16 Jul 2018

Remembering Roger Sellers

From Upbeat, 1:40 pm on 16 July 2018

Roger Sellers, considered to be one of New Zealand’s most influential jazz drummers and teachers has died following a long illness. Scores of former students and musicians from the industry have flocked to social media to share their thoughts and stories of the “lovely man”.

Roger Sellers

Roger Sellers Photo: New Zealand School of Music

Roger Sellers taught many New Zealand jazz musicians including RNZ’s Nick Tipping.

“He’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met,” he says. “He was the reason I’m still a jazz musician. He stopped me quitting jazz school after six weeks.”

Tipping had come into the school with a classical background and took a little while to adjust to jazz. “He said ‘trust yourself Nicky’. And it turned out alright,” he says.

Geoff Castle, Billy Kristian, Brian Smith and Roger Sellers in 1977

Geoff Castle, Billy Kristian, Brian Smith and Roger Sellers in 1977 Photo: Facebook

Not only was Sellers a teacher, he was also a performing musician. Tipping has performed with him often, but recalls one time that things didn’t go so well in New Plymouth when he was an inexperienced, under-confident musician.

“I feel like I nearly killed him once!” Tipping says, laughing. “I heard him do all the tricks to communicate that I wasn’t cutting it. I thought I was slowing down, so I kept speeding up. He came off stage redder than I had ever seen him and he said ‘don’t ever do that to me again!’. It was the only cross word I’d heard from him,” he recalls.

Roger Sellers outside Lido

Roger Sellers outside Lido Photo: Jay van Dijk

Sellers was a much-loved teacher at the New Zealand Jazz School and Tipping says he would impart most of his wisdom while standing in the smoking area outside the front door. 

That wisdom has been passed on to generations of musicians of the Wellington and New Zealand jazz scene, and while he’s left a physical hole, his legacy will continue on.

“He taught us to see beyond technique and to play music with heart.”

Sellers is to be buried on his 79th birthday on Wednesday 18 July in Makara.

Roger Sellers in his own words

In 1997, Sellers played Musical Chairs with jazz broadcaster Haydn Sherley and spoke about his life as a professional musician, playing abroad and being on stage with some on New Zealand’s and the world’s greatest jazz artists – all complimented with a few of his favourite tunes.

Roger Sellers

Roger Sellers Photo: Facebook - Roger Sellers Drums

Sellers came from a musical family. His parents were active on the scene in Melbourne and would go to gigs, bringing home “half the band” to continue on the party afterwards. That helped influence his direction.

His parents were supportive of his musical endeavours, but encouraged him to get a day job “just in case”. That didn’t last long, and at 17 his life changed when he walked by a record shop and heard a “sound”. That sound was jazz.

The music scene was large in Melbourne at that time, with “150 to 200 drummers” in the city.

Roger Sellers, London 1977

Roger Sellers, London 1977 Photo: Wendy Walker

To get ahead he studied in Melbourne, under Graeme Morgan and Stewart Spear, an “Australian legend”. “He was the first major time player,” he said.

In 1958 Sellers came across Portrait in Jazz by the Bill Evans trio, which he said changed his life. “[you can hear] the time being shared around rather than the drums keeping time."

He traveled the world extensively, but it was his formative years in London that shaped him as a musician. While in the city the Bill Evans Trio were playing at Ronnie Scott’s. He went every night “until the money ran out”.

“It was a bit like turning up… and actually spotting god for the first time for me.”

He went to Scott’s regularly as an audience member and then landed a gig in the club’s support band. He was then recruited to play in Scott’s band. “He was a great character… and a kind man,” he said. “Working with [the] band was wonderful.”

Mike Walters, Less Still and Roger Sellers in the 1960s

Mike Walters, Less Still and Roger Sellers in the 1960s Photo: Chris Bourke

He struck up some wonderful friendship with musicians from all around the world. But one that stands out is that with bass player Paul Dyne. “He’s the only reason why I’m still here,” Sellers said.

Over the years, the role of the drummer has changed in music. Sellers has been aware of that, saying it was now the bass that guides the direction while drummers add the colour while still retaining musical knowledge. “It’s like art, it goes through many stages."