The Oldest Jazz Event in the World: Hot Times in Australia
New South Wales, Australia
December 26-31, 2008
If asked to name the oldest jazz event in the world, you might opt for the Newport Jazz Festival or, if you haven't been around that long, the Montreux Jazz Festival or perhaps the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. But you might be surprised to learn that the answer is the annual Australian Jazz Convention that, with almost nothing in the way of international fanfare, has been going without interruption since the first production in 1946. Held in a different town each year, the 63rd edition brought hot jazz aplenty to the New South Wales town of Lismore between the 26th and 31st of December 2008.
Clearly there is a lot of history and a few good tales behind an event such as this, so my first port of call to discover more about this long-running jazz convention was the Victorian Jazz Archive, about thirty kilometers from the centre of Melbourne, where Australia's finest and most extensive jazz archive is kept. Set up in 1996 (thanks in large part to a donation by Dame Elisabeth Murdoch), the digs are attended to by a team of between fifty to sixty volunteers, mostly retirees, who lovingly dedicate themselves in the most professional manner to the preservation of all material related to the history of jazz down under.
There is a recording studio where tapes, vinyl discs and audience recordings dating back to the 1930s are digitalized (to date, over a thousand CDs worth of Australia jazz have been preserved for posterity). An impressive library with reference books, histories and biographies is the centerpiece of one room. In one of three narrow, temperature-controlled vaults, nicknamed the crypts, records and tapes are stored as well as old magazines, posters, newspaper articles and instruments bequeathed to the archive by retired musicians or the families of deceased jazzers, who understand better than most that, at least to some, these instruments have much more than mere monetary value.
In another room several people are seated in front of computers cataloging, researching, and working towards a computerized database. As one volunteer put it: "It is a step up from a suitcase under the bed." A large framed picture of the American all-female group, the Sweethearts of Rhythms, adorns a wall, and beside that in similar pose is a framed picture of another all-female band, except this one is Australian. The legend reads "Gay Funston and her Australian All Girl Orchestra." The inscription on the photo says they are in Ceylon. Though there is no apparent year, the picture would seem to date from the 1930s. I ask who they are, but nobody seems to know anything about them. A Google search throws up next to nothing.
Visitor guide to the Victorian Jazz Archive, Sid Bridle, produces a folder with newspaper clippings and photos of early Australian female bands. There are a lot of them: The Sydney Trocadero All- Girl Band; Maggie Foster's band, Miss Nellie McEwan's Jazz Quartette, which was active in 1919. Andrew Bisset's book, Black Roots, White Flowers (ABC Publishing, 1979)a highly recommended read for anyone interested in the origins and development of jazz in Australiareveals in passing that there were others, and that what may have been Australia's first jazz band, in 1918, was led by one Belle Sylvia. However, there's practically no extended literature on any of these female bandsan area of Australia's jazz history surely worthy of further research.
The room that interests me most, and the reason I have come to the Victorian Jazz Archive, is the third vault, which stores box upon box of all matter related to the previous sixty-two Australian Jazz Conventionsa treasure trove of old programs, posters, photos, reviews and curios, including wine bottles with labels bearing the logos of conventions past.
The man in charge of this considerable archive is Don Anderson, and nobody is more ideally suited to the task, as Don has, remarkably, attended each and every one of the jazz conventions since 1946. Just shy of 80, Don Anderson's memory of past conventions is sharp. He can tell you where the 7th, 23rd or 56th was held without hesitation, and for good measure he'll tell you who played and what the attendance was like.
The idea for a jazz convention, as Don and Sid explain, bringing together musicians from different states was that of Australian jazz legend and multi-instrumentalist Ade Monsbourgh (1917- 2006), who hatched the notion in 1944. The first convention was held in the Eureka Hall, Melbourne under the auspices of the Eureka Hot Jazz Society, which had been formed by the communist youth league.