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First published in August 2009
Stu can be contacted at email@example.com
Visit the web site of www.prohibitionbigband.co.nz
I was born in August 1948 and grew up in a musical family in Wellington.
Our parents Gwen and Peter Johnstone met during World War II, playing in a Wellington banjo-mandolin-guitar band and my brother Bruce Johnstone (five years older than me) became a very accomplished musician at an early age.
[Bruce played clarinet in the New Zealand Youth Symphony Orchestra from the age of 12, sax in Wellington bebop jazz groups from the age of 13 (including with Peter Pritchard, Dave Fraser, Noel Evans, Mark Young and Claude Papesch), became the band leader at Sydney’s Checkers nightclub in his early 20s, toured extensively with Maynard Fergusson and Woody Herman through the 1970s, was ranked number three in the world on baritone sax behind Gerry Mulligan and Pepper Adams in a Downbeat readers poll and is currently Head of Jazz Studies at Fredonia University in New York. Over the years Bruce performed or recorded with Lisa Minnelli, Sammy Davis Jr, Stevie Wonder, Dexter Gordon, Ben Webster, Michael Brecker and many other legends.]
I attended classical piano lessons from age five (with Fanny McDonald then her daughter Judith McDonald in Majoribank Street) till age eleven then learnt cello at Rongotai College for six months (because the music teacher deemed my hands too small for double bass; my requested instrument).
Our father was a primary school teacher but also taught guitar on weekends and some evenings. Nearly every Sunday evening through my primary school years, school teacher musicians brought their instruments to our house for folk music jam sessions, with all members of our family singing and joining in on guitars, ukuleles, recorders, xylophones, ocarinas or whatever other instruments happened to be available.
One day when I was twelve, I arrived home to find my younger brother Greg and his friends in our lounge playing various musical instruments with an intention of forming a band. After listening to one attempted song, I could hear that the bass player was not performing and showed him how it should be played, even though I hadn’t even seen a bass guitar before.
A couple of weeks later I received a call from Verne Clare (band-leader at the Empress Ballroom), who had heard from Bruce that his “kid brother had taken up bass guitar and was a solid reader”.
I agreed to attend an audition and spent the next year playing jazz standards till midnight two or three nights per week in a band comprising Verne Clare on trumpet, Gary Girvan on sax, Geoff Murphy (of film director fame) on trombone, Bob Barcham on piano, Kevin Watson on guitar and Dave “Bruno” Lawrence (of actor fame) on drums. They were all much older (Bruno was probably the next youngest at about 20) and far better musicians than me, but with their help and encouragement I retained the gig.
On one night per week over that period I also played bass guitar with a Maori piano player (whose name I think was Nick Smith – but I could be well astray here) in the restaurant at the Sharella Motor Inn, opposite the Botanical Gardens.
At fourteen, I left the Empress band in pursuit of contemporary music and younger faces to associate with, initially joining brother Greg’s band the Pickadors, which featured Kelvin Diedrichs on lead guitar, and had a small song list built around the hits of the Shadows and Cliff Richard.
When I joined up, the Pickadors had no gigs, so after getting a small repertoire together Kelvin, Greg and I decided to cold call the minister of St Aidan’s Anglican Church in Miramar to ask for a spot playing for the church’s weekly youth club dance. When the minister said “sorry, we only let members of our church play at the youth club,” our response was “no worry, how do we join?”
The next Sunday morning four young heathens perched themselves in pews eyeing up the young females present, after which we lugged our drum kit and tiny amps into the adjoining hall and started belting out such classics as “If I Had a Hammer” , “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”, “Apache”, “Bad To Me” and “the Highland Fling”.
Even though our amps ranged in size from only 5 watts to 20 watts, our performance that day ended with one of the few old people there telling us mid-song that we were too loud then abruptly disconnecting our amps from the power supply while we were in full flight.
Within a year Kelvin and I moved on and formed a new band named the Dizzy Limits with Frits Stigter (rhythm guitar) and Steve McDonald (drums). The Dizzy Limits stayed together from 1964 till 1971, playing mainly covers of the Beatles and other bands of the 1960s, recording four singles, touring New Zealand and playing our way to the United Kingdom and back in 1970. I switched from bass guitar to keyboards in about 1966. John Donoghue was recruited to replace Kelvin ahead of the United Kingdom trip as Kelvin elected not to travel.
On the return to Wellington, the band changed its name to Timberjack and released a single “Come to the Sabbat”, which was a Loxene Golden Disk finalist.
Disillusioned with a lack of repertoire to support the harder-edged Satanic image of Timberjack, a reluctance of the band members to perform more than a handful of songs from the Dizzy Limit repertoire and an increasingly unhealthy environment (with drugs on the rise and venues thick with cigarette and marijuana smoke) I left the band and turned my focus to business and study.
For the next year or so I played bass in a folk-rock trio with Wellington school teachers Chris Strange and John Reynolds, performing a repertoire of Cat Stevens, Carol King, James Taylor, Crosby Stills and Nash, Simon and Garfunkel, etc around Wellington cafes.
From the mid 1970s till the early 1990s, I withdrew from the professional music scene, limiting my music to piano playing at home, assisting in musicals at our children’s schools and playing piano on odd occasions at parties when Karaoke machines broke down.
I did come out of “retirement” once in 1979 when brother Bruce arrived home from New York, announcing that he had arranged for an evening of recordings at the Radio New Zealand studios, playing a few hours of his original tunes with backing from Terry Crayford on Fender Rhodes, Dave Fraser on drums and me on bass guitar (despite my protestations that I hadn’t played bass for about five years). The recordings were broadcast in 30 minute sets over the subsequent four weeks on a 2YC jazz programme. This was the only time Bruce and I ever played together in public.
My family and I relocated to Auckland in 1979 and after an intensive business career in share broking and investment banking, I cut back my business hours in 1993 and decided to rekindle my interest in music.
I bought a bass guitar, a double bass (which I didn’t know how to play) and an amplifier, and fronted up for a “Continuing Education” course for music tuition at Selwyn College, only to find that the course had been discontinued and instead had become the time slot for the Trevor Thwaites-led Prohibition Big Band to rehearse.
I stayed on to listen to the band, borrowed some of the band’s charts to learn at home, returned each week to listen and gradually participate, and eventually became established as the band’s bass player playing bass guitar and acoustic bass, a role I continue with to this day.
In the mid-1990s I took acoustic jazz bass lessons from Kevin Haines for a few months then became a regular student of Alberto Santarelli for a few years learning classical double bass.
In 2005 and 2006 I attended the music school MAINZ in Auckland, and obtained a Diploma of Contemporary Music Performance. My specialist instrument was bass guitar (tutor Johnny Fleury) for one year and piano (tutor Alan Brown) for the second year. In my final year I composed and produced the music for two short films written, produced and directed by graduates of UNITEC.
As well as playing in the Prohibition Big Band, in 2006 I joined Latin Jazz band Zingaro as its bass guitarist, with Jean-Pierre Druinaud (guitar), Jim Langabeer (sax and flute), Trevor Thwaites (drums) and Katia McKenzie / Jenny Eirena (vocals); resident at Auckland’s Mexican Cafe for 18 months.
Since 2007, I have continued with the Prohibition Big Band as its bass player and arranger, and have played in various small bands (usually) with Trevor Thwaites. Other musicians we have teamed up with include Jim Langabeer (sax) “Jim&Stu&Trev”, Craig Williams (piano) “The Craig Williams Trio”, and Stephen Galvin (guitar) “Crystal Silence”.
I also do itinerant music technology tutoring, holding clinics for GarageBand and Sibelius software, and I own and operate a Trans-Tasman website design and development business (www.thedesignweb.co.nz) with one of our Sydney-based daughters, Belinda. In a parallel life, I work as a public company non-executive director and as a business consultant.
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