Wednesday, October 17, 2018

“Hey Babe!” Remembering Roger Sellers

Following a long illness, the one and only Roger Sellers passed away on 14 June. Over the past 37 years (plus he had an earlier stint here during the 60s too), Roger was a integral part of the New Zealand jazz scene. And during that time he must have made his way to the top of the list of “most loved Australians living in New Zealand” (a short list perhaps (wink), but he’s up there nonetheless!).

Fortunately I was back home, and had the pleasure of taking my good mate John out to the burial in Makara. Not surprisingly there was a great turnout. And after reading the tributes that filled social media feeds since his passing, I decided to add some memories of my own. I delayed this post somewhat as I tried, so far unsuccessfully, to track down some concert posters I had hoped to upload. But somewhere on the way they seem to have disappeared along with a number of gig posters from the early 2000s I thought I had stashed at my parents’ place. 

During my fist year at music school, I lived a very short walk from The Lido and pretty much every Sunday night I went there to hear Roger and Paul Dyne with various incarnations on The Boptet - my favorite being the edition that included any or all of Scott Towers, John Bell, Nick van Dijk and Noel Clayton. But it was a couple of performances with saxophonist Jeff Henderson that immediately came to mind when I started writing this post. Jeff revealed a side to Roger’s playing that wasn’t always on show - relentless, burning intensity.

John Street Grill, circa 2000: Roger Sellers and Jeff Henderson Duo. I was expecting the typical crowd from jazz school to be there out-numbering a few punters grabbing dinner and a drink. But it was quite the opposite, and I may have been the only one from school there - I know I was sitting by myself at a table right next to Jeff and Roger. And once the music started it felt like I was the only one in the room and they were talking directly to me. My bowl of fries got cold as I soaked it in. There was no warming up on the bandstand. Once they were set up and ready, Roger smiled and nodded and then Jeff called, “blues, 1–2–1-2-3-4,” and they were into it. Full steam ahead. This was an eye opening gig for me. The duo’s intensity caught some/most/all(!) of the audience by surprise, with one couple ("oh, there's a band playing tonight") heading for the door by the time the first IV chord came around! I don’t really remember the specifics - I think they also played Rhythm Changes and maybe a ballad… “You Don’t Know What Love Is” perhaps -  but the energy, intent and feeling has stuck with me. I was somewhere between exhaustion and elation as I floated home alone. What a night!

I think it was not too long after the duo gig that he played a couple of trio gigs at The Space with Jeff and Paul Dyne (one was advertised as “Two Jazz Legends, One Imposter”!). The first featured standards, the second was original compositions. I ran into Jeff the day following the standards gig, and the first thing he said was along the lines of, “How great did Roger sound?!” Back at school the following Monday, Roger said he had to ice his wrists and have a couple of days recovery.  

My music library doesn't contain many recordings featuring Roger, and certainly nothing along the lines of these live concerts (at least as I remember them!). But I and planning to work through the Sustenance albums once I get a turntable.

I got to hear Roger with Mike Nock a couple of times too. And Mike’s description of jazz seems apt when talking about Roger: “serious fun.” Roger was one hell of a musician and one of the sweetest guys I’ve known. Roger’s nodding, smiling, gum-chewing, happy, swinging beat will be missed. So too will his humour, encouragement and wisdom, which he would gladly share with up and coming musicians. He was (and still is) the only person I’ve heard refer to everyone as “Babe” - this greeting always came with his trademark grin, and once he followed it up by asking if I was still modeling! Roger was the real deal.

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