Murdoch eased into the Auckland music scene as a young man in the 1940s, and quickly became an admired and in-demand fixture as bandleader, arranger, and studio pianist. He was the accompanist of choice for leading vocalists Mavis Rivers, Pat McMinn, Esme Stephens, and Coral Cummins, in live performance as well as the recording studio.
Recognisable on stage through a haze of cigarette smoke, Crombie played in clubs, ballrooms, at national jazz festivals, and was a TV studio pianist for Have a Shot. His stage career was studded with highlights, among them filling in for Earl “Fatha” Hines in a 1972 concert. He wrote the arrangements for Nat King Cole’s orchestra when he visited (with June Christy) in 1955; led his octet on the Dave Brubeck show in the 60s and was in the Bob Gillett Sextet for Brubeck’s 1962 show.
With his own trio (Don Branch on drums and George Campbell on bass) he supported the legendary Ella Fitzgerald when Harry M. Miller (aged just 25) brought her to New Zealand in 1960, and played with other internationals, including Clark Terry, Buddy Hackett, and Wild Bill Davison.
All this was far from his origins on the distant farming flats of the Oreti Plains. Crombie Murdoch was born in Winton, Southland in 1926. When he was a child, he heard a drummer and a pianist in a country hall playing what he called “pulse music” and the effect it had on him was magnetic; he was hooked. He had piano lessons at the O’Byrne School of Music in Invercargill and then at Timaru Boys’ High School, where he also learned trombone and put together his first band. Ragtime records made a big impression on him, and Benny Goodman’s big band sounds topped it. Music would become his vocation.
There were other considerations. Until he was better known it would have been difficult to support himself in music, and when his mother suggested teaching, he decided to follow that course, enrolling at Teachers’ Training College in Dunedin. While still there he met pianist and saxophonist Julian Lee, who loaned him his jazz 78s, recognised his talent and urged him to consider a music career over teaching. It would prove to be an enduring friendship and working relationship.
When Murdoch moved to Auckland in the mid-1940s, he was fizzing about the possibilities of a life in music.
By the time Murdoch moved to Auckland to do his probationary year at Titirangi Primary School, he was fizzing about the possibilities of a life in music. New clubs seemed to be springing up everywhere, with more and more venues to play at. He took formal music training tuition at the University of Auckland, where he played for student tea dances – and quit teaching. As a member of the Auckland Swing Club he jammed with whomever made room for him on the stand, updating his repertoire by osmosis and the latest tunes on the American records he bought at Wiseman’s Music Store.
His first professional gig was at the Metropole, on upper Queen Street, in 1946, playing several nights a week in the Bert Petersen Band. Other gigs landed in quick succession. An early regular gig was with Ted Croad’s big band. Croad’s band drew crowds to its residency at the Orange Coronation Ballroom in Newton Road, despite the Orange Lodge owners’ nagging stipulations of no “liquor, chewing gum, pass-out chits and jitterbugging” [Owen Shaw, NZ Herald, 9 August 1980].
The 50s came alive for Murdoch. Live radio broadcasts were a regular outlet and in 1951 he introduced his first big band to 1YD listeners on the Symphony in Swing shows, broadcast from Auckland’s Radio Theatre. He backed flamboyant Australia-based Scottish singer Edwin Duff live and in the studio and was a regular guest with Benny Levin’s Dancetime Band at the Bayswater Boating Club. There were late-night gigs at The Hi Diddle Griddle, where black-velvet painted murals of Polynesian beauties and island scenes were the backdrop for international artists, such as Nat King Cole, after their own shows.
He was increasingly busy penning arrangements, including for the Latin-American repertoire of George Campbell’s Cubanaires, and backed Pat McMinn and vocal group the Stardusters with the Nickelodeons or his trio on jingles for radio, such as ‘Taniwha Blue’, or in the recording studio. When Eldred Stebbing set up the Stebbing and Zodiac labels in the early 50s, Murdoch did regular sessions for his friend and colleague Julian Lee, who was Stebbing’s musical director.
Murdoch’s versatility meant he was in demand from all sides – the jingles, bands, live broadcasts, and arrangements of popular covers, such as ‘Bimbo’ and other hits from the new Lifebuoy Hit Parade – and he was still not earning enough to give up his day job as a meter reader. He made only £200 for ‘Opo’, despite it selling 10,000 copies the first week. “It was hack work,” he told Jim Mora in 1993. “I sold my soul to the devil to make a living.” It was not until the 1960s that he was able to turn fully professional.
This mix of “easy-listening” avenues was necessary to sustain an adequate income stream for him and no doubt many musicians. The sort of jazz they probably preferred to play was deemed too highbrow. Murdoch expressed his dissatisfaction at this attitude in a 1987 interview with Geoffrey Totton: “Most people hated jazz. Only musicians and a few members of the public liked it. To others it was wicked, criminal, decadent.”
Though he must have been surprised at the overflowing crowds at the country’s first jazz concert in 1950. The Auckland Town Hall Concert Chamber sold out that night, with hundreds turned away. Pictures from the night show a then-bearded Murdoch, still in his mid-20s, in the all-star line-up with vocalist Mavis Rivers, Julian Lee on sax, Hugh Gordon on tin whistle, guitarist Thomson Yandall, bassist George Campbell, Murray Tanner on trumpet and Dale Alderton, trombone. For the event, the Auckland City Council took exception to jazz musicians using the prized Steinway grand and announced that they were to use the Chappell instead.
Murdoch became the new Auckland radio band director for 1YA on Saturdays in 1961 and in the mid-60s he took a trip to Sydney to look for work opportunities. He played for a while at the historic Hydra Majestic Hotel in the Blue Mountains and provided accompaniment for New Zealand entertainer Noel McKay, but returned home within a year.
In 1981 he appeared in the Andy Brown Trio on the TV show 12 Bar Rhythm ’n Shoes, backing Ray Woolf. NZ Herald reviewer John Berry wrote, “Murdoch, eyes fixed intently on the music, cigarette holder jutting from clenched teeth, is in his element … ‘I’m a notorious tobacco addict,’ he says dryly. ‘Besides, it helps to keep the smoke out of my eyes.’”
IN THE 50S, Only musicians and a few members of the public liked jazz, he said. To others it was “wicked, criminal, decadent.”
Murdoch leaned towards full, rich orchestration and in the classics preferred the likes of Elgar, Delius, and Stravinsky. He noted among his jazz influences Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Victor Silvester, Gene Krupa, Count Basie and Oscar Peterson. The emergence of rock’n’roll unsettled him, considering it strange and foreign, but melodic music à la The Everly Brothers and The Beatles was acceptable.
Crombie Murdoch’s “quiet man of jazz” epithet appears to have been coined in an early print review. An anonymous writer in the NZ Observer (21 July 1954) noted: “When he sits down at the piano one expects Chopin rather than bop to come out from under the lid … anyone who likes his music thoughtful and imaginative, and yet still have a beat, will concentrate on the Quiet Man at the piano.”
Crombie Murdoch was a singular soul. He had a brief marriage in the 1950s, but it seems he was happiest with his music, his own company and that of other musicians. Murdoch was admired by fellow musicians and jazz buffs alike. He had influential friends and he influenced others in turn.
In Music in New Zealand (“Recordings”, Summer 1994–95) the late Auckland drummer Bruce Morley wrote: “Playing with Crombie Murdoch is like having another entire rhythm section on board in the shape of one man … Crombie may affect a certain cynicism these days, but he’s actually an incurable romantic, a trait that spills out in his wonderful piano playing.”
Crombie Murdoch died aged 77 in 2003.