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Chris McNulty: A Global Voice

By Published: March 28, 2008

AAJ: And you did return...

CM: Well perhaps not everyone knows that I have lived full time in NYC for 20 years. I arrived here in 1988. I think raising my son here as a single parent pretty well made me a citizen of New York City by default.

AAJ: Going back to Australia: how is the jazz scene down under?

CM: I'm not that savvy about the "Australian" jazz scene anymore, although I just performed at the Melbourne Jazz festival for nine nights with my band (Paul Bollenback, Ugonna Okegwo, Mark Soskin and Jeremy Clemons), as well as in Adelaide. We played one concert every night and then ran the jam session that followed. It was fun to have so many musicians from all over the world sitting in.

AAJ: Anyone we should keep an eye on?

CM: There are some great players over there. I was struck by several. One in particular, an alto player from Melbourne, Dave Rex, if he comes to NYC he will definitely do well. Actually I just found out he's already here... so keep your eye out for him.

Mike Nock (originally from New Zealand) made significant inroads while living here for over 20 years and has left an indelible impression on all who have studied and worked with him since he returned to Sydney in early '80s. Last time I checked he was still teaching at the Sydney Conservatorium. Mike is amazing. He has managed to carve out a unique niche for himself in the global market place while remaining in Australia. That's real hard to do. I think he still tours internationally, puts together great bands and I'm told also has the creative energy of a 20 year old (he'll like hearing that, I'm sure). Having young players around also keeps you young and vibrant and keeps the music interesting, they listen to everything, so they bring a lot of new stuff to the table.

Another great pianist is Mark Fitzgibbons who I also hear is coming to NYC. I've played with him a bunch when I've toured in Australia and plan to have him join me for a tune or two on my next recording as will Paul Grabowsky, another great player and composer. Paul has just landed the highly prestigious position of Program Director for the Adelaide Arts Festival.

Graham Wood heads the jazz program and WAAPA in Perth and performs with many international musicians touring through and will perhaps also join me on this next recording project. Paul Bollenback and I will be performing with Graham Wood, among others this September when we tour Australia.

AAJ: Do you think it's almost mandatory that Australian jazz musicians sooner or later make their move to the US?

CM: Players have been coming over to the States from Australia for more than half a century and they will continue to do so. I think most understand that to develop in certain areas it's essential to come here for a time to explore, study and play. I think players such as tenor saxophonist, Bernie McGann, pianist Chuck Yates, bassist Murray Wall all came here way back in '60s and '70s. Chuck actually played with Carmen McRae for 6 months. They were all able to make some cool things happen while they were here. Murray, along with more recent arrivals—Barney McAll, Sean Wayland and Mat Clohsey among others—has managed to stay here and make NYC his home.

AAJ: It's not an easy job though to make it in jazz in NYC.

CM: I think sustaining a career in jazz in New York in general has never been that easy, but back then you had the added advantage of the music presenting mainly to a live audience, so in a way you went wherever the work took you. Now the possibilities for education appear endless though cost prohibitive for many.

AAJ: Is it easy for an Australian to come and study jazz in the US? Based on your experience what advice can you give to your compatriots?

CM: In Australia there are small and substantial grants available for young players to travel to the States or Europe. Unfortunately it's after you get here that the struggle really begins. There's no longer a down town existence at low rent available to artists of meager means, coming in from out of town, be it from Wisconsin, Idaho or Australia.

When I arrived in NYC there were a ton of great jazz venues open and many great listening environments which also supported the community of jazz musicians, Bradley's in particular. Maybe things will pick up again, but it's definitely turned into a career for musicians who have some sustainable capital to invest for a much longer period of time or you have to do other things to sustain a creative life.

Whether or not you can create a niche for yourself in this current market really depends on how much staying power, willfulness, and across the board business ingenuity you have. Sometimes you might be better off staying in your own country and getting it to work in a less stressful, competitive environment. In Australia, that can be difficult to sustain for a whole different reason, the entire population is only 21 million. But there are some cool things happening in both environments.

Musicians who go back to their home countries, take invaluable information and energy back with them. A great example of that is saxophonist, Michael Stewart who has managed to create some very cool performances/workshop opportunities in Adelaide. Paul Bollenback and I will be performing with his big band next September.

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