Game-changing NZ Jazz Workshops turn 40

In mid-January, around ninety high school students from across the country came to the New Zealand School of Music for the 40th iteration of the National Jazz Workshops.

2019 National Jazz Workshops
Tutors at the 2019 National Jazz Workshops

The workshops have been running since 1980, started by Colin Hemmingsen and Rodger Fox after they attended similar workshops in Australia in 1979.

By 1979, Jamey Aebersold, the American jazz educator famous for his jazz Play-A-Long series, had been running his popular Summer Jazz Workshops in the United States for several years. For a period in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Aebersold also brought his workshops to Australia. About two dozen top jazz musicians and educators including Randy Brecker, Woody Shaw, Mulgrew Miller, Jim McNeely, David Baker, John Scofield and Hal Galper (see B/W photo of the 1981 workshops) made up an all-star faculty, teaching young Australians in Sydney and Melbourne about jazz and improvisation. For the 1979 workshops, young New Zealand jazz enthusiasts Colin Hemmingsen and Rodger Fox attended the Australian workshops as participants.

To run similar workshops in New Zealand, Hemmingsen, Fox and a team of interested individuals found that they needed an official organisation to apply for funding. This initiative was the birth of the New Zealand Jazz Foundation, which has been running the New Zealand National Jazz Workshops ever since.

The early workshops in 1980 and 1981 were game-changing events for New Zealand jazz education. They jumpstarted other initiatives including the New Zealand Youth Jazz and High Schools Jazz Orchestras and helped inspire the growth of university and high school jazz programmes throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

Forty years later the workshops are still going strong, with this year's workshops taking place from 14-18 January at the New Zealand School of Music. High school students participating in the workshops attended classes in jazz theory and improvisation, jazz combos coached by the jazz faculty, listening sessions and instrument-specific masterclasses.

Over the years the workshops have operated with support from the various iterations of the Wellington jazz schools as they have evolved: the Wellington Polytech, Massey University's jazz school and the New Zealand School of Music at Victoria University of Wellington usually relying exclusively on local jazz musicians and teachers to staff the event. In 2012, Rodger Fox and Dave Lisik began bringing international guest artists to complement the New Zealand teaching faculty. In the past few years some truly world-class musicians have taught and performed for the students including John Riley, Alex Sipiagin, Bob Sheppard, Luis Bonilla, Matt Harris and Brandon Fields.

The 2019 international guest artist was Los Angeles-based saxophonist, Tom Luer who acted as guest performer, combo coach and saxophone tutor. He was also the guest soloist for the New Zealand Youth Jazz Orchestra which was a featured part of this year's schedule. The NZYJO performed the Thursday night concert at the workshops and then completed a short tour to Palmerston North and Napier.

Since 2015, the National Jazz Educators Workshops have also been run alongside the workshops, with several dozen high school teachers and other interested jazz educators having attended to date. The teachers attend daily sessions dealing with jazz ensemble rehearsal management, teaching improvisation, and discuss materials and strategies specific to their current teaching assignments.

For information on the 2020 Student Workshops, the Jazz Educator Workshops, the New Zealand Youth Jazz Orchestra or the New Zealand Jazz Foundation, visit and join the Facebook pages for these groups.

The New Zealand School of Music also runs the annual Jazz Project in June which provides performance, workshop and competition opportunities to New Zealand Secondary School Jazz Bands and Combos.