Victoria has been home to a vibrant jazz scene since the 1920s, giving birth to international greats from Bob Barnard to Graeme Bell and The Red Onion Band. Today, the scene is more dynamic than ever, with nightly events, beloved festivals and phenomenal talent on the rise.
Back in 1983, when the Melbourne Jazz Co-op launched its first series of monthly gigs at the RMIT Glasshouse Theatre, there were only six contemporary jazz groups on the scene in Melbourne. The inaugural concert was the premiere of the Browne-Costello-Grabowsky Trio, an ensemble made up of pianist Paul Grabowsky, drummer Allan Browne and bassist Gary Costello. Sydney composer and saxophonist Sandy Evans had her Melbourne debut in the Co-op’s first year, as did The Benders – two members of which later formed iconic band The Necks.
The Sunday afternoon concerts drew crowds of up to 200 people, hungry for a taste of improvisational music. “It's interesting how Sunday afternoon has become such a popular time for jazz over the ensuing decades,” says the Co-op’s founder, Martin Jackson.
Fast forward to today, and the jazz scene in Melbourne and across the state is thriving. Victoria’s event calendar is now littered with jazz festivals, from the CBD to Port Fairy and Mildura, Wangaratta to Inverloch. A host of happening venues in Melbourne offer everything from a classy dinner and show to more relaxed spaces where jazz fans can chill out. And it’s not for ageing beatniks – a new generation of younger musicians is helping to keep the music alive.
Now in its 35th year, the Co-op has presented over two and a half thousand gigs with a focus on providing opportunities for artists to present new work in Melbourne’s best venues. For a long time, the venue of choice was the Limerick Arms in South Melbourne, which was at the time a dedicated jazz venue. Then Bennett’s Lane opened in the CBD in 1992, heralding a new era in the local jazz scene. Offering “quality live jazz performances from the cutting edge and avant-garde to the classics and standards that made the art form great”, Bennett’s Lane became a central hub for aficionados and a welcoming space for the jazz-curious. The Co-op hosted a weekly? night there until it closed in 2015.
“It was a really emotional period because it felt like a spiritual home of the scene,” says Martin.
The Co-op now presents at JazzLab in Brunswick, run by former Bennett’s Lane owner Michael Tortoni (who is also the artistic director of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival). Bird’s Basement, the Australian sister club to New York City’s Birdland, is another new space, having opened in Singer’s Lane near Flagstaff Gardens last year which provides a rare opportunity to see international acts outside of festival season. These venues join local favourites like Dizzy’s in Richmond, Uptown Jazz Café in Fitzroy, and the velvet-walled Paris Cat in Goldie Place.
“You can see jazz any night of the week in Melbourne,” says Chelsea Wilson, director of the Stonnington Jazz Festival. “There's more and more popping up all the time. Musicians can be quite inventive. There are musicians starting gigs all the time, in all kinds of different places.”
Chelsea, who also hosts Jazz Got Soul on community radio station PBS as well as serving on the board of Music Victoria and performing as a jazz-pop vocalist, says there are plenty of opportunities for jazz musicians in Melbourne. In addition to the dedicated jazz venues there are also lots of bars and cafes offering jazz nights, like Claypots in St Kilda and Open Studio in Northcote.
For recording artists, Melbourne’s many community radio stations are very supportive of new jazz music. Chelsea recommends sending recordings to the jazz programs on Triple R, Joy FM, PBS and 3MBS. “Chances are it’s going to get played,” she says. There are also lots of avenues for funding. Creative Victoria’s Music Works Grants offer support for the production of new works, touring and professional development, amongst other things, and local councils are often keen to support their local music scenes.
And for musicians and punters alike, there is a steady stream of festivals. In addition to the Melbourne International Jazz Festival in May there’s also the Melbourne Women’s International Jazz Festival in December, plus many other dotted around the suburbs and rural centres throughout the year.
One of the most prominent of these is the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues, which takes place on the weekend before the Melbourne Cup each year, attracting more than 20,000 people. After being helmed by influential artistic director Adrian Jackson (Martin’s brother) since the very beginning, this year the festival has a new programming team for the first time since 1989. On the jazz side are musicians Adam Simmons and Zoe Hauptmann, with Scott Solimo and Frank Davidson providing expertise for the blues programming.
Their programming from the 2017 festival and beyond aims to build on the solid base Adrian left behind, Adam says they are excited about some new initiatives. There have been venue changes, bringing venues closer together and moving the outdoor stage to Marriwa Park in order to avoid the flooding of the riverside stage that threatened to wreak havoc year after year and caused significant problems in 2016. In 2017 Aussie rock band Spiderbait will be joined onstage by the Wangaratta Horns of Death, a giant horn section made up of local brass and woodwind performers, and a new free stage will present artists from the program in surprise pairings. Audiences will have to follow the festival’s social media to find out who is playing.
“There are two brothers who are going to be there in different bands – they never get to play together,” says Adam. “Maybe students with their teachers. Meetings and collaborations have always been a feature of Wangaratta – we want the audience to have a bit of an idea of what happens [between the artists].”
Furthering the idea of collaboration and cross-pollination, the winner of the National Jazz Awards, which is hosted by the festival, will for the first time be invited to perform at the 2018 Amersfoort Jazz Festival in Holland. Entrants must submit three recorded pieces, including one original work and one taken from the Australian Jazz Real Book, billed as “the definitive collection of Australian jazz tunes from Australian composers”.
This last requirement is new for this year and is designed to promote awareness of Australia’s jazz history. “It means that when we send the winner to Holland, we’re sending Australian music,” says Adam. “There’s no point sending someone as part of an international group of musicians if they’re just playing American music. I’m hopeful that Wangaratta can drive the export of Australian music.”
Adam, who also teaches music, is particularly excited about the younger generation of jazz musicians that is rising up, whether they are in his classroom or on the festival program.
“There’s a whole bunch of young musicians who are really strong instrumentalists and singers and performers, and they're all doing really great music,” he says. “And they’re dragging along with them a younger audience.”