Born in Christchurch in 1940 Mike’s life in music as a prolific composer and recording artist spans some 60 years from his early days in New Zealand to playing jazz on the world stage. During this time he has performed in a broad range of contemporary musical styles. “What I love to do is improvise," says Mike. “I allow myself to be in the moment musically. The whole thing about jazz is spontaneity. To me, that’s very important.”
From the age of 11 Mike began playing the piano under the tuition of his father after hearing Charlie Parker’s recording Jazz at Massey Hall on the radio in New Zealand. He says: “Something in his music really spoke to me. I was hooked.”
After leaving school as soon as it was legally permissible, Mike Nock befriended a group of musicians from Nelson and began performing jazz and dance music. By the age of 18, he had arrived in Sydney and was soon embedded in the local scene. His group, The 3-Out Trio with bassist Freddie Logan and drummer Chris
Karan became one of the most popular jazz groups in Sydney. They played four nights a week in Kings Cross at the jazz club El Rocco and recorded Move for EMI’s Columbia label in 1960. The album sold like hotcakes.
While Nock was grateful for the opportunities to perform and the financial benefits of the group’s high profile he was also aware that such local acclaim was a trap that might entice him to stay in Australia. His plan had always been to get to the United States where he had applied for a scholarship to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. After hearing that his application had been successful, Nock and the 3-Out Trio set sail for the United Kingdom where the band spent a few months performing before Nock travelled on alone to Boston to study.
Nock quickly established himself on the local scene where he played with many jazz luminaries including Coleman Hawkins, Zoot Sims and Buck Clayton. Some of his most formative experiences during the 1960s included playing with multi- instrumentalist Yusef Lateef. Appearances on Lateef’s recordings during that period propelled Nock to national exposure.
Despite good opportunities, making a living as a jazz musician on the East Coast of
the United States during the 1960s was challenging. After relocating to the West Coast Nock formed a new band with violinist Michael White called The Fourth Way, which also included drummer Eddie Marshall and bassist Ron McClure. Although relatively short-lived as a group, it has been celebrated as one of the first fusion groups, mixing jazz with rock music and playing amplified instruments.
Nock recalled: “Life was pretty intense; you had no money, you had very little to eat and you were getting paid very little for jobs. The pressures were there but you didn’t care. You loved it, you played, and that’s all you cared about – playing.” A high point during this period was performing as the opening act for The Miles Davis Quintet. The Fourth Way was on fire that night and Davis found himself upstaged by the young San Francisco group. Miles reportedly said, “Man, I’m never going on second again!”
Returning to New York in the mid-1970s Nock frequently performed and recorded as leader of a group, and a high-water mark from this period was Nock's Trio recording of Ondas. Including bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Jon Christensen, and recorded in just two hours, the album was released by the ECM record label. About this beautiful recording with pristine sound and austere performances, Nock has said, “I am amazed at just how good it is”.
After returning to Australia in the mid- 1980s, Nock settled in Sydney where he enjoyed an extensive teaching career at the Sydney Conservatorium until his recent retirement. His biography Serious Fun – The Life and Music of Mike Nock captures some of his illustrious career moments. Nock, with his wife Yuri, now balances a full life that includes music composition, regular touring and plenty of new recordings.
Compositionally the last 30 years have been very rich and have included works for jazz groups, as well as writing for big bands and a variety of chamber group pieces. Nock has also written a great deal of fully notated music for solo piano that has been recorded individually by Australian virtuosos Michael Kieran Harvey and Simon Tedeschi.
The music of Mike Nock will be featured on A Jazz Hour at midday on Friday 14 September.