Show Chapters

A bigger purpose


The following story appeared in the NZ Listener, September 2010. 

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For Mike Nock, it was one for the money then on with the show. In 1958 he rattled off some rock’n’roll piano triplets at a Johnny Devlin session in Auckland, took the fee, grabbed his old school satchel and stowed away on a ship to Sydney. Among the songs he recorded for Devlin was ‘I Got a Rocket in My Pocket’, a title that sums up the relentless drive of New Zealand’s most successful jazz musician.

Australia has been good to Nock, and he is one of many New Zealanders who have been good to Australian jazz. But none has had a higher profile – and made a more lasting contribution – than the ebullient Nock. During his first stint in Australia, the pianist quickly became prominent as a member of the 3-Out Trio, whose intense music had queues lining up outside hip clubs. Three years after arriving, he won a Down Beat scholarship to Berklee, Boston’s school of jazz, which led to a two-decade career in the United States. In 1985 he settled back in Australia to perform, compose and teach; a short-term gig on the staff of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music has turned into a season lasting 25 years.

Nock turns 70 this year and for a man who doesn’t like to look back, recently he hasn’t had much choice. Wellington jazz teacher and musician Norman Meehan has been shadowing him for the last five years, researching and writing a biography. Called Serious Fun, it will be launched at a Wellington concert featuring Nock, the New Zealand String Quartet and Wellington’s veteran rhythm section, drummer Roger Sellers and bassist Paul Dyne.

Sellers first witnessed Nock in the Melbourne jazz scene during the late 1950s. In Serious Fun he describes the impact of the 3-Out Trio as being like ‘a bombshell going off, it was so full on … He left a monument of achievement at that point and then it was time to go …” Sellers remains in awe of Nock’s dynamism: “He really is an astonishing man. I’m happy that I met him so young because I got to touch that energy.”

In conversation with Nock, that translates to constant laughter, and rapid changes of key. Regular themes – personal and alternative philosophies, piano techniques – receive variations, with recurring motifs about his New Zealand upbringing (in an accent still American-inflected). These anecdotes are affectionate but not rose-tinted. While growing up in Ngaruawahia, he describes himself as fiercely competitive and a little arrogant. This carried through to his early career:  

“It’s an interesting paradox. To be a jazz musician in particular – or maybe it’s true to be a successful musician, period – you have to have a healthy ego. I don’t say my ego was so healthy. I definitely had the New Zealand cringe factor, where you think, ‘not me, I’m not very good at all’ – which is absurd. But that’s the other side of the thing we have in New Zealand, or used to have anyway: the self conscious thing. You’re so conscious of yourself at all times. It can get in the way with a lot of people. But I think that’s improved hugely.”

Nock was a troubled teenager, angry at the world from the age of 12 after losing his father to heart disease. In his last year, he had been teaching Nock stride piano. The boy was impatient, skipping ahead in his Art Shefte primers on playing “modern” (ie, popular) piano, and soon forming a band among his Ngaruawahia friends. They had “very limited chops and limited musical knowledge,” but that was an advantage, says Nock: it meant they started writing their own tunes.

Shifting to his mother’s hometown of Nelson, it was music that prevented Nock from becoming a delinquent: he realised that there would be no pianos in borstal. Nock has never forgotten the New Zealand mentors who helped him on his musical path. After his father died, the Ngaruawahia chemist and dance band pianist Bert McNamara took him under his wing and introduced him to the playing of Earl Hines and Teddy Wilson. The broadcasts of “Turntable” – Wellington jazz stalwart Arthur Pearce – were unmissable (“We all listened to him. There was a lot of interest in jazz across the board, and I give him the credit for that”). Touring the provinces with the wily rock’n’roll pioneer Johnny Cooper was an education, and he was welcomed into the Auckland jazz scene by players such as Bart Stokes and Lachie Jamieson.

 During his brief stint in Auckland, Nock shared a garage with Devlin’s drummer Tony Hopkins, and lived an austere, “obsessive” existence that revolved around practising for hours. To build up strength in his fingers, he attached lead weights to the keys of his piano. “When I went to the States, the piano teacher was horrified,” says Nock. “But I’ll tell you one thing – I could certainly play strong. I did have some pretty serious chops at one point in my career. Because I didn’t know any better.”

His rise to prominence was rapid in Australia, with the 3-Out Trio becoming a leading drawcard in bohemian jazz clubs such as the El Rocco in King’s Cross and the Embers in Melbourne. (The latter, of course, burnt down: the flames also took Nock’s charts). But his arrival in the US was an intimidating experience, and not just because of his lack of formal musical training: simply staying alive was an ordeal. The scholarship from Down Beat magazine covered little more than a key to the door; tuition fees and living expenses were extra. His Berklee contemporaries included Keith Jarrett and Gary Burton, but Nock’s time there featured lessons in life such as a stint as a dishwasher. He was about to quit Berklee when his teacher found him a club residency playing piano several nights a week.

Meehan’s book reveals Nock’s time in the US to have been a roller coaster, both for his career and emotionally. For every door that opens – he tours with Yusef Lateef for two years – there is another lost opportunity. In one anecdote, the phone in his New York loft rings; it is Sonny Rollins offering him a job. At that moment, a car horn toots outside: it’s Nock’s ride taking him on a jazz tour of little importance. He feels he has to turn Rollins down.

For all his US curriculum vitae suggests success, there were periods of despondency. “Looking back, I think I was mildly depressed most of the time. It probably contributed to the fact that I didn’t have more success. Because I never felt very good about myself, if that makes any sense.”

This was at a time when Nock’s group the Fourth Way was a leader in the new 1960s field of jazz-rock fusion. At one point, the group is on a bill topped by Miles Davis, who is yet to record his fusion classic Bitches Brew. Davis growled, “that’s the last time I’m following anyone on stage.” Nock laughs at the memory. “Who knows, maybe we just played too long.”

The Fourth Way’s jazz-rock innovations came about naturally. With his new instrument, a Fender Rhodes electric piano, Nock found he could finally be heard in noisy rock venues. Besides, he says, “I never liked much [fusion] anyway. People sometimes think I’m associated with that – I’m associated with good music, period. And there’s good music of all periods.”

A stint as the piano player in Dionne Warwick’s band, at the height of her Bacharach phase in the 1960s, gave Nock a lifelong lesson in motivation. After saving enough to buy himself a Steinway piano, he quit. “It’s never been about making money,” he says. “I tell my students that: you might have to play commercial music, there’s nothing wrong with that. But you’ve got to have a bigger purpose.”

Nock’s most productive period has been the past quarter-century, while at the Sydney Conservatorium. Unlike many academic artists he has managed to thrive creatively in this time, composing music and recording albums solo or with constantly changing line-ups of collaborators. “I’ve had the best of both worlds: how lucky can you get?” Teaching helped “clarify” his musical mind: “You realise the importance of knowing exactly what you’re talking about.” He now feels it is time to share his own musical education – more school of hard knocks than conservatory – in a book about jazz piano. “The way I think of things is a little different from other people. It’s about making it as clear as possible, getting to the nitty gritty.”

Meanwhile, there are pieces to be written and records to make. Oh, and gigs to play, with a variety of combos: among them his trio, his quintet, the Mike Nock Project, his BigSmallBand (in Tokyo), and Michael Houston (in Dunedin). Mike Nock is surprised that at 70, he is in the busiest period of his life. But one suspects that the only rests he has known are between two musical notes.

*Mike Nock appears at the Wellington Town Hall’s Ilott Theatre with his trio and the New Zealand String Quartet on October 1; this is also the launch of Norman Meehan’s Serious Fun: the Life and Music of Mike Nock (VUP).

© 2010 Chris Bourke, reprinted with permission.

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