BOB BARCHAM

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First published in October 2008, last updated January 2012

Bob can be contacted at bobar@xtra.co.nz

 

Photos & Memorabilia - Wellington College Dance Band, Community Arts Service Jazz Tour, Don Richardson Band, Majestic Cabaret, Melody Makers, Skyline Band, 2YA Radio Band, Bob Barcham Sextet, X7s, Bob's Wellington Musicians List

 

Click here to read Karl du Fresne's tribute to Bob, written for 'The Wellingtonian'

 

Click here to read other tributes to Bob 

The following is the transcript of a questionnaire that Bob completed in 2005 for the legendary Bernie Allen, as part of Bernie's ongoing project to document the NZ jazz scene prior the 1980's.   

Introductory Comments

Had parallel careers in the music profession:

Although very active in the Wellington Jazz Scene in the 1950s, particularly the annual festivals in the Wellington Town Hall and was most of that time regular pianist with the 2YA Radio Band, I have never really considered myself a jazz musician.  Because of the wide range of music that I have played, I would prefer to be called a 'session' musician.  Others may have a different opinion.  My childhood was during the great depression and this was a character building experience but it probably did narrow my exposure to music - I think we had our first radio about 1937 or 1938.  

Caveat: At my age, memory can be 'wobbly' I can only offer my best recollections. 

Questions and Answers

  1. Where were you born?  At Wellington in a private hospital in Ghuznee Street.

  2. When? 23 Feb. 1929 The year of the great 'crash!

  3. Did you live in other towns/cities prior to your present situation?  If so where?  No.  Current abode by the sea North of Wellington at Titahi Bay.  Have been in this residence for fifty years.  TRIVIA: While a music teacher, I had in turn, three city studios - Each within two city blocks from the street I was born in.  Make of that what you will.

  4. What music did you hear in your household as a child?  We had an old gramophone with just a few middle of the road and operatic records plus a bit of humour - certainly no jazz.

  5. What music did you hear at school?  At primary school very little.  Just a bit of assembly piano and class singing.

  6. Were your parents or relations musical?  In what way?  My paternal grandmother was a music teacher but for geographical reasons did not teach me.  She was a very academic lady, being the sister of Walter de la Mare, English poet & writer.  Later, was to become a bit of a mentor to me.  My father (a printer) loved music but did not play anything.  My mother played what would be called pop piano.  Earlier she had played for suburban dances where she lived.  Looking back, I guess she really played very well and was a good sight-reader.  My brother (Warren) became a fine player in the brass band scene and I had one cousin who was a classical singer.

  7. When and what instrument did you first hear live?  Did this have any effect on you?  Piano - and I can't remember any real effect on me except curiosity perhaps.

  8. When did you start to learn an instrument? What instrument(s)?  At age 6 I started piano lessons.  How my parents managed to purchase a brand-new "Gourlay" player piano, I will never know.  It must have been one hell of a struggle.

  9. Who was your teacher(s)?  What do you remember of this teacher and his/her effect on you?  My first teacher was a young lady who came to the house.  I can't remember her name.  After a year of lessons, tragically, she died of tuberculosis - quite common at that time.  I had found the lessons rather boring and after her demise, did not resume piano lessons but would muck around on the instrument after listening to the piano rolls which did fascinate me.  Plus of course, hearing my Mother playing hits of the day.

  10. What formal studies did you undertake over the years? (This would include both private and institutional study and indeed self motivated study through books, recordings etc.)  During this period I had been playing a melodeon (German button accordion.)  A friend suggested that I advance to a Piano Accordion which I did.  A very modest one.  I took some lessons from Allan Shand but was mainly self-taught.  Looking back I was playing quite well and remember playing on the radio (2ZB) when about 10 or 11.  I eventually up-dated the accordions and ended up playing most of the standard accordion showpieces.  Very much later, I become an acceptable jazz accordionist.  At secondary school (Wellington College) music was not on the curriculum.  But, there was an active musical scene, including the orchestra, all done in free time and the extra-curricular tutor was the organist from nearby St. Mark's church, Earnest Jamieson - a very dedicated 'olde-worlde' gentleman.  I began taking organ lessons from him and he suggested that I join the orchestra.  They did not have a double bass player.  So, he gave me a few lessons and so I joined the orchestra and played double bass until I left.  Meanwhile, my brother had joined a junior brass band and was playing Eb bass.  I used to sneak a bit of practice on it when he was out.  In 1944, some of the players in the orchestra had joined the Wellington Regiment Band as "Learner Bandsmen."  (Too young to be attested as soldiers) and they suggested that I give it a go.  I auditioned on Eb bass and was accepted.  Between then and 1951 waded through most of the brass instruments.  Also at this time, it was decided to form a college dance band.  This they did and I was recruited on double bass.  The band got off to a shaky start (too many players) and the pianist was really not up to it.  The lads had heard me mucking around on the piano and after a lot of persuasion, I ended up in the piano chair and looking back on it, really started my career.  The band finally ended up as a five piece combo and we did a lot of gigs calling ourselves "The Solid Five."  Very heady stuff at the time.  Two players went on to be professionals - John Williams and myself.  I did not take any more formal lessons until well into my professional career.  I studied with Loretto Cunninghame (NZSO.)  She introduced me to many aspects of music that had eluded me.

  11. When and where did you first play with other musicians?  Who were they?  Probably the Allan Shand Junior Accordion Band.  I cannot remember being very impressed with the music.  Next was the Wellington College Orchestra and The Wellington Regiment Military Band.  These experiences convinced me that music was to be shared and that playing as a cohesive group was more satisfying than playing alone.  Then the college dance band.  That loosened me up a bit and started my real musical development.

  12. What influence did any of these musicians have on your style, attitude, technique or general music direction?  Looking back, some of these players were really quite good - that alone inspired me to keep up with them - Peer pressure in action and very successful.  Basically, I really was a bit lazy.  Having been born with a 'good ear' music did come fairly easily.

  13. What were the first records that you owned?  Ashamedly, I must confess that the first records that I owned were Glen Miller items.  They were given to me as gifts.

  14. What popular music do you remember from your youth?  I was at secondary school during World War II.  Music of that period and ensuing years has left a permanent impression.

  15. What classical music do you remember hearing and when did you hear it first?  At home when I was very young.  Gramophone records of opera by Enrico Caruso et al.  Mentally, I can still hear those records in my head.

  16. When did you first hear jazz? Who was it? How did you come to hear it?  My college friends suggested that I listen to Arthur Pierce "Turntable" with 'Rhythm On Record' broadcast every Friday evening from 2YA.  Which I did.  Also, during the war, many American service bands (including Artie Shaw) played in Wellington.  I was lucky to have heard most of them.

  17. What effect did this jazz have on you?  Immensely.  It further encouraged me to expand my playing ability and started me on the road to improvisation.

  18. What directed you towards the various instruments or writing that you became involved in?  In 1949, Geoff. Mechaelis formed a big band "The Swing Men", mainly for rehearsal purposes and I suppose, a bit of fun.  Surprisingly, I was offered the piano chair.  At the time I was working at Chas. Begg & Co. as a musical instrument salesman.  Through this job, I had met most of the Wellington music fraternity and I guess my piano playing was being noticed - I was gigging quite a bit.  Geoff's band was featuring swing arrangements of the day including Stan Kenton.  I was on a very sharp learning curve.  However, this is when I developed an interest in arranging which has stayed with me to the present day.  Although I became, I think, a competent arranger, my work was always a bit derivative.  Because of having a 'good ear' I was in demand as a 'take off' arranger.

  19. What books on jazz or music do you consider were important to you?  Transcriptions of works by jazz artists were a big help and later I found the arranging books of Russ Garcia and Henry Mancini helpful in the way that they showed me that I really was on the right track - in my do-it-yourself way.  I guess that was par for the course at the time.

  20. What are the significant recordings you have had or still have in your collection?  A difficult question. I  have a large record collection, including hundreds of 78s complete with a wind-up gramophone for authenticity.  There are recordings of Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven etc. and a lot of 'Fats' Waller.  There are also records of some of the best English swing bands like Ted Heath and Eric Delaney.  I heard the Heath band when they visited NZ post war.  Otherwise, just too many to mention.  It is a collection of eclectic tastes.

  21. Which recorded musicians do you believe had the greatest effect on your style?  I would like to say the 'gods' like Art Tatum etc. but really they were (piano) Count Basie, (accordion) Ernie Felice and (organ) Jimmy Smith.  I would modestly suggest that my styles were influenced by those great players.  Basie's minimalist piano style suited me down to the ground.  Later, I became very George Shearing-ish.  In the jazz field, I don't think I had a personal 'style.'  Others may think differently.

  22. Which local musicians with whom you have worked or heard have had the greatest effect on you and why?  Another very difficult question.  Probably Don Richardson.  He and I shared the same professional standards and we played together for many, many years.  I guess we sort of fed off each other musically and to this day have remained friends.  Another person who I greatly admired (an ex musician) was Bob Bothamly who was in charge of NZBS dance music and managed the radio bands.  He introduced me to a lot of music and taught me a lot about 'the business.'

  23. Which overseas musicians with whom you have worked or heard have had the greatest effect on you and why?  I have heard most of the overseas jazz musicians that have visited NZ.  From, Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, Lou Levy, Peter Nero etc.  All have had some effect on me, even if it is just to go home and do a bit of practise.  Their dedication to their art was probably what affected me most, perhaps more than what they actually played.  I find it difficult to be more definitive about it - it all seems a long time ago and memory fades.

  24. Did you have any mentors? How did they influence you?  My paternal grandmother (the music teacher) urged me not to waste the natural talent that I was lucky to have and to sharply 'focus' on musical goals.  She was probably worried about my 'scatter-gun' approach to music - jumping from one thing to another.  I heeded her advice and was grateful for it.  Another mentor was an ex muso I worked with at Beggs.  He was Laurie Paddi, who had been a very popular band-leader at the Majestic Cabaret during the war.  He advised me not to be too 'clever' - don't try to 'educate' the public, indeed, play what the public wants and you will always be in demand.  He was 100% correct.  Dear old Laurie.

  25. What do you consider the most important occasions in your musical career?  A very difficult question.  There have been many high-lights (there have been a few low-lights as well) but to sort out the more important?  I will try.

    First: Attaining the piano chair at the Majestic Cabaret in November 1950.  Arguably, the top pro-music job in the country.  I was just 21 and the youngest pianist by a long way to that date.  Other musicians in that band were: Vern Clare (trumpet) Geoff. Mechaelis (reeds) Bill Hoffmeister (guitars) 'Slim' Dorward (bass) and Harry Voice (drums.) 

    Second: My quartet opening the Ella Fitzgerald concert at the Wgtn.Town Hall and my first gig for Harry M. Miller.  I met Ella's musicians, including Lou Levy and Herb Ellis.

    Third: My first day of music teaching in 1951.  I had taken over the practice of a retiring teacher (Norm Izett) and was starting with sixty pupils straight up.  I don't know who was more nervous - me or the pupils.  I kept teaching for 34 years. 

    Fourth: Conducting The Military Band Of The Seventh Batt. Royal NZ Infantry Reg.(7RNZIR) on the stage at the Sydney Town Hall.  We were representing the NZ Army at the 1964 ANZAC Day Parade and Service and the Sydney Lord Mayor put on a civic reception for us.  I was in my full officer's rig including sword and jingoism was order of the day.  Everyone was rapt - it doesn't get much better than that!  We then did a very successful tour of the RSL and League clubs.  An outcome of this, resulted in me working in Sydney professionally later.  The military band had a reunion in 1989 which was very well attended - I had a blow on trumpet with the current band and wasn't too bad - much to the surprise of the 'old hands.'

  26. What aspect(s) of your musical career have you enjoyed most?  In what has been a very full and productive music career I can honestly say that most of it has been enjoyable and was certainly part of New Zealand's 'Golden Age' of music.  I have enjoyed playing, conducting, arranging, managing and particularly teaching.  Developing students to their full potential is very satisfying.  I have enjoyed the camaraderie of musicians and I have been fortunate to have played constantly with the best players - Sadly, most of them now passed on.  And, the immense pleasure from entertaining vast numbers of people.  In retrospect, Jazz was a minor and perhaps transient part of my career but I am flattered that I am considered to be a minor player in New Zealand's jazz history.  However, I have a feeling that had I been a 'purist' and just stuck to Jazz, I would have died a slow agonizing death by starvation.

VERY SPECIAL COMMENT: None of the above would have possible without a supportive and understanding partner, my wife Jean.  While I, somewhat self-indulgently, pursued a music career, night and day, she had a very lonely time bringing up the family and running the house.  We had no or little social life which is typical of the profession.  There were many ups and downs in our voyage through life but am proud to announce that in October 2005, we celebrate our 57th Wedding Anniversary.  Probably some sort of record in the music trade.  In recent years, Jean has supported me through a life threatening illness.  I am sure I would not have survived without her.  If this sounds maudlin, so be it.  She is part of the story.

Bob Barcham, September 2005

 

Tribute to Bob Barcham written by Karl du Fresne for 'The Wellingtonian' - February 2011

Wellington musicians gathered on Sunday 27th February 2011 to honour a pianist and former music teacher whose name has become a byword among his peers for his exacting professionalism.

Bob Barcham, 82 last week, began playing professionally in the late 1940s and was still doing regular gigs with the X7s Dance Band as recently as late last year.

He last played in Auckland a few weeks ago at the 80th birthday celebrations of his old mate Graeme Saker, a fellow member of the band that played at Wellington’s famous Majestic Cabaret in the 1950s.

“I drove up for Graeme’s birthday and ended up playing for the afternoon with the Vintage Jazz Band, the leader of which [noted trumpeter Lindsay Meech] is one of my ex-pupils,” Barcham said.

“A vintage jazz band isn’t my metier, but they want me back.  They were a bit impressed, I think, to see this doddery old guy get up and play.

“I think I play slightly better than most of them,” he added mischievously.

Name a musical instrument, and chances are Barcham has played it.  As a boy of 10 or 11 he was entertaining listeners to 2ZB on the piano accordion.  At Wellington College he played double bass in the school orchestra, having switched from the cello.  He went on to play the E-flat bass (a brass instrument) and trumpet in the Wellington Regiment Band – which he also conducted – and even toured with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra as a percussionist.

He balks at the suggestion that he mastered so many instruments, but no one familiar with Barcham’s exacting standards would imagine he played them without knowing exactly what he was doing.

There’s no doubt, though, about his preferred instruments.  “If people ask me what instruments I play, I say the piano and the organ.”

It was as a pianist that he became a fixture at the Majestic Cabaret during its golden era in the 1950s and 60s. His services were also in demand for recording sessions – he was a “sight reader”, able to play anything without rehearsing – and he toured with artistes as diverse as the British comedian Jimmy Edwards and Welsh torch singer Shirley Bassey.

Barcham simultaneously pursued a career as a music teacher, tutoring an average 80 pupils a week for 40 years in brass and musical theory as well as keyboard skills.  On top of all that, he was secretary of the Musicians’ Union.

Though he’s an entertaining raconteur with a dry sense of humour, he admits no one ever hired him for his extrovert personality.  He recalls that the leader of the band at the Majestic, the late Don Richardson, once told him the other musicians didn’t like his attitude.

“So I said, ‘How’s my playing?’  He said, ‘It’s always impeccable’.  So I said, ‘Well, that’s all you need to worry about’.”

He had a long and close professional relationship with Richardson, who died in 2008, but it was often prickly.  Barcham tells of a time when they didn’t speak for months and a fellow member of the band, a telephone engineer in his day job, installed phones on the bandstand so that Richardson could bark instructions down the line.

On one fabled occasion, a cabaret patron lurched up to Barcham at the end of the night and asked how he could call a taxi.  Barcham cranked the handle on the phone beside the piano and handed it to the patron, who found himself talking to an irascible and uncomprehending Richardson.

Barcham laments that most of his musical contemporaries – people such as Richardson, Vern Clare and Brian Hands – have passed on.  He counts himself very lucky that he’s not only still alive, having survived a life-threatening cancer, but remains married to Jean, his wife of nearly 63 years.  “That must be a world record in the music trade,” he says.  They still live in the Titahi Bay house they had built 50 years ago.

In Sunday’s tribute at the James Cook Hotel, organised by the Wellington Jazz Club, the X7s Dance Band played original arrangements written by Barcham while he was battling cancer.

TRIBUTES

Bob Barcham is a name that many musicians of the 60's and 70's will recognise as their teacher, some as a fellow musician.  He and wife, Jean, are long time residents of Titahi Bay.  The number of his pupils would be in the thousands.  He taught accordion, piano, organ, brass, theory and orchestration.  Born in 1929 he began learning piano at age 6 and began playing professionally in the early 40's.  Even today still plays the occasional gig.  Through the late 50's, 60's and 70's he played with the famed Don Richardson band at Wellington's Majestic Cabaret.  Many pupils (including me) will fondly remember his ability to write an arrangement of their choice in their favourite key during the course of their lesson in about five minutes flat. 

A tribute evening for Bob was held at Wellington's James Cook hotel last Sunday (27/02/11), organised by the Wellington Jazz Club.  About 200 guests attended and a number spoke to the gathering on his behalf with stories both amusing and heart warming.  Bob, though visibly humbled, was able to reply in fine form.  The X7's dance band played Bob's own arrangements throughout the evening.  They have been playing together for more than 25 years and their performance was testimony to this.  Bob sat in for their last three numbers on piano and, of course, was given great applause.  The Jazz Club generously gave $300 from the door take to the Christchurch Quake fund.  This figure could easily have doubled as guests made their own contribution on leaving.  The mood throughout the evening was one of great respect for a man whose fingerprint many musicians carry throughout their careers. - Pat Southee
(email me your tribute to Bob and I'll add it in - andy@nzmusos.co.nz)

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