Auckland’s Jazzy nightlife

Whenever I tell people what I research - the history of jazz in New Zealand - the first response I get is: ‘there was jazz in New Zealand?’ The second response is usually something along the lines of: ‘but we didn’t really have any nightlife…did we?’ The answer to both is emphatically yes! New Zealand, and in particular Auckland, certainly had a nightlife, and jazz invaded New Zealand about mid-1917. Auckland percussionist and saxophonist Bob Adams created New Zealand’s first jazz band in about 1918, and there were already plenty of dance halls, cabarets, and theatres ready and willing to get in on the new craze that soldiers brought back from the First World War.

As the 2016-2017 Auckland Library Heritage Trust Scholarship winner my project was to investigate the Jazz Age in Auckland (1918-1930). Yes, Auckland, and more broadly New Zealand, did have a Jazz Age commensurate with other Western nations. When we think of the Jazz Age what comes to mind are images that could be out of a Miss Fisher mystery or an F. Scott Fitzgerald story like The Great Gatsby: fast-paced music, dancing, drinking, debauchery, daring fashions, new technologies, and entertainments. In other words, the Jazz Age is more than just jazz as music. And this was at the heart of my project - what, asides from jazz music, went into making the Jazz Age in Auckland?

To start: New Zealand did not ‘close at 5’. Yes, shops closed at 5pm (and, infamously for much of the twentieth century, pubs at 6), but as I discovered when looking at advertising ephemera held in the Sir George Grey Special Collections, restaurants began dinner service at 5pm. Additionally, beauty parlours were open until 8 or 9pm for that essential hair styling (for women and men) or a last minute manicure before heading off to the theatre or cabaret at 8pm, and cafes, grills, and confectionery stores remained open for post cabaret, dance hall, or theatre supper and dessert - frequently until 1 or 2am.

Ref: Advertisement. From: Rio Rita Programme 1929. John Fuller Theatre Ephemera, Sir George Grey Special Collections.
Ref: Advertisement. From: Gold Diggers Film Programme, 1929. Ephemera Collection, Sir George Grey Special Collections. 

But how was jazz defined in Auckland’s Jazz Age? In the 1920s the term jazz was used to mean a variety of things to people: music, dance (both a specific dance and a general style), and it denoted bright colours, or combinations of colours (such as green-black-gold) and abstract geometric patterns in fashion. It was also a fashionable buzzword in advertising - to describe an item as jazz was to imply that it was the latest, best, and brightest. The term jazz was also used to confer the idea of fun and excitement to items or activities.

Ref: Page 7 Advertisements Column 1, Auckland Star, Volume LI, Issue 255, 25 October 1920.

Ref: Page 20 Advertisements Column 7, Auckland Star, Volume LVII, Issue 194, 17 August 1926

It’s also worth noting that most of the slang involving the word ‘jazz’ originates in this period. To say that you were jazzed about something was to be excited, or the classic ‘and all that jazz’ for ‘and everything else’.

The connotations surrounding jazz were not always positive, however. ‘Jazzy nerves’ was considered to be a psychiatric disease, with descriptions ranging from what we would now describe as manic-depression or bipolar spectrum through to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is perhaps unsurprising in this post-war period with many people greatly affected physically, mentally, and emotionally by the war. A jazz person was someone who was untrustworthy, or outright criminal, with a sub-category of flappers for untrustworthy young women. Finally, in the early years of the 1920s, jazz was inextricably linked to the influenza pandemic as they both arrived at the same time, and jazz ‘encouraged’ people to go out at night, in the cold and catch the ‘flu.

Ref: Page 7 Advertisements Column 5, Auckland Star, Volume LII, Issue 223, 19 September 1921.

Ref: Page 2 Advertisements Column 3, Pukekohe & Waiuku Times, Volume 11, Issue 839, 7 September 1923.
Ref: Page 12 Advertisements Column 2, Auckland Star, Volume LV, Issue 214, 9 September 1924.

Cabarets, dance halls, theatres, and cinemas formed the backbone of Auckland’s nightlife and jazz scene in the 1920s. The Opera House (and later the St James) was the home base of Fullers’ theatrical operations, while His Majesty’s was J.C. Williamson’s.

Ref: A montage of interior views of St James Theatre. From: The New Zealand Sporting and Dramatic Review, July 1928. Sir George Grey Special Collections, 7-A1180.

Ref: James Richardson. Looking north east from the corner of Bledisloe Street, later Elliott Street (left) and Wellesley Street West towards Fullers Opera House, destroyed by fire 3 December 1926. Sir George Grey Special Collections, 4-4785.

Ref: Auckland City Council. Showing a full view of the stage (curtains closed) at His Majesty's Theatre, with the painted monogram J C W (relating to J C Williamson Theatres Limited) above. 1987/1988. Sir George Grey Special Collections, 994-80

These two companies were responsible for most of the professional theatre in Auckland in the 1920s, with vaudeville, revues, musical comedies, and dramatics. They were also responsible for bringing many jazz bands from overseas to Auckland on their vaudeville circuits. Through vaudeville people could hear and see bands such as Linn Smith’s Royal Jazz Band from Australia, Bert Ralton and his World Famous Savoy Havana Band (from the Savoy Hotel in London- favourite band of the Prince of Wales), the Tully Sisters Jazz Band - one of the first ‘all-girl’ jazz bands from the United States, and many others who influenced how local musicians played jazz, and how the audience, perceived jazz. 

Ref: J.C Williamson Programme for Bert Ralton's Havana Band. Ephemera Collection, Sir George Grey Special Collections. 
Ref: Page 16 Advertisements Column 8, Auckland Star, Volume LV, Issue 288, 4 December 1924.

In the cabarets and dance halls we heard local iterations of jazz. One of the first sophisticated dance venues of the 1920s was Rush-Munro’s (of ice cream fame) Conservatoire de Danse on K’ Road, an extension of his tearooms, cafeteria, and ice cream parlour operations.

Ref: Page 10 Advertisements Column 8, New Zealand Herald, Volume LVIII, Issue 17869, 25 August 1921.

The Conservatoire was one of the first venues in the city to have jazz bands playing on a regular basis. By 1922 the city was jazzing, and was ready for its first dedicated jazz venue: The Dixieland Cabaret.

Page 12 Advertisements Column 2, Auckland Star, Volume LIII, Issue 83, 7 April 1922.

The Dixieland was the brainchild of Canadian heiress Ethel Rayner and her husband, dentist and entrepreneur Dr Frederick Rayner, who wanted to bring to Auckland the sophisticated entertainment they saw in New York, London, and Paris. It quickly became the place to go for the young sophisticate crowd, and was considered the best place to go to dance to jazz. I’ve written extensively about the Dixieland over at if you want to read more about the venue, the music and its scandals.

This is just the briefest of overviews of Auckland’s Jazz Age. While the concept of jazz in advertising died out by the end of the decade, jazz music and dance increased in popularity. As the 1920s continued the number of venues for entertainment increased in both the suburbs and in the central city, with new theatres, dance venues and other entertainments such as roller-skating rinks (which usually had live jazz bands playing) opening frequently. Despite increasing economic worries, and the impending global economic depression, 1920s Auckland continued to have something of an entertainment boom that centred on jazz. Until 1931 it seemed that nothing would get in the way of Aucklanders desiring new entertainment venues - as witnessed by the opening of both the Crystal Palace and Civic Theatre in 1929, and the Peter Pan Cabaret in mid-1930. All these venues became noted jazz hubs in the 1930s and beyond.

As a final note on how much Aucklanders liked going out in the evening - even at the height of the Great Depression, most theatres, cabarets, dance halls and other entertainment venues didn’t close down entirely, rather they reduced their operating hours so there was still something to do after 5pm on any night of the week.

Author: Dr Aleisha Ward, 2016-17 Auckland Library Heritage Trust Scholar