows greater versatility and a chance for him to lead with the melody: “It’s a great opportunity to showcase the trombone and for the other players to improvise around the numbers. For me, it means meeting the demands of playing a full concert and practicing hard - a return to what I did as a younger player.”
With around 110 big bands in the New Zealand school system and 33 in Auckland alone, Fox is completely confident about the music's continuing ability to thrive. He has produced nine albums with his university big band and this year's Tauranga Jazz Festival will include 17 youth bands from all over the country. Fox is currently following with great professional interest the progress of youngsters like North Texas State University graduates Snarky Puppy, who have encased all the old jazz funk elements and combined them with a distinctly contemporary edge. Fox is clearly driven by a compulsion to keep the music fresh - and simultaneously funky.
Rodger Fox's Funkbone Experience will be playing at the Bristol Hotel in Wellington on 9/4, Palmerston North's Globe Theatre on 11/4, he Tauranga Jazz Festival on 14/4, and Auckland's Vic Theatre on 16/4.