Mike Nock: Basking on the Banks

A handful get to bask in adulation. Mike Nock recommends basking in anything you can get, as opportunities are rare. He is happy to settle for a little acclaim, and few acclamations offer better basking rights than the Don Banks Award, Australia’s premier annual acknowledgment of a lifetime contribution to music.

Nock Karen Steains 1 res
Photo: Karen Steains.

Best known as a jazz pianist, Nock is also a composer, band-leader and teacher. He played in the top echelons of US jazz in the 1960s and ’70s, has hosted a TV show, run a record label and toured and recorded his way around the globe. He says he has just been “lucky”.

“Sure I’ve been proactive,” he continues, “but without people wanting to help me all along the way nothing would happen. That’s the big lesson: giving is getting. I’ve seen musicians have various degrees of success, but so many of these huge talents can’t see past themselves, and are thinking about ‘What can I get out of this?’ instead of ‘What can I give to this?’. Those are the ones who never seem to really flourish.”

Having grown up in New Zealand Nock moved to Australia at 18, and then the US via England. He nominates playing with the potent multi-instrumentalist Yusef Lateef in the mid-’60s as his first career highlight.

“On my honeymoon night of a so-called marriage of convenience the phone goes,” he recalls, “and it’s Yusef saying, ‘Would you like to join the band? We’ve got a nationwide tour. See you in two days.’” Two days later Nock was recording Lateef’s celebrated Live At Pep’s album.

Then came Nock’s band the Fourth Way, spawned amid San Francisco’s hippy movement, and arguably the first US group to combine jazz and rock. “We all felt that we were on the cutting edge of something,” he says. “We were in the vanguard of the lifestyle, too!”

In 1982 Nock unveiled a more introspective side of his music with the release of Ondas on the prestigious ECM label, which contrasts somewhat with his fourth – and he thinks most crucial – highlight: accepting a teaching position at Sydney Conservatorium in 1986. This established him in the thick of Australia’s music scene, and connected him with successive generations of outstanding students – even if some found him a hard task-master. “They don’t understand I care,” he explains. “I’m going to say ‘That’s not happening’, because that’s my role as a teacher. As a band-leader it’s the same thing.”

Winning an Australia Council fellowship in 1999 reinforced his self-belief as a composer. “Let’s face it, a little bit of recognition can do wonders,” he says. He used it to assemble the first of his larger jazz bands, and composed a series of solo piano pieces. More recent compositions include Vicissitudes (for string trio and jazz trio) dedicated to earthquake-ravaged Christchurch.

His sixth and latest highlight is obviously the Banks Award. “I’ve got all kinds of plans,” enthuses Nock. “It has just given me that much more energy and impetus to realise them.”

The career highlights may not stop at six…


Mike Nock Project: Sound Lounge, February 1.