Q&A – An Interview with Dave Macrae


This month we’re speaking with legendary Jazz Pianist Dave Macrae.


Dave Macrae

AL:       Are you happiest playing jazz a a soloist? or in an intimate group? or in a big band or rock group?


DM:     I enjoy playing solo or with any size group. My main criteria are: Are the musicians committed to the performance? Do they posses the skills to perform the music well? Are they open to creative ideas and are able to contribute their own ideas to the performance? I have found that if these qualities are apparent the performance/project usually works and is enjoyable.


AL:       In your early musical years, whose playing did you admire? Why? Who was the greatest influence on your development as a pianist?


DM:     In my earliest musical endeavours I played the violin, not very well, but it was a start, then in my teens the trombone. The trombone because I wanted to be in a Dixieland style jazz band with some school friends and the trombone was the only instrument left. I had lessons on the violin, taught myself the trombone. When I was about 10 my mother sent me down the street to the local “little old lady” piano teacher. I would watch her hands and use my ear to play the music she wanted me to read. When she discovered I was not reading the dots she got very annoyed, consequently I rebelled and would not go back for more lessons.


I did not seriously consider the piano again until I was 17. In the interim years I would sit at the piano and teach myself to play the hits of the day or some boogie – music that contained fun and rhythm.


Around the age of 12 I went with a school group to hear the local symphony orchestra perform Peter and the Wolf with narration, my first live orchestral concert and I was transported to fantasy land with the orchestral sounds, the magnitude and sheer power of it all and a whole new world was opened up.


At age 18 I began playing piano in a dance hall band. Not a lot of skill required here, most of the tunes were blues based (drape coats, and  Bill Haley was king) and I had good rhythm so kept the job and enjoyed the parties and social activity. This band was asked to tour for three months and the offer of 10 times my salary as a pharmacist was too much temptation. I quit my job and have been playing music ever since.


Early first influences by pianists? The Dixieland players, the boogie players like Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons, Someone played me a recording by Art Tatum and my jaw hit the floor upon hearing his spectacular technique and the incredible speed at which he executed his creative thoughts. I have many other musical influences, not all pianists, not all jazz, some classical performers, some rock artists, African and artists from other ethnic groups and many singers.


AL:       Did you grow up in a musical family? 


DM:     My mother played the piano and we had an upright in the house that needed tuning most of the time – not that I was really aware of that at the time (no perfect pitch for me although my relative pitch is pretty good.) Money being pretty tight in 1940s and 1950s Auckland piano tuning would not have been a priority. My Mother played “light classics” I think the description would be, “Rustle of Spring” being as good as it got when she was in practice, so at least I was able to hear rippling arpeggios and runs when I was young and enjoy the energy and excitement of piano music. My father played the violin entirely by ear and he usually sat with the violin somewhere down by his waist and would try to work out anything that took his fancy, predominantly simple Celtic or classical melodies and sometimes, after radio entered our lives, a catchy popular tune. (He was a radio engineer in the early part of his life.) My brother inherited his violin and I used another which one of my father’s friends lent me.


AL:       Your family now is certainly a musical one. Can you tell us about your performances with your wife Joy Yates and your daughter Jade?  When did you start playing together?


DM:     I arrived in Sydney when I was 19 and realising my self tuition had given me some very bad technical habits proceeded to get some instruction to rectify this. I still work on improving my way of playing all the time. So Sydney 1960s proved to be a good grounding in “real life” survival, many lessons learned the hard way. Joy and I met in NZ and she eventually came to Sydney a couple of years after me having spent some time singing in New Caledonia. In Sydney she had a successful career working the prospering club circuit and I was making jazz contacts and arranging and playing music for pop recordings.


We left for the USA in 1968 to broaden our horizons and later moved to London staying for 15 years. It was during these times we began to work and record together mostly in jazz influenced groups but other areas as well. We still perform together today and with much water under the bridge there is much repertoire to select from. During our time in London electronic keyboards came into their own and although electronic keyboards can never replace the satisfying physicality of playing the piano, if you were lucky enough to find one, it took a back seat in a lot of public performances.


At this time I was fortunate to acquire a Steinway model O made in 1928. I had this instrument for 20 years, a great friend. 


Our daughter Jade has become a powerful presence in Australian and international music. An AMus. graduate in both piano and violin, learned during her childhood study, she has chosen to make her way creating contemporary vocal and performance music. The three of us recently created some original music together under the title “Bloodlines”, something we have not done before and the performances were reviewed most positively. Our son Moses plays the drums and creates popular music in the studio and we regularly play together.


AL:       Can you tell us about your composition and arranging work?


DM:     I first started arranging in Sydney in the 1960s I worked for a record company mostly doing cover versions of American hits for local artists.


The experience gained here served me well when arranging and production of music for “The Goodies” “Scott Walker” and others in the UK. The list is quite expansive. I have written compositions with Joy for our group “Pacific Eardrum” and by myself for the UK bands “Matching Mole” and “Nucleus” and the movie “Jazzfilm” plus other incidental film music. My piano compositions mostly jazz, either solo, or with a trio are best represented on my only CD “some history.” Most of the pieces are theme statement and improvisation. I still feel improvisation is the most challenging and rewarding musical experience.


AL:       Who are the musicians who inspire you most?


DM:     I’m always inspired by musicians who create their own style….you know…when you hear a recording and you can say “Oh, that is Errol Garner or Ahmad Jamal or Thelonious Monk” There are many recognisable and great musicians in today’s music world. I feel if you have an identifiable sound then, with the confidence self expression brings, you are a more complete player. I am also respectful of players I feel always try to surpass their previous best performance, nothing held back, not playing “safe”…that kind of thing. I would also be foolish not to be inspired by acknowledged masters of their instruments…there are many and I enjoy many styles from present day performers back to the creators of jazz and other music forms.


AL:       Can you tell us about some of your most memorable moments in your career?


DM:     Memorable moments….my first ever performance for the public (trombone at 17 in a local church hall)…..with the Buddy Rich band standing next to and playing with Duke Ellington, a once in a lifetime experience….playing Wembley Stadium and Palais des Sport in Paris…..being at my daughter Jade’s birth……passing out in Ronnie Scott’s Club and Ronnie saying “you’re not dead are you sir, we could use the publicity”……..and lots more, some with my musical mentors, some humorous, some oddball e.g. a gig on 7/7/77 at The Seven Dials in London at 7.00 pm with 7 in the band. (one naked light globe for the lighting rig)


AL:       Can you tell us what you are working on right now?


DM:     I spend some of my week teaching students and I have been recording a series of solo piano improvisations. As I get older I get more critical of my own offerings and in a world full of music, some of it good, I hesitate to issue recordings, but I have never enjoyed playing more possibly because at 73 you start to value what’s left of your time span.


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