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Live Reviews

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

By Published: January 16, 2009
This break with tradition marks an important shift in the evolution of the convention, and certainly over the course of six days there were plenty of comments from attendees regarding the efficacy of Lismore council in running the event, given that the numbers of both delegates and musicians were down on last year by as much as 20%. To be fair, this is in part due to the advanced age of most regular convention goers. Looking at photos of the early conventions those in attendance were in their twenties and thirties; it is, broadly speaking however, the very same people who are attending the conventions today. As one musician from Nambucca told me: "In the three years since the last convention in Lismore we have lost fifteen of our jazz club members—they've passed away."

When one considers that recent conventions have brought between one and a half to two million dollars (AU$) into the local community, the shift towards local council-run conventions is perhaps not terribly surprising. Normally, there are several bids made, two years in advance, from competing towns hoping to hold the convention; they make their case at the annual general meeting, held on the last day of the convention, and after what can be a long-winded session, the conventioneers vote on their preferred host town. Surprisingly in 2008, there was only one bid for the 2010 convention and, needless to say, the vote was a unanimous "yes" for Orange, New South Wales.

Another change over the years—though the casual observer would probably be unaware—is the music. The AJC was always a traditional jazz convention. Sid Bridle of the Victorian Jazz Archive, who performed at the second AJC, told me: "It never strayed too far from [cornetist] Bunk Johnson, [clarinetist/saxophonist] Johnny Dodds, [trombonist] Kid Ory or [drummer] Baby Dodds—you know, the real 'trads.' You could call us 'moldy figs.'" (A pejorative term commonly used by jazz hipsters of the 1950s to refer to/characterize musicians who played pre-Charlie Parker, swing music.)

Modernists, it is fair to say, were not welcomed in the early days of the convention. Another legendary Australian jazz figure, drummer John Sangster, who then played in Graeme and Roger Bell's band, wrote in his autobiography: "Seventh Annual Jazz Convention in Melbourne, 1952, and did we get in to some strife. All during the last Yurrup Tour the Bells had developed and fined down Ellington and Morton and Luis Russell compositions, which made up a fair part of our repertoire. And we really had them down: 'The Mooche,' 'King Porter Stomp,' 'Jersey Lightning.' The famous Jazz Convention people got all hot and bothered and gave us a bad time because, partly because we were playing 'big-band' music (four front line and four rhythm I ask you) and partly because saxophones were 'out' (we had two, Boo Hiss.)" (John Sangster: Seeing the Rafters (Penguin, 1988).

Playing Ellington and daring to appear with saxophones brought boos from some in 1952 and, though traditional jazz is still the mainstay of the convention, nowadays the menu includes everything from swing, New Orleans, Dixieland, ragtime, gospel, stride, boogie, blues, big-band and mainstream (the latter mostly meaning Billie Holiday performances or Jerome Kern standards), saxophones, sheet music and all.

And so to Lismore 2008: the small, northern New South Wales town is about 750 kilometres drive north and inland of Sydney—a long old haul for interstate travelers. My own journey from Southern Australia necessitated a three-hour ride to a provincial train station, an hour and a half to Melbourne, a 12-hour overnight train to Sydney and an hour-and-a-half flight to Lismore. Unsurprisingly, more than a few musicians scheduled to play on the Boxing Day opener failed to arrive in time.

The five main venues which staged the two hundred and twenty plus sessions were reasonably close together and centrally located, and passage to and fro was facilitated by a tax van provided by the council. The standard of musicianship over the course of the five out of six days I attended was variable, which is only to be expected given the mixture of professional, semi-professional and amateur musicians assembled. The playing for the most part was very good, and there were plenty of excellent instrumentalists on show. All the musicians, regardless of skill levels, share passion and a real feel for the music resulting in many moving sessions. The musical highlights were numerous.

It is a special sight to see a front-line of trumpet, trombone and clarinet ripping it up, feeding off each other and intertwining lines, stepping out in turn to solo while banjo, bass or tuba, drums and piano create a pulsating rhythm; the brassy swing of Rank 'N' Banned was one notable example; the New Orleans Revival 40 Degrees South was another; and the latter ensemble did a lovely version of Chris Barber's "Merrydown Blues."


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