I’m listening to an oral history interview with Sydney jazz drummer Barry Woods (22 July 1939 – 10 June 2011) held by the National Film and Sound Archive and conducted by Bruce Johnson in October 1985. Barry Woods was a highly regarded drummer; one of Sydney’s jazz elite.
In this recording, Woods is audibly drawing back on a cigarette. He holds his breath as he counts to four for Johnson, who is getting a level on his microphone. At first his enthusiasm bubbles over into a gregarious and haphazard account of dates and names of people he met in the early days of his career in New Zealand. With steely interviewing professionalism Johnson pulls him sharply into line and solicits a linear account complete with middle name, which Woods reveals reluctantly.
‘Oh, Barry Woods.’
‘Don’t have a middle name?’
‘I do, yeah. I don’t ever use it… Barry William Woods.’
He offers the information stubbornly. Woods jokes that the circumstances under which he came to professional drumming were nothing short of extraordinary.
‘How long is your tape?’ he laughs.
‘Just keep talking,’ Johnson assures him.
The tape is long, and so is his story.
Woods was born in Ngaruawahia, in the North Island, New Zealand. He began playing in 1957, at the age of 18.
'I had been listening to jazz music in general. I was very fond of the hit parade and dancing in particular, but then somewhere around my high school certificate year, I first heard black jazz. I first heard Art Blakey and Max Roach in particular, and that changed my whole life instantaneously, to the point where I often wouldn’t go to school. I’d stay home and practice and listen to records! As soon as I heard Art Blakey and Max Roach, I knew then, I made up my mind, that I didn’t want to just stand and listen any more, I wanted to play.'
Woods described this epiphany as an immediate bolt to the shop for a drum kit. Within a couple of years he had played all the gigs in town simply because he was the only kid in the neighbourhood with a drum set. Woods had only been playing for about six weeks when he played with Mike Nock for the first time. He also met trumpeter Kim Patterson, bassist Rick Laird and pianists Dave McRae and Rowan Smith; they all lived in the same town and while they were all much more experienced performers, they also liked the same kind of jazz and were very encouraging of his playing.
In 1959 Woods became a professional musician when a touring rock’n’roll band called him to ask if he would replace their drummer, who had taken ill with appendicitis. He was working in a day job as a textiles buyer and gave notice to his employer, becoming professional overnight.
The band was comprised of Laird, guitarist Ned Sutherland and pianist Mike Walker. Woods then embarked on a 20-week tour of New Zealand with the band; during that time he met other formative local jazz artists including Judy Bailey, Lorrie Lewis, Tony Hopkins, and Frank Gibson Junior and his father, who were also drummers.
Woods anticipated then that he would have a career in music touring around the world and he entitled his scrapbooks The Drummer’s Geography. The band knew that the opportunities to play jazz did not exist in New Zealand at that time, so they’d have to travel and work overseas. They came to Sydney in February 1960.
Dave MacRae and Brian Smith had also left New Zealand for Australia and preceded the band by around two weeks. Mike Nock was already in Sydney with his Three-Out Trio at the El Rocco Jazz Cellar in Kings Cross. When Woods came to Sydney he expected to start at the bottom, but it didn’t take long before he received valuable opportunities.
'Jimmy Shaw, Stuart Spears and Allan Gedes were all very good to me, so much so that Shaw got me my first job on National Bandstand playing with Don Burrows, so that was my first experience of playing on national Australian TV.'
All the players he knew were all jazz musicians and with them, he soon began playing gigs at the El Rocco, often with Bernie McGann, Rick Laird, Keith Stuart, Bob Bertles and Bruce Cale.
During the year of 1960, they were called up to Brisbane to play with a lot of other jazz musicians playing in clubs and hotels, with artists such as Ricky May and Stan Bourne performing in the beer garden across the road.
By the time Woods turned 21, his drumming teacher Colin Bailey, of the Australian Jazz Quartet, introduced the band to Dizzy Gillespie, George Shearing and Sarah Vaughn during the International Jazz Festival.
Mike Nock called Woods and Laird whilst they were on the Gold Coast to ask if they would come to Sydney for a spell at the El Rocco. This invite lead to several regular gigs at the El Rocco, where Woods worked with predominantly Keith Barr – a figure Woods considered his musical father.
'We used to literally go to The Domain and put a hat on the ground and just play, but what a band … I played with Brian Smith, Bernie McGann, Keith Barr and Bob Gillett. We had a band consisting of four sax players and me, and I’m telling you, it was really hot!'
Listening to Woods laughing effusively in this recording, it’s clear that his enthusiasm for jazz was infectious and his respect for his colleagues palpable. He played solidly at El Rocco Jazz Club and for National Grandstand on national television from 1961–1962.
'The El Rocco was usually packed on a Sunday but all of a sudden summer arrived and it was empty. I remember one amazing occasion during the summer; during this time, all the piano players had resigned, those being Dave Levy, Billy Palmer and Judy Bailey. The El Rocco was empty. So then we said alright we haven’t got a piano player, there was Rick (Laird) and myself and no-one there. Right then –- are you ready for this? — The door opened and in walked Percy Heath, Mort Jackson and Cam Connor Kay. And I’ll never forget it! Percy Heath was one of Rick’s idols. They walked and they said is this the jazz club, what time do you start playing? Rick and I were very embarrassed, we said ‘Well, look, honestly, usually it’s packed to the rafters, but summer’s arrived and everyone must have gone to the beach and all the piano players have resigned. So Mort Jackson sat down and played the piano that day and before long, the club was packed.'
So much more can be said about Barry Woods, the drummer from Ngaruawahia. I was talking to him on the phone a couple of weeks ago. He was in good form as always. We were discussing his Australian Jazz on Video collection, which he recently donated to the National Film and Sound Archive. Woods was intent on ‘getting them out to people’. He was very excited about our plan to digitise them and put them up online.
‘You know, I’m a drummer,’ he told me effusively over the phone, ‘But people won’t remember me for my drumming. My legacy is this collection of tapes which will give people a real insight into who the great jazz artists of Australia were in the early ’90s, and what was happening in jazz then. Dale Barlow, Sandy Evans, Errol Buddle, Tim Hopkins, Bernie McGann, Dave Colton, Phil Slater, Ken James, Roger Frampton, Mike Nock, John Pochee, Mike Bukovsky.. These tapes are the who’s who of Australian jazz!’
Fortunately for Australia’s jazz community, Barry’s self-produced video jazz collection of live performances in the early ’90s is safely being preserved and will soon be seen on the NFSA website.