1 Jun 2024

The wonderful world of Rodger Fox

From Music 101, 4:07 pm on 1 June 2024
Rodger Fox, Nick Tipping and King Kapisi at Parliament House May 2023

Rodger Fox, Nick Tipping and King Kapisi at Parliament House May 2023 Photo: Molly Kennedy

Everyone can name one teacher who left a lasting impact - but only a few can say that teacher encouraged them to follow their true path.

For many, Rodger Fox was one of those: A band leader, trombonist extraordinaire, recording artist and big picture thinker. Broadly described by those who loved him as a ‘yes’ man, Fox’s zest for life rubbed off on many.  

The 71-year-old musician died earlier this week, following a short illness, in Palmerston North. Since then, there has been an outpouring of grief for a man who opened doors for New Zealand's jazz music community. 

Fox founded his Big Band in 1971. In those five decades as band leader, he built a wide network abroad and brought hundreds of New Zealand musicians overseas to perform. Those players would go on to make connections internationally when Fox requested American jazz heavyweights like drummer Steve Gadd, saxophonist Adam Schroeder, trumpet player Jon Papenbrook and guitarist Larry Koonse to play with the big band.  

The Rodger Fox Band: (L-R) Rory Macartney, Nick Granville, Lauren Ellis, Rodger Fox, Oscar Laven, Ben Hunt

The Rodger Fox Big Band in 2017. Photo: Rebekah Parsons-King

Fox received an honorary doctorate from Massey University and was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to music in 2022.

He had a record of original music set to the poetry of Hone Tuwhare, and collaborated with Dave Dobbyn and King Kapisi. 

Saxophonist Eilish Wilson met Fox at age 13, when he travelled to Nelson to run workshops for her college big band. Later, at the Southern Jam Festival, he encouraged her to audition for the NZ School of Music Jazz Programme.  

Fox mentored Wilson at university and in her last year of study a spot opened in the Rodger Fox Big Band. Soon, Wilson was touring as baritone saxophone chair and went onto play two American tours (the Monterey Jazz Festival and the JEN Conference) and to record albums at United Studio and The Bunker Studio.  

The Rodger Fox Big Band Bunker Studios, Brooklyn NYC Jan 2020

The Rodger Fox Big Band at Bunker Studios, Brooklyn, New York, January 2020.  Photo: Ian Hunt

“Rodger's legacy will be a life lived inspiring young people, lifting them up to perform with some of the world's best musicians, and spreading joy and love through music,” Wilson said.

She credited the early opportunities she received with Fox as a launchpad for her career in music. Recently she was awarded a Fulbright scholarship and graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in Jazz from California Institute of the Arts. 

London-based drummer and composer Myele Manzanza, who won Best Jazz artist on Thursday at the Aotearoa Music Awards, was also one of Fox’s students. The two met in Manzanza’s last year of college, when Fox ran a workshop with the Wellington High school’s jazz big band. 

Myele Manzanza

Mylele Manzana. Photo: Liane McGee

Manzanza then worked with Fox at the NZ School of Music. He said Fox was a great band leader, who instilled the value of reading music and drove the group hard to deliver results.  

The jazz community had been left with "a big Rodger-shaped hole", he said. 

“More importantly for me though was the educational infrastructure he had a large hand in building. High school jazz summer programmes, the annual Tauranga Jazz Festival, National Big Band competitions, as well his direct work as an educator at the New Zealand School of Music all formed a big part of the community fabric that I and many, many other musicians were able to grow out of.

"It takes a village to raise a child, and in our little jazz village he was a chief. May he rest in peace.”  

Schools concert as part of the 2016 NZSO and Rodger Fox big band tour 'Swing into Spring'

Schools concert as part of the 2016 NZSO and Rodger Fox big band tour 'Swing into Spring'.  Photo: Nick Granville

Nick Tipping, host of RNZ Concert show Inside Out, said he would remember Fox’s absolute dedication to his students. The two met in the late 90s when Tipping was a jazz school student and were colleagues at the NZ School of Music.   

Listen: Nick Tipping’s tribute to Rodger Fox on Inside Out 

Tipping was the bass player in the Rodger Fox Big Band for many years and found him quite relaxed as a band leader until a couple of weeks out from the big performance.

He enjoyed weekly rehearsals and tours around the country with notable American artists. Highlights included a trip to LA and Vegas to record at Capitol Studios.  

“The thing I’ve found hardest to get over is that he was involved in so many things, so many events and initiatives around the band, and that we won’t hear from him again. My first thought when I heard the news was that I guess I had assumed Rodger Fox was somehow immortal.”