JOHN POCHEE 1940-2022: The heart that shone through the music

If you were lucky enough to know John Pochee, it merely confirmed the qualities palpable in his music-making behind the drums: the warmth of heart, the glint-in-the-eye wit, the raconteur’s instinct, the congeniality and the deep affection for people and for jazz. His drumming had a vibrancy that picked the soloists up as if on a wind, and carried them so their feet didn’t seem to touch the ground until the end. He was at his most vibrant when the music was swinging at velocity, the cymbal work – light, skipping and phenomenally propulsive – studded with drum accents to generate a chattering stream of energetic and effervescent momentum.

John Pochee in 1958. Above: Ten Part Invention playing at John’s 70th birthday. Photos supplied.

In seeking to replicate what he heard on US jazz records, the self-taught, right-handed Pochee ended up playing a right-handed kit left-handed. In solving the inherent technical conundrums, he emerged with his distinctive drive. His unconventionality led some peers to question his approach’s validity in the early days, although he swiftly dismissed the issue in his own mind, saying, “I just hit things with two bits of wood, and you either like it or you don’t.” He merely wanted to be part of the music, and experience the joy of making it.

John Kenneth Pochee, who has died aged 82, was born in Ashfield, Sydney, on September 21, 1940, the second child (after his sister Shirley) of Ken, an undertaker, and Valery (nee Lloyd), none of whom were musicians. “We used to spend many Xmases sitting around the piano, wishing someone could play it,” he would quip in later years. He attended Ashfield Primary School, and before entering Ashfield High School was already hooked on his mother and sister’s beloved jazz. When his music-detesting father was out of the house they would listen to swing-era 78s on a wind-up gramophone. Pochee tapped away with a pair of chopsticks on the phone book, until his mother gave him his first drum and a pair of brushes.

During the 1950s she took Pochee to hear visiting jazz artists, including Oscar Peterson and Louis Armstrong, as well as local musicians. Soon he was going on his own to listen to the likes of saxophonists Bob Bertles and Dave Owens. His early preference was for such “cool school” artists as Dave Brubeck.

Photo supplied.

At 16 he became a cadet journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald, but prioritised frequenting jazz haunts, often with budding pianist Dave Levy. The next year some of his sister’s jazz-loving friends opened the Mocambo coffee lounge in Newtown, one of the first with espresso coffee. Pochee and Levy played there on weekends, swiftly attracting fellow enthusiasts including saxophonist Bernie McGann, beginning a half-century collaboration crucial to both players’ careers. They moved on to play at Kings Cross’s El Rocco, with Pochee befriending the eccentric singer Joe Lane, through whom he absorbed the edgy, angular music called bebop. He didn’t attempt to replicate the attendant virtuosity behind the drums, however: that had been done, and he wanted to develop his own identifiable sound and slant. He was more interested in listening to pianists than drummers.

At 18 Pochee worked on a cruise ship going from Sydney to Perth via Melbourne and Adelaide, expanding his knowledge of jazz across the country. The next year he joined Lane in Melbourne, where one night their audience included Ava Gardner, in town to make On the Beach. After the gig, she socialized with Pochee and Lane at the latter’s house, Muttering Lodge, staying until the wee hours. Pochee spent about three years in Melbourne, despite Lane’s freezing house, money being scarce, and the gigs often being in small, illegal speakeasys – or impromptu jams on St Kilda promenade, which, if the wind was cooperative, could run until dawn.

In 1962 he worked in Surfers Paradise for a year, then returned to the El Rocco with Levy. Melbourne beckoned once more in 1964, this time with The Heads – McGann, pianist Dave MacRae and bassist Andy Brown – playing a six month, five-nights-a-week residency. Add endless daytime rehearsals, and this was an extremely fertile period.

Pochee in 1988. Photo: Jane March.

Back in Sydney, what was now called the Bernie McGann Quartet recorded two originals on 1967’s Jazz Australia compilation – Pochee’s first studio experience. His next opportunity was with pianist Judy Bailey’s quartet, which variously employed rock rhythms and less common time signatures. Meanwhile he co-formed The Last Straw in 1974, a driving post-bop band that continued intermittently for 25 years, including recording in 1990. This was the only time Pochee produced an album on his own, and it won an ARIA, so, as he put it, “I retired as a producer immediately, with a perfect record.”

He began playing with visiting internationals in 1979, particularly cherishing a 1985 encounter with saxophonist Dewey Redman. In 1983 the long-lived Bernie McGann Trio (usually completely by bassist Lloyd Swanton) was formed, which in 2003 became a quartet with trumpeter Warwick Alder. They recorded and toured to near universal acclaim.

A contemporaneous major project was his own: Ten Part Invention, a 10-piece band that debuted at the 1986 Adelaide Festival. This was the Rolls Royce of Australian jazz, playing all-original music (mainly from within the band), with pianist Roger Frampton and trumpeter Miroslav Bukovsky as co-musical directors. The other seven members (including McGann) represented the cream of local improvisers across two generations, creating an ensemble sound of brilliant individualists. They toured regionally, interstate and internationally, recorded several albums and survived personnel changes. Keeping a large band together for 30 years was a Herculean effort, Pochee’s reward being many memorable gigs and albums, with Unidentified Spaces, recorded immediately after Frampton’s death, his favourite. Meanwhile the band’s rhythm section of Pochee, Frampton and bassist Steve Elphick performed as The Engine Room, and was the first western band to tour Russia after glasnost.

Montreal in 1993. Photo: Jane March.

In 2000 he was asked to join The Space Cadets by brothers Matthew and Aaron Ottignon, and loved being embraced by these younger players (just as he had mixed generations in Ten Part Invention). He also worked outside of jazz, including with Shirley Bassey (1969-70) and as musical director of The Four Kinsmen in the 1980s, touring the US eight times.

He married three times, firstly to Jana Kriz in 1971, with whom he had a daughter, Lani. In 1985 he married singer Janet Seidel, and finally in 2001 he married singer Shirley Smith (nee Read), with whom he had been in a band called The Children of Tomorrow in the 1960s. They lived in Hillsdale in Sydney’s east.

In 1997. Photo: Jane March.

From 2008 he suffered acute asthma, which had never afflicted him previously, and which gradually curtailed his playing, until he performed his last gig in 2014. In 2013 he received the Medal of the Order of Australia for “services to music as a jazz musician”. He saw his main contribution as spreading the word of Australian jazz by playing original music on international tours by his various projects. Pochee never sought to impress, nor to impose himself on the music. Instead, he let his heart shine through it.