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The Oldest Jazz Event in the World: Hot Times in Australia

By Published: January 16, 2009
As Bruce Johnson points out in The Oxford Companion to Australian Jazz (Oxford University Press, 1987), jazz and the arts in general in post-war Australia attracted various radical groups, and as Don Anderson notes, the universities were prime breeding grounds for the radical movements of the day. Then as now, political groups sought to align themselves with what was hip, though most jazz musicians in Australia then were not strongly motivated politically, as this anecdote from Don suggests:

"We played at a camp that the young people's group for the Communist party set up— it lasted four days. This was back in 1947 or '48. We only had enough money for four musicians so we figured we didn't need a trombonist and we couldn't afford a drummer so I became a washboard player for that gig. We had John Shaw on piano, John Sangster on cornet, Jack Connolly played clarinet, and I played washboard. Among the tunes we played was 'Red River Valley,' and they thought it was terrific. Later we found out that it was the music of a Russian folk song—so we were probably playing the Communist Party national anthem or something [laughs]."

Don retrieves the program for the first convention from a box appropriately marked "1." The program was printed by Angry Penguins which, as Sid Bridle points out, was a leading radical literary journal back then. It shows that the convention of '46 attracted just four bands and ran from the 27th to the 30th of December.

The dates for the convention have remained largely the same ever since, occupying the space between Christmas and New Year. Although it has grown in size and stature —the 50th convention boasted a thousand musicians —the ethos and guiding spirit of the convention remains largely the same all these years later; Don Anderson explains: "We don't use the word 'festival'; we use the word 'convention because that was the original idea. It attracted serious record collectors and fans, but it was basically for the musicians. It's non-profit. It's got no organization, it's not a company, it's not a co-operative, it's not a legal entity; there are trustees and there's a trust fund, but it's more like a jazz movement."

Not only do the musicians not receive any fee for attending the convention, they must actually pay a nominal registration fee. Non-musicians who attend the festival are referred to as "delegates," and many of them have been going to convention upon convention year after year—in many cases, decade after decade.

The Australian Jazz Convention is a special event in a number of ways, not the least of which is its movement to a different host town every year, although it took a little while to gather enough momentum to be held outside Melbourne. As Don Anderson explains: "After the first one it was supposed to go to Adelaide but they couldn't get prepared for it so it stayed in Melbourne for the first four years. By the time the fifth one came along Sydney was up and running as there were a lot of jazz enthusiasts there."

Melbourne hosted the convention nine times in the first twenty editions, reflecting Melbourne's predominance in the national jazz panorama. In addition there were doubtless geographical considerations: Australia is so damned big that it can still take the better of two days for some delegates to travel across the country in order to attend. Since those early days, the convention has travelled to every one of the territories, bringing the sounds of jazz to all the main capitals, including the Tasmanian capital of Hobart. Towns like Cootamundra, Ballarat, Queanbeyan, Toowoomba, Launceston and Geelong have also become part of convention folklore. The organizing committee in collaboration with local jazz clubs has until recently been responsible for organizing the convention on a non-profit basis.

However, as The Oxford Companion to Australian Jazz noted back in 1987: "There is, indeed, some danger of the AJC falling into the control of local chambers of commerce and being promoted primarily as a profit-making enterprise." This has in fact come to pass, and the convention of 2007 in Goulburn and the 63rd in Lismore have both been run by the local council. Don Anderson recognizes the changes: "It has become more commercial over the years—it's much more of a business than ever it was. The committee this time is different to the 2005 convention (which was also held in Lismore); this time the council is running it because they can see the tourist dollar. They can get tourists into town between Christmas and New Year."

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