Drummer, writer, joker, commentator, friend. Bruce Morley was a most valuable supporter of NZ Musician magazine, and as evidenced by the scale and warmth of his farewell celebration, a valued friend to many individual NZ musicians as well. After an extensive battle with cancer, Bruce sadly passed away on November 22, 2012.
He was a fun and frenetic, larger than life character whose support was genuine, whose enthusiasm (for life in general, but his musical passions most particularly) was contagious, and whose energy seemed, until recent years of ill-health, unbounded. It was a very special and rare quality that allowed Bruce to feign self-involvement, while all the while giving boundless support to a myriad of others.
Bruce’s involvement with NZ Musician magazine covered virtually every issue until his too-early death in November, almost 25 years of unpaid service to the NZM cause. Despite repeatedly threatening to quit so that he could write his memoirs, he put down his pen, as it were, only a year ago, and was named in our most recent issue as a contributor to an album, just released by Wendy Morris.
As ill as he was at the time, that CD review provided the opportunity for a typical Bruce-ism. “That would be the first (and last) time my name and Graham Brazier’s have ever appeared in the same sentence!”
He was a columnist in the very first (September 1988) NZM issue, fittingly it seems now more than ever, providing a tribute piece entitled ‘Ricky May Remembered’.
Never shy to take a position, as witnessed by his often hilarious letters to the NZ Herald, his column was from the start branded ‘Bruce Morley’s Kiwi Music’, and was accompanied by the remarkably accurate cartoon sketch below. His commentary ventured widely and knowledgeably, including the social/political push for a Kiwi music quota on radio. In October 1989 he introduced the first of a series of Most Valuable Player credits, a personally-penned paragraph each, in praise of as many as 20 musicians/managers etc. per issue. That column lasted through until 1993, providing the magazine with both content and credibility, and no doubt helping attract a number of other valuable contributors.
Bruce hung in becoming our resident jazz guru, a sounding board, contact book, cheerleader and enthusiastic supporter to all those who have since worked in the NZM office. All that and a great drummer besides. A Most Valuable Player indeed.
I had the additional pleasure of sharing another of Bruce’s great passions with him – tennis. Bruce was a key part of our regular four; joking, mocking, self-chastising, laughing, telling stories and always looking to improve his game and his stats. We lost Bruce in his 70s. He always looked much younger and should, by any measure, have been allowed to enjoy at least another decade, time to finish that oft-threatened “book of my life”.
I will close this all-too brief tribute by appropriating some of Bruce’s own words, from that tribute to the late Ricky May he penned for NZM, 24 years ago. ‘He was mourned in the manner befitting a great jazz musician; with music, and that’s the way he would have wanted it.’
Rest in peace Bruce, we will miss all of you.
The swing, the laughter, the dedication.
Death wasn’t supposed to happen, Bruce always bounced back for he was one of life’s optimists. Yet Ricoeur suggests that “…if learning finally how to live is to learn to die” then Bruce was the ultimate learner. But he was also a teacher, a mentor and a fine musician.
I first met Bruce in the early 1960s, it was at the Bali Hai, a club where we were both playing. Bruce was warm and welcoming, he was the first to treat me as a fellow musician. I was just starting out, and we had some great conversations. He was full of quotes from Down Beat jazz magazine and we all swore Bruce dedicated himself to memorising every issue. Later we sometimes shared the drum/percussion chair at the Mercury Theatre and here again Bruce, the consummate musician, was open, sharing, and totally giving.
In these past few years I have been privileged to not only have Bruce filling the drum chair in The Prohibition Big Band, but also to have been playing vibes in what was one of his last projects – Emergency Exit.
Emergency Exit grew from Bruce’s desire to restore his Little Big Band, until he discovered someone else had taken up with the name. Right behind the drums in our rehearsal space was a door labelled Emergency Exit and it seemed an appropriate enough name for the band, given the age of four of the six players.
We didn’t realise at the time that Bruce would use the exit door so soon. Prohibition Big Band is an unpretentious community big band and how lucky we were that Bruce felt at home adding his knowledge and expertise to our rehearsals and performances. Rehearsals were a mix of Bruce kicking the band and he and I exchanging good humoured put downs of each other and other things (never vindictive), and Bruce was a master.
In the months before his passing, Bruce lost the ability to grip his sticks and for a few months he neither played drums nor drove a car. Suddenly, about two months before we lost him, Bruce rang and said, “I’m coming to rehearsal tonight and I’ll drive myself there.” He came, he looked exhausted, and he conquered.
We had to take a little break between numbers, but for two hours Bruce swung the band with a feel unmatched by many. Tired but unbowed, Bruce drove away, to my lasting regret I never saw him in person again.
Arohanui Bruce, you helped shape my life.
Bruce Morley approached improvised music with an energy that would rival anyone half, quarter, an eighth of his age. He would embrace every situation, and everyone within it, presented to him with a true spirit committed to making ‘something happen’.
His technical ability on the drums, his rich musical experience, background, knowledge and his openness to explore, made Bruce a real treasure and a valuable improviser within the Auckland and NZ improvised scene, and the Vitamin S community.
Bruce loved to perform, and I feel his improvisations gave him opportunities to combine every aspect of his life and share them with everybody through those performances – and I can still personally see him with a cheeky grin, performing behind his drum kit, bouncing tennis balls, wrist bands on, and possibly a book nearby ready to pick up at the slightest moment…
He is, and will ongoing be, sorely missed by us all, and his passing leaves a big hole in the community, and the music.