For over half a century Bernie Allen’s name has been hidden in the credits of many recordings, films and TV shows that involve New Zealand music.
While jazz is his first love, and the saxophone his preferred instrument, Allen is a multi-instrumentalist and arranger whose work ranges from early Johnny Devlin sessions to soundtracks of TV shows such as Under the Mountain.
During the boom years of television light entertainment, he was TVNZ’s musical director, responsible for everything from channel stings to a Prince Tui Teka special. He arranged the ‘Goodnight Kiwi’ theme and was MD of The Billy T James Show.
In the mid-1950s he performed in some of Auckland’s earliest rock ’n’ roll gigs.
While an aspiring jazz player, in the mid-1950s he performed in some of Auckland’s earliest rock ’n’ roll gigs – when the saxophone was more common than the lead guitar – and for years led his own big jazz bands, bringing in young players to give them experience.
Allen was born in 1937, and grew up at Muriwai Beach near Helensville, north of Auckland. Although his English-born grandfather was a professional violinist, the main music in the house was his father’s record collection of popular and light-orchestral discs. He learned piano when young, but it wasn’t until he went to secondary school – boarding at Sacred Heart in Ponsonby – that his musical interests expanded. He had a drum kit, so was invited to join the school dance band. This developed his interest in other instruments and arranging, and playing the clarinet led to the saxophone.
A classmate called Frank Hall who dressed like a bebopper – crêpe-soled shoes, long drape coat, dark glasses, a crew-cut and beret – encouraged him to listen to modern jazz players such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Kenton. Another clarinettist and jazz buff at school, Tony Baker, became one of his closest friends – “almost blood brothers” – and the pair’s musical careers would cross paths often until they worked alongside each other at TVNZ.
At 17, Allen moved to Auckland, working as a commercial artist and returning to Helensville on the weekends to play local dances. In the city, he frequented the Swing Club and befriended other young jazz musicians such as the trombonist Merv Thomas. He found the musicians encouraged each other and were always keen to “have a blow” at parties, and he began playing at inner-city venues such as the Polynesian Club and St Sep’s in Newton.
Allen played the saxophone while on his back, while double bass player Galvin Edser mounted his instrument like it was a horse.
One night in 1956 jazz drummer Frank Gibson Sr turned up on his doorstep, and invited him to join a band that was about to play the new musical craze – rock and roll – at the Trades Hall on Hobson Street. The only way they could learn the style was to go to the film Blackboard Jungle and transcribe what they heard.
They enjoyed emulating the flamboyant antics of early rock and rollers they saw in the later films, such as Bill Haley’s Comets. Allen played the saxophone while on his back, while double bass player Galvin Edser mounted his instrument like it was a horse. “It collapsed underneath him,” Allen recalled to me in 2007. “Merv, Galvin and I were always trying some sort of act that was going to be better than the last time, or better than the next guy.”
In 1957 a national tour organised by Benny Levin needed a group of musicians to play in a variety of styles to increase the possible audience. “We’d all go on with one set of shirts as the Bernie Allen Rock’n’Rollers, then we’d go on with another set of shirts and it would be the Merv Thomas Dixielanders. And then another set of shirts, and we’d be Bart Stokes’ Beboppers.” Unfortunately, entrepreneurial musician Johnny Cooper booked a tour that went through the same towns a week earlier, and Levin’s tour flopped.
During the 1950s Allen was a member of the Arthur Skelton band, one of the last big bands that played society balls. “It was what we called the "second-mortgage band" – it paid off your second mortgage. But I learnt more from that than I realised at the time.” Allen was also a core member of what could be named the “57a set” – a loose group of jazz musicians who lived in an infamous large house at 57a Symonds Street
Living at 57a was by invitation only. “You’d get shoulder tapped when a room was becoming available.” Tommy and Mark Kahi were among the first musical inhabitants, and others who followed included Bennie Gunn, Lyn Christie, Lachie Jamieson, Pem Sheppard, Tony Baker and Val Leemon.
The musicians would often rehearse in the biggest bedroom, and one of the bands that emerged from this scene became an 18-piece big band led by Allen for a residency at the Oriental Ballroom further up Symonds Street. He became one of the regular arrangers for the 1YA radio bands that broadcast live from the art deco radio studio on Durham Street, and with Crombie Murdoch he recorded many jingles with engineer Noel Peach at the Astor studio on Shortland Street.
The variety of music Allen was involved with expanded in the 1960s. He introduced younger musicians such as Tommy Adderley, Roger Sellers and Mike Walker to the radio band coterie, supported the Dave Brubeck Quartet, backed touring stars such as Johnnie Ray, Shirley Bassey and Helen Shapiro, and in 1961 ventured into TV work backing the Howard Morrison Quartet. He was also a regular at the Tauranga Jazz Festival, performing with acts such as the Bernie Allen Tentette, Frank Gibson’s Sextet and the Auckland Neophonic Orchestra.
In 1980 Allen recruited many veteran players for the house band in the television variety show Radio Times.
During the 1960s regular jazz work began to fade for the radio bands and at venues such as the Peter Pan Cabaret. A new era of popular music had different demands, and with a young family Allen needed more security so he became a teacher. He still arranged for programmes such as C’mon and Happen Inn, and by the late 1970s he was a staff arranger and MD at South Pacific Television (TV2). Besides the ‘Goodnight Kiwi’ theme and variety shows New Faces and Sing, he was responsible for soundtracks on TV dramas Under the Mountain, Hunter’s Gold and Gather Your Dreams.
In 1980 Allen recruited many veteran players for the house band in the television variety show Radio Times, which re-created the era of big radio bands broadcasting live. Among them were musicians such as Thomas, Crombie Murdoch, Jim Warren, Murray Tanner, Colin Martin, Nancy Harrie and Neil McGough. The series gave Billy T James his first mass exposure, and 25 years later Allen was MD of the biographical feature Billy T: Te Movie. Allen also conducted the Queen City Big Band, which toured the States in 1986. After a stint teaching at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music in the 1990s, Allen returned to Auckland where he continues to teach pupils, arrange and write scores.
An article about Allen’s television work is available at NZ On Screen.