For five years Jazz in Martinborough has featured Gypsy Swing – the duo of local Sam Cooke and Wellingtonian Leigh Jackson – playing Saturday afternoon gypsy jazz guitar. Spring sunshine illuminates their flying fingers as guests sip wine and gently tap a foot as lyrical gypsy jazz music works its charm. Susan McLeary discovers Sam Cooke, the man behind the guitar. 

Actually, Sam built the guitar he plays. Thinking about being a professional jazz musician at school in the 80s, he did UE Music by correspondence. California’s Berkeley University’s jazz school appealed, but the US$20,000 fee did not. 

“I’m mostly happy about that now,” he says. ”I’m not sure I would like music to be a job. This way I keep the pleasure of the music.

“What learning music taught me is that you have to ‘keep doing the work’. As with anything, when you start you are not very good and it can be demoralising to see the gap between your skill level and where you want to be. It comes down to just keeping on working on it and you will get to the next level. 

“I encourage people to listen to music, to enjoy music of all kinds. There’s a universal cross-cultural, emotional response to music in humans that’s unique. It can be transcendental: make people smile or cry. It’s the musician’s joy to bring that response.” 

Sam’s attention turned to the new world of electronics and technology, working for RNZ in the early days of digital recording. 

“I was excited by digital possibilities. I taught myself HTML and how to build websites. Building my first, rather basic, ‘brochure’ site in 1998, I realised I had embarked on a new career. I learned computer software and website design and started working on government and private sector accounts. 

“In 2002 I set up thinkbox, and Jane and I moved to the Wairarapa in 2003 ‘because we could’. A massive advantage of the digital field is that I can work anywhere with reliable internet.  

“Geography was on my side: VDSL availability at the end of the drive en route to Kahutara School meant I had great internet thanks to a deal between Fonterra and Telecom.

“15 years and over 120 websites later, e-commerce and websites have changed hugely. I take a holistic approach: websites should integrate everything from stock records to social media seamlessly. A poor or unsafe website will lose credibility for businesses.

But back to gypsy jazz, Sam’s musical heart. Attending a New Zealand Gypsy Jazz Workshop 10 years ago, he was instantly hooked. 

“This was the passionate style that lit the fire,” he explained. “Gypsy jazz combines the thinking of jazz with the heat and emotion of gypsy music, giving players freedom to improvise around a solid rhythm and melodies. 

“Described as a style of lyrical swing music, its godfather is Django Reinhardt. In the early 30s in Paris he and violinist Stephane Grappelli combined exciting rhythms and spectacular guitar and violin technique to drive mostly fast numbers,” he explained.

Sam plays often with Wellington’s Hot Café band, performing at cafes and events, and as a duo  with Leigh Jackson. He also runs workshops for budding gypsy jazz guitarists. 

“I love teaching. I also love expanding my horizons and techniques. You have to keep doing the work”.

In June he was stimulated by private lessons with leading jazz educator Christiaan Van Hemert in The Hague.  

“Learning gypsy jazz is more about listen, show and repeat, reflecting its oral tradition. I recorded our discussions and playing on my phone, and so now as I practise I am transcribing them. An ideal link between my musical and technological worlds!” he laughs.