Neill has influenced countless secondary school students during a career-long occupation teaching French, music, and English as a Second Language. He has lectured in music history to tertiary students, composed and directed a full-scale rock-jazz musical based on the life of Shakespeare, and continues to work as a singer and musician in a Dixieland jazz band as well as other genre line-ups.
Ideas and enterprise tend to populate such career choices. In Neill’s case, possibly the most fruitful of his ideas is the thriving CPIT Jazz School – now, with some title variations, known as the Ara Institute of Canterbury Music Arts – at the then Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology (CPIT).
While tutoring at the polytech Neill had conceived a concept for a tertiary music programme to fill what he recognised as a gap in the city (see Christchurch’s Jazz School: legacy in action). Over successive years he sought permission and funding from the higher scholastic realms, and finally managed to get his idea over the line and ready for opening in 1991.
At the time, it was the country’s sole dedicated tertiary institution offering jazz. Its original focus and diploma certification has expanded now into a broader-based degree programme interlinked with the University of Canterbury. It fulfils its purpose as a legitimate pathway into music as a career, whether in jazz or contemporary music in performance, composition, audio engineering, academic study or teaching.
Neill is the scion of a musical and academic family and, with his wife Thérèse, presides over his own family of three adult sons, each of whom has played guitar and other instruments professionally or continues to do so.
“Antony, the oldest, is a guitarist and songwriter,” says Neill. “He also studied bass at the jazz school and can play keyboards and drums. He’s very musical and a good singer, and also composed ‘When’, a song that was a hit for Jon Stevens. Richie’s a professional bass player, and Michael, the middle son, is a very good guitarist. He played in a duo in London for seven or eight years. He doesn’t play much now, but is quite accomplished. They all got the bug.”
Born Edward Neill Pickard in Timaru in 1943, the two LLs of his favoured name are courtesy of an ancestor. His great-grandfather was a Highlander who came out from Scotland in the mid-19th century, and if Neill chose to wear a kilt it would be in the Mitchell tartan.
Possibly the most fruitful of Neill Pickard’s many ideas is the thriving CPIT Jazz School in Christchurch.
When Neill was 15 the family of five moved to Washdyke, where his headmaster father took charge of Washdyke Primary after doing his time at three Timaru schools. Neill was educated at St Patrick’s High School (now Roncalli College), a Catholic single-sex secondary institution of 96 students with, he says, “lots of individuals. Virtually everybody in that classroom of about 20 [achieved] degrees; the number was staggering.
“I had a lot of freedom [in Washdyke] – throwing javelins, kicking footballs down on the school football field. We had horses and were surrounded by horses – pacers and gallopers. It was a lovely move, and we’d help out on the local farms during lambing. It was great.”
He was surrounded by music from the get-go. His father played alto sax in a local band to supplement his teacher’s salary, his mother played piano and sang, his two sisters played piano, and the radio, “our second friend”, was a constant source of music.
“I was forced to learn piano [from the nuns] at the local convent. I’d be sitting in the room, waiting, and you could hear the click of their heels and the rosary beads clattering in the sepulchral corridors, those huge rosaries that hung around their waist. It was a very strained atmosphere, but that was my lot.
“After about two terms, where I should’ve been playing my pieces, I was trying to play the ‘Black and White Rag’. I was sent down the long drive, my tail between my legs.”
And the nun with the catchy title of Sister Corona bristled as she declaimed to his departing back, “You are a waste of my time and your mother’s money!”
“So at nine I began piano and finished. I’ve been an ear player since then, doing boogie-woogie and that sort of stuff. I’m not a great player, but I can get around the keyboard.”
Stringed instruments soon became his primary focus. His grandfather gave him a Bakelite ukulele and he worked out three chords he could use to play along with Elvis songs on the radio. And after his mother bought him a steel-string Italian guitar, at 15 he transferred the same chords onto the guitar to play along with the latest skiffle hits. He electrified his acoustic flat-top with a mail-order Hofner pickup and amplified it by plugging in through his father’s school intercom system.
When he left Timaru for the University of Canterbury, high on the skiffle sounds of early Cliff Richard and the Shadows and Lonnie Donegan, this guitar was an essential part of Neill’s kit. Still a Shadows fan, when Hank Marvin was performing in Christchurch in recent years, Neill had the guitarist sign his Fender Strat, but that’s another story.
While at university on a teacher’s college studentship, Neill met the folk-mad Miles Reay (later bassist for The Hamilton County Bluegrass Band). By now Neill had tuned in to the Kingston Trio and others in the burgeoning folk scene. Miles had made his own electric guitar based on the Gibson studio model.
There was immediate simpatico. The pair started jamming and decided to front up to the university’s jazz club to check it out. Maybe it could use their services. “I took along a banjo that used to belong to my grandfather. It was a terrible old thing. This dude, an alto player, came over and said, ‘Hey, man, are you serious?’ I decided the jazz club wasn’t for me.
On a Bakelite ukulele he worked out three chords to play along with Elvis songs on the radio.
“But they had an acoustic bass that belonged to the club. It wasn’t a very good quality bass, but I used to play it just for fun, and I got better, so I was allowed to keep it to look after. That’s when I started my bass playing. I used that bass to back the Everglades [Helen Glover, Bob Wilkinson, Garth Williams] for their 1964 hit, ‘Abilene’.”
The student teachers put on regular musicals and when they realised that Neill played acoustic guitar, banjo and bass, and that Miles was a guitarist, they hooked them in to be part of the live show and the Robbins recording of it.
As for most students, this was a seminal development time. For Neill, it advanced both his chosen career path and his music. At a concert in the Great Hall he and Miles met another couple of guys who were interested in putting together a band. It was drummer Dave Innes and singer Lloyd Scott (later an actor and broadcaster).
Their band became Lloyd and the Undergrads, with Lloyd centre-stage on vocals. The others contributed harmonies and, when Lloyd moved on to other things, Neill took over the lead singing. Their song list was folk crossover and charting covers. It was 1963 and the Beatles had burst onto the charts. “We did a lot of Beatles stuff, and our Beatles act went into the student revue.”
The following year Neill met Hugh Canard and together they started the University of Canterbury Folk Music Club. Still extant, this longstanding club has birthed many notable performers. It also provided Neill with a grounding in club administration that would serve him well later.
Neill’s taste in music has always been catholic, with a lean towards the generally popular, and his performance styles have been primarily in the realms of folk, pop-rock and Dixieland jazz.
“I had the Beatles and Shadows early stuff mixed in with Peter, Paul and Mary and the folk thing, and I loved that. The Undergrads became very big at university and we did rock ’n’ roll dance-band work. You had to have a waltz bracket and a quickstep or a modern dance, so we learned things like ‘How High the Moon’, ‘Lady is a Tramp’, jazz standards. That was part of my early apprenticeship and moving into actual jazz.”
He has been in various bands through the years, including Los Amigos, Fifth Edition, Townsmen, Sapphires, Touchwood, Red Hot & Dixie and his current band, the River City Jazzmen, in which he plays guitar and tenor banjo.
His long association with the double bass (the speciality of his son, Richie) continues, but Neill avows no standout facility on it. “When I was teaching at Christchurch Boys’ High I joined the school orchestra, so I had to bow it, but it wasn’t a long apprenticeship. I can if I need to, but I’m at a basic level there.”
The bass he has in his possession at the moment is one he is looking after for a jazz student graduate who is overseas. “I’ve had it for nearly two years now. It’s a beautiful bass that was used by Bruce Lynch when he backed Cat Stevens at the tribute concert in Hagley Park for the mosque shootings.”
Pickard has appeared on stages countless times, with various bands and musicians.
Neill has appeared on stages large and small countless times over the years with various bands and musicians, including his sons, and recently regrouped with Hugh Canard and Mary Ruston, his former university folk club colleagues, for a Peter, Paul and Mary gig at the Christchurch Folk Club.
He was executive producer for jazz-harmonica specialist Nola Mills’ album with the Barry Brinson Quartet and played guitar and bass on a track for Izzy Miller Bell on her Blues Angel album with John Hooker (2002). For the last couple of decades River City Dixieland rhythms have been fuelling his fingers, continuing a theme he had started in the 1960s.
“I was with the River City Stompers in 1963 and we did two or three half-hour recordings for 3YA for the NZBC. Paul Dyne was playing clarinet, Tony Lewis from Timaru from the Woolston Brass Band was on trombone, Les Brown was on trumpet, Pim Terhuppen on bass, Dave Innes, my Undergrads drummer, on drums and I played banjo. It was a good little group. The tape we made has been made into a CD.”
By the turn of the century he was playing guitar and banjo with Red Hot & Dixie. “We were short of a trombonist, so I got in touch with Tony Lewis, he came on board, and Red Hot & Dixie became the River City Jazzmen. Tony is 78 and plays lovely trombone. For the last 10 years that’s been my main focus, playing Dixieland and swing. At one stage there were five teachers in the group.”
The good time, great music group is popular in Christchurch and Canterbury, playing regular dates and residencies, private gigs, and festivals around the country. The Jazzmen recorded a live CD at the Orange Studios in 2016, available through the group’s Facebook page and at live gigs.
In 2008 Edward Neill Pickard was awarded a Queen’s Birthday honour for services to the community and to jazz education and, the same year, a Civic Award Medal and Certificate for services to education and jazz in Christchurch.
Like the mellifluous brand-name of his first guitar – an Ermelinda Silvestri from Catania (Sicily) – his post-nominal letters seem to be gathering to form a sort of rhythmic river of melody: QSM, BA Hons (French) (Cant.), BA (Education) (Cant.), Dip Ed (Massey & Cant.), Dip Tchg (Christchurch Teachers’ College).
In 2020, Neill Pickard is overseeing the collation and transferral of a lifetime’s worth of compositions and arrangements by Christchurch jazz pianist Doug Caldwell to the Alexander Turnbull Library. Those of other Canterbury musicians might follow. Such collections are the lasting treasure at the heart of New Zealand music, and with Neill’s clarity of purpose and a lifelong involvement in words and music, they are in good hands.
See accompanying story, Christchurch’s Jazz School: legacy in action