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Australian jazz

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Australian jazz

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Jazz is an American musical genre primarily created by African Americans. Despite the great distance between the two nations, jazz and jazz-influenced syncopated dance music was being performed in Australia within only a few years of the emergence of jazz as a definable musical genre in the United States. Until the 1950s, jazz-based music, modelled on the leading white British and American jazz bands, was the primary form of accompaniment at Australian public dances, and this style enjoyed wide popularity.

After World War II the Australian jazz scene began to diversify as local musicians were able to get access to recordings by leading African-American jazz musicians like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, and bebop, cool jazz and free jazz exerting a strong influence on Australian musicians in the late 1950s and beyond.

Although jazz in Australia suffered a drop in popularity during the Sixties and Seventies, as it did in most other countries, there was a marked resurgence of interest in the Eighties and Nineties as a new generation of musicians came to the fore. The best Australian jazz performers are now regarded as equal to the best in the world, although as in popular music, they still suffer from a lack of music industry support.

It is also important to acknowledge the role of New Zealand musicians in the Australian jazz scene, and as jazz historian Andrew Bissett has noted, it is impossible to properly discuss the subject of Australian jazz without reference to New Zealand. Many of the most important "Australian" jazz musicians of the last 40 years have come from New Zealand, including renowned pianist-composers Mike Nock and Dave McRae and Judy Bailey, and vocalists Ricky May and Kerrie Biddell.

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Jazz precursors in Australia

White American and British 'black-face' minstrels and vaudeville performers brought imitations of slave plantation music to Australia with the 1850s-60s gold rush in the 19th century. They toured across the continent, both the major capital cities and smaller, boom towns like Ballarat and Bendigo. Visits by American vaudeville troupes became much more common after the introduction of regular steamship services between America and Australia in the 1870s. Some genuine African-American troupes toured from the 1870s, including jubilee singers.

Ragtime reached Australia from the 1890s and many white and black ragtime artists of repute toured Australia, and its popularity was boosted by the visit of the American naval fleet in 1908 and a hugely successful tour by a sixty-piece group led by famed brass band leader and composer John Philip Sousa in 1910. Some of these artists taught Australians how to 'rag' (improvise in ragtime style) and the visit of the Sousa band influenced a generation of aspiring young Australians to take up brass instruments.

Early 20th century

Thanks to this early contact, and also an increase in the flow of American music to Australia via phonograph records, modern dance arrangements, piano rolls and visiting jazz acts, Australians developed a strong interest in jazz influenced dance music and its related forms. 'Jazz'(hot dance music) was well established by the mid-1920s. Hundreds of thousands of Australians served overseas during World War I and many were exposed to jazz through contact with American servicemen. Jazz was recorded on piano-rolls in Australia before 1923 and disc recordings like, "Yes Sir That's My Baby" by Ray Tellier's San Francisco Orchestra, were also being recorded by 1925.

Local exposure to current trends in American jazz in the Twenties was moderated by Australia's relative remoteness, and by commercial and political contraints. Postwar prosperity saw dance music and public dances enter a boom period, with the opening of huge dance halls, able to hold thousands of patrons, in Sydney, Melbourne and other large cities.

The biggest musical influence in the period 1923-1928 was a string of visiting American dance bands, mainly from the West Coast. Frank Ellis and his Californians, who arrived in 1923, were probably the most influential and popular of these groups. Thousands of dance fans regularly flocked to see them at Sydney's largest dance hall, the Palais Royale (the Royal Hall of Industries at Moore Park, which still stands today). The arrival of the American bands had several significant effects, including pushing up the wages for dance-band musicians. At the height of their success, Ellis's musicians were being paid the huge sum of 30 pounds per week each -- roughly ten times the average weekly wage at that time -- and Ellis himself was paid a staggering 45 pounds per week.

At first, local bands were (predictably) of a somewhat lower standard than the better American bands, but Australian jazz musicians were eager learners and were often generously tutored by the visitors, some of whom stayed on for many years. Ellis also found that Australian dance tempos were considerably slower -- around 36 beats per minute -- than the normal tempo in the United States, and he gradually introduced audiences to faster tempos of around 56 beats per minute, a move that was quickly emulated by all the other dance bands in Sydney.

Australian jazz musicians in this period avidly picked up new repertoire, playing techniques and stylistic innovations from seeing imported bands, but restrictions on touring groups after 1928, alongside the broader effects of the Great Depression, meant that Austraian jazz players generally had to learn by listening to new records.

As noted by veteran musician Graeme Bell, British recording giant EMI enjoyed a virtual monopoly over the Australian record market until after WWII, and as a result, cover versions of American recordings by white English dance bands were a dominant local influence in the inter-war period. It was not until the 1950s that Australian musicians were able to gain significant access to original recordings by American performers.

Another major filter on Australian exposure to new American jazz was that until 1942, American record companies marketed all recordings by black performers in a separate "race" catalogue, and almost none of these race recordings were imported into Australia or released locally. Australian jazz pioneer Frank Coughlan stated that he did not hear recordings by Louis Armstrong until 1928, several years after Armstrong had become a major star in the U.S.

Tours by overseas acts came under increasing union restrictions in the late 1920s, due to action by American music unions who black-banned a visiting Australian brass band, and tours by white bands became less frequent. Tours by black American bands were very rare -- Australia's racist immigration policies were used to restrict visits by black performers, and this was exacerbated by the musicians union actions.

In 1928 Sonny & Clark's Colored Idea, one of the first and best all-black jazz bands to visit Australia, was forced to leave prematurely after some of the troupe were allegedly caught in a compromising situation with white women; however it has been suggested that the deportation was also partly a reprisal for the American black-balling of the aforementioned Australian band. From thereon until the 1950s, Australians heard very little live jazz by black artists.

From the mid 1930s onwards, the popularity of jazz, principally "swing" music, increased significantly. Notable bands of the 1920s included the American led Tellier Orchestra and Australian led Sidney Simpson & His Wentworth Cafe Orchestra and, in the 1930s, Jim Davidson & His New Palais Royal Orchestra, Frank Coughlan & His Trocadero Orchestra and Dudley Cantrell & His Grace Grenadiers, and numerous others.

Frank Coughlan was one of the most significant figures of this era and is widely regarded as "The Father of Australian Jazz". His shortlived 1936 band, formed for the opening of the famous Sydney ballroom, The Trocadero, was regarded as the best Australian swing band of its day, although it lasted less han a year.

A few big bands from America (including Artie Shaw's Orchestra) toured Australia during WWII, but local exposure was limited, because their concerts were restricted to American military personnel, although some local musicians went to extraordinary lengths to sneak into the concerts.

Post-World War II jazz

After the end of WWII Australian jazz began to diverge into two major strands. The more popular strand was variously described as 'dixieland' or 'trad' or 'revivalist'. It exerted a significant influence on popular music over the next two decades, and also had an ongoing (if less direct) effect on the popular music of the Sixties and Seventies, through performers such as Judith Durham of The Seekers, Margret RoadKnight and members of The Loved Ones, all of whom had started their musical careers in the "trad" genre.

The Australian Jazz Convention was founded in 1946 and has continued ever since, making it the world's oldest continuous jazz festival. One of the most significant figures of postwar Australian jazz, and the figurehead of the 'trad' movement, is Graeme Bell (b. 1914), whose All Stars band was the first Australian jazz group to tour overseas and attain wide international recognition. The All Stars' groundbreaking visit to war-ravaged Czechoslovakia in 1947 to perform at the World Youth Festival in Prague in 1947 was a landmark event.

As jazz historian Bruce Johnston notes, this was a daring undertaking for the time the band members left jobs and sold businesses and possessions to help pay for the venture. Moreover, there were none of the support systems now available to travellers or touring performers, and these problems were complicated by the chaotic conditions prevailing in Eastern Europe in the immediate postwar period. So precarious was the venture that by the time they left, the band had only been able to raise enough for one way tickets. Nevertheless, their appearance at the Prague Festival was a triumph and a planned two-week stay extended to a rapturously received nationwide tour lasting four months.

This was followed by an arduous but ultimately successful eight-month tour of the United Kingdom, becoming the first jazz band to tour the UK for some 20 years. The Bell UK tour was later recognised as being a major influence on the development of postwar British jazz, particularly in terms of the All Stars' dance-oriented style which was crucial in transforming British jazz from an intellectual, purist past-time into a popular social event centred on dance and audience participation.

Melbourne became the centre of the post-WWII revival of Australian jazz, and the bands of Graeme Bell, Frank Johnson, Len Barnard and Bob Barnard, Frank Traynor and The Red Onions had a strong influence on the direction of Australian jazz.

In the 1950s, and again principally through the inportation of records, a number of jazz musicians became passionately devoted to the new modern style, variously known as "bop" or "Bebop" and exemplified by the music of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis, as well as "jump" exponents like Louis Jordan, whose music was a direct presursor of early rock'n'roll.

There were two important centres of activity for this newer strand of Australian bebop. Jazz Centre 44 in St Kilda, Victoria was founded in the Fifties by entrepreneur Horst Liepolt (who later founded the Sweet Basil's club in New York). This venue fostered many leading talents including Brian Brown, Keith Stirling, Alan Turnbull, and Stewie Speer. Around the same time a group of Sydney musicians opened the El Rocco Jazz Cellar in Kings Cross, Sydney, a venue that jazz historian John Clare (aka Gail Brennan) counts as a focal point for the later direction of much of the Australian jazz scene.

1960s and 1970s

The onslaught of "beat" music in the 1960s decimated the popularity of jazz, with many 'trad' fans lured away first into folk and later to pop and rock. However, many of the players who emerged from the Australian bebop strand -- including Bob Bertles, John Sangster, Derek Fairbrass, Stewie Speer, Bernie McGann and Bobby Gebert -- either joined or provided backing for rock bands and many of these "modern" players also became sought-after session musicians. Many top Australian players who emerged in this period gained further valuable experience backing visiting American and British singers.

During the 1960s a broad new division formed in the 'modern' strand. Under the influence of so-called "cool" or "West Coast" style typified by Dave Brubeck and Gerry Mulligan, leading soloists such as Don Burrows and George Golla gravitated to this more accessible form, while others such as Bernie McGann, John Sangster and John Pochee remained passionately devoted to the more aggressive and progressive directions of bop, as well as absorbing the radical influences of the "free jazz" experimenters of the Sixties such as Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor. It is interesting to note that during the 1960s Bernie McGann was criticised for being an Ornette Coleman imitator -- even though he had never heard Coleman's work at the time the claim was made! (One of McGann's biggest early influences was Brubeck's saxophonist Paul Desmond).

New Zealand-born Mike Nock established his career during this period and he is now recognised as one of the most creative and accomplished jazz musicians from this part of the world. Nock began taking piano lessons from his father when he was 11, began performing four years later and at 18 moved to Australia, where he made his first recording Move with the Three-Out trio in 1960. After heading a trio that toured England in 1961, Nock went to the United States, where he remained for most of the next twenty-five years. He began attending the Berklee College of Music but dropped out After a year to be the house pianist at a Boston club, where he had the opportunity to work with Coleman Hawkins, Pee Wee Russell, Phil Woods and Sam Rivers among many others. Nock gained further recognition during this period as a member of Yusef Lateef's band (1963-65). He went on to lead his own combos, gigged for a short period with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and eventually moved to San Francisco where he worked with John Handy. During 1968-70 Nock led the Fourth Way, a pioneering jazz-rock fusion group. He worked as a sought-after studio musician in New York between 1975 and 1985, and for several years he was musical director for singer Dionne Warwick. After returning to Australia he worked both as teacher at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and as a musician, occasionally revisiting the U.S.

Melbourne's thriving TV industry was an important source of work for jazz musicians in the early-mid 1960s, with programs like Graham Kennedy's In Melbourne Tonight employing regular house bands that typically comprised of the cream of the Melbourne session scene. Melbourne musicians like Bruce Clarke and Frank "The Lion" Smith also worked extensively on soundtracks and advertising music, and Carkes' Jingle Workshop studio in St Kilda, which produced much important music in these genres, was a significant focus, not merely for its commercial work, but also because it was the venue for regular Sunday jam sessions, many of which Clarke recorded.

Pop-rock dominated the Australian music scene during the Sixties and early Seventies and as noted above, many leading jazz performers including McGann, Sangster and Speer worked with rock groups during this period, as well as absorbing important stylistic influences from the Motown, soul music and funk genres. The influx of thousands of visiting American servicemen during the Vietnam war provided further impetus for local interest in these styles. Jazz maintained a low if consistent profile, with performers including Burrows making regular appearances on TV. Both in Sydney and Melbourne, jazz players also worked extensively on music for live TV and advertisements.

Don Burrows (b. 1928) was one of the most prominent Australian jazz artists of this period. Among the many achievements of his sixty-year professional career, he composed and performed on the soundtrack to Tim Burstall's landmark 1969 feature film 2000 Weeks, he was the first Australian jazz artists to win a gold record, the first Australian to perform at the prestigious Montreux and Newport jazz festivals (1972) and the first Australian jazz musician to receive an MBE, and he fronted his own TV series for six years.

Melbourne-born John Sangster (1928-1995) was another important musician-composer who came to the fore in the 1960s. Beginning as a trombonist in the 1940s, Sangster switched to cornet and then to drums, learning much of his craft as the drummer in Graeme Bell's Australian Jazz Band during their many local and overseas tours between 1950 and 1955. In the late 1950s Sangster switched from drums to vibes; by this time he was gravitating towards modern jazz, and after a stint in the "trad" oriented Ray Price Quintet, he joined the Don Burrows' band, with whom he recorded several original compositions.

Sangster was a central figure in the thriving scene at Sydney's El Rocco and later in the 60s he joined the house band of the Sydney production of the rock musical Hair to learn more about rock music and rock drumming. He developed into a prolific composer, with many notable credits in film and TV, including the theme music for the popular 1970s TV nature series In The Wild with Harry Butler. Among his best work is his ambitious multi-album recordings of original jazz compositions based on Tolkien's "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings", featuring many of the best Australian musicians of the day.

In the 1970s there was a return to the 'big band' format, most notably with the acclaimed (but shortlived) Daly Wilson Big Band, which enjoyed considerable popularity, as did Galapagos Duck, who were part owners of and regular performers at Sydney's longest-running jazz venue, The Basement, which opened in 1973. However, economic contraints and the limited size of the Australian market has meant that most big-band ventures of this kind have been shortlived.

A very significant development in 1973 was the inception of the Jazz Studies course at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, the first jazz course to be offered by an Australian tertiary institution. Much of the credit for the establishment of the course goes to Don Burrows, who was given full support by new Director Rex Hobcroft. The first Chairman of the course, American educator and musician Howie Smith, was chosen after a recommendation by visiting American vibraphonist Gary Burton. The Jazz Studies course has had a significant effect on local jazz, not unlike the effect that the creation of NIDA has had on Australian film, TV and theatre. A generation of talented young jazz musicians have passed through the course, which has since been chaired by Bill Motzing, Roger Frampton, Don Burrows, Dick Montz and Craig Scott

Jazz fusion, as typified by groups like Return to Forever, largely passed Australia by, although the group Crossfire was probably the best and best-known Australian act to work in this area.

1980s and later

Through the 1980s and 1990s jazz remained a small but vibrant sector of the Australian music industry. Despite its relative lack of visibility in the mass market, Australian jazz continued to develop to a high level of creativity and professionalism that, for the most part, has been inversely proportional to its low level of public and industry recognition and acceptance.

Players who were more influenced by "traditional" or cool jazz streams tended to dominate public attention and some moved successfully into academia. Multi-instrumentalist Don Burrows was for several decades a regular presence on television and radio, as well as being a prolific session musician. Although Burrows made no secret of his dislike for the bebop and free jazz strands, he became a senior teacher at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and has exerted a strong influence on Australian jazz through his recordings, performances and teaching.

His protege, trumpeter James Morrison, who was heavily influenced by Louis Armstrong, has carved out a very successful career playing a style not unlike that of Wynton Marsalis, that blended some modern elements (e.g. the crowd-pleasing high-register technical bravura of Dizzy Gillespie) with the accessible structures and melodies of 'trad' and 'cool' jazz.

Multi-instrumental wind player [Barlow] emerged in the late 1970s as one of the most promising new talents on the Australian scene, and after stints in the Young Northside Big Band and a formative period in the David Martin Quintet (with James Morrison), he moved to New York, where he was a member of two famed groups, the Cedar Walton Quartet and Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. Barlow has also toured and recorded with many other jazz greats including Sonny Stitt, Chet Baker, Gil Evans, Jackie McLean, Billy Cobham, Curtis Fuller, Eddie Palmieri, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Golson, Lee Konitz, Sonny Stitt, Helen Merryl, Mulgrew Miller and Kenny Baron.

Many "second generation" bebop-influenced performers like New Zealand born pianist Mike Nock, bassist Lloyd Swanton, saxophonist Dale Barlow, pianist Chris Abrahams, saxophonist Sandy Evans and pianist Roger Frampton (who died in 2000) rose to prominence in this period, alongside their older contemporaries, led by the illustrious Bernie McGann and John Pochee, whose long-running group The Last Straw (founded in 1974) has carried the torch for this stream of jazz for many years.

New Zealand-born pianist-composer Dave McRae established himself as a performer of note in Australia in the 1960s before moving overseas, where he branched out into a diverse range of activities inlcuding a stint as the keyboard player in the British 1970s progressive rock group Matching Mole and collaborating with Bill Oddie of The Goodies on music for their TV series.

The trio of Tony Buck (drums), and the aforementioned Lloyd Swanton (bass) and Chris Abrahams (piano), known together as The Necks since forming in 1987 (see 1987 in music), was notable for its hour-long jams of jazz and ambient music textures, gaining widespread attention both in Australia and internationally. Their album Drive-By, which consists of a single 60-minute track, was named Jazz Album of the Year in the 2004 ARIA Awards.

During the early twenty-first century, there was also noticeable trend back towards jazz by many popular performers who had been associated with the rock genre. Most notable amongst these were Kate Ceberano, Danielle Gaha and The Whitlams who all released traditional jazz or jazz-influenced albums within a very short space of time. Whether this trend comes to dominate Australian popular music is yet to be determined.

External links


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Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.


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