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Tributes flow for Kiwi jazz legend

New Zealand Jazz legend Rodger Fox died this week at the age of 71.

It’s a loss that will be felt hard across Aotearoa and the jazz world, including here in Wairarapa, where he had close connections to jazz music, performance and education throughout the region.

Even a truncated Fox CV is impressive.

He studied classical trombone at Mana College, where his father was head of music, and by the age of 18 he was playing in a dance band in the Wellington area.

In 1973, he formed the Rodger Fox Big Band, which was internationally acclaimed and performed with some of the biggest names in jazz, blues and contemporary music.

He toured extensively in New Zealand and overseas, playing at international jazz festivals including Montreaux and Monterey, and the jazz Mecca of New Orleans, where he was in January this year.

He was no stranger to official gongs: In 2013, he was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit [ONZM] for services to music and received the higher honour of becoming a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit [CNZM] in 2022.

In Wairarapa, though, Fox will probably be most fondly remembered by young and old alike for his work as a jazz educator, mentor, and patron.

He was patron for Jazz in Martinborough [JIM], a community-based enterprise promoting jazz and jazz musicians in the region, and was closely connected to its College Jazz and Fresh Jam programme, delivering workshops to up-and-coming jazz musicians.

“He was a special friend as well as Patron for JIM and gave us excellent advice and guidance in our early years – as well as his superb big band music,” Ted Preston, JIM’s producer, said.

“He encouraged and supported JIM’s promotion of local, especially young, musicians and gave his personal time and inspiration to our Fresh Jam collaboration with students and teachers at our Wairarapa colleges.

“We’ve lost a special musician, friend and mentor, and our thoughts are with Erna, Rodger’s family, colleagues and band mates.

“His gig is over. It’s a sad time.”

When local musician and teacher Warren Maxwell first saw the Rodger Fox Big Band live “300 years ago” in 1981, he recalled feeling “like a little bit of Rodger’s mojo got transferred, and I got addicted to groove”.

He was spellbound by the fact “that human beings could play with such discipline and such finesse, are so connected that they create contagious magic. And to have experienced that at 11 years old – I was addicted.

“And I’ve been a recovering musician ever since.”

Fellow musician and Kuranui College teacher Saali Marks described Fox as “a force of nature”.

“He was just incredibly passionate about jazz, but also just about music and playing. He dedicated his entire life to it, as a performer and teacher and mentor.”

Marks had met Fox as a student at university – “I was slightly overawed” – and then again as a teacher through the Fresh Jam programme.

“He always had something positive to say to the students. When they saw him play, it was obvious he was enjoying himself, and he wanted others to experience that enjoyment too.”

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