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Live Reviews

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

By Published: January 16, 2009
The clarinetist in that band was the irrepressible Nick Polites who, at eighty-one-and-a-half years of age (in his own words) played with unbelievable energy and skill—a clarinetist to rank with the very best. It seemed he was playing everywhere; on the first full day he played no fewer than nine forty-five minute sessions, and averaged about six a day after that. His in-the-zone stare when he solos, crossed legs marking time metronomically, and his masterful control of his instrument have been a feature at all but four of the sixty-three conventions, and he played at the very first. I caught him on a break between sessions, and he spoke at some length and with great charm about his life in music and the spirit of the convention, reflecting upon the very first convention in 1946: "I had a chill up my spine that time when I played and I still feel like that."

Polites also sat in with Jack McLaughlin's Preservation Jazz Band—one of the most impressive outfits over the course of the six days. This trad outfit of veteran McLaughlin on soprano sax (more usually clarinet) John Van Buuren on his 1923 banjo, and Peter Boys on upright bass has been together for thirty years and more, and their intuitive playing was a delight to behold. The same line-up appeared billed as Nick and Jack's Po Boys, with the addition of Kevin Bolton on drums, and they impressed on "Oriental Man," which showed the fashion for oriental tunes in 1920s America; "Clarinet Marmalade," from 1917 by The Original Dixieland Jazz Band; and the beautiful hymn "Pass Me Not O Gentle Saviour," with McLaughlin excelling on soprano sax.

The influence of church music in the roots of traditional jazz was evident time and again during the convention. McLaughlin, Van Buuren and Boys also played a number of captivating sets of hymns and spirituals. McLaughlin reminisced between numbers of the thrill about three boys from Newcastle being invited to play at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, in the gospel tent in front of a sea of black faces. These stories are a fundamental part of the enjoyment of the convention. Needless to say, Nick Polites sat in whenever he could, which was fortunate for all who were there to witness the chemistry between these venerable musicians.

Jazz came to church on the fourth day with a gospel service in the town's Uniting Church. The recently ordained Reverend Gary Dronfield arrived on his Harley Davison (in the past he didn't stop at the door and rode it into the church) and presided over a relaxed service where the excellent quintet led by singer Pippa Wilson worked its way through a series of gospel tunes that were made to swing. The reading by the Reverend was, appropriately enough, from Psalm 150:

..."praise him with the sound of the trumpet. (cue trumpet run)

Praise him with tambourine and dancing. (a missed opportunity)

Praise him with the harp. (cue piano flourish)

Praise him with the clash of cymbals. (cue washing cymbals)

Praise him with resounding cymbals. (cue crashing cymbals)

Praise him with our voices." (cue hallejullas)

The service ended on a high note with a lovely rendition from PIppa Wilson of "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" and "When the Saints Go Marching In" with the enthusiastic accompaniment of the packed house.

Another highlight was (ragtime pianist) David Beattie and clarinetist Adrian Ford's performance of spirituals and rags, Ford exhibiting the full range of the clarinet on "Climax Rag." Of historical note was the rendition of "Coons' Rag," one of the earliest Australian rags, written in 1902 by Francois Albert (a.k.a. Frank Albert), who was later instrumental in establishing the Australian Performing Right Association in 1903 (still running today), which was intended to protect the interests of musicians. As somebody quipped: "He must have had his conscience pricked, as he'd done another tune which he stole from Harry Guy." Elsewhere at the convention, similar charges were leveled at Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. Rightly or wrongly, such pronouncements reveal the keen sense of the history of jazz that is a characteristic of the convention goers.

Adrian Ford is a part of the furniture at these conventions, and when not on clarinet he reveals an impressive technique on piano too, appearing on several occasions in a solo context. His playing showed great versatility, energy and tremendous feeling for the old rags, blues and spirituals, with arrangements he adapted strikingly. Joined by Bill Haesler on washboard and single cymbal, the two executed a breathtaking version of Jelly Roll Morton's "The Naked Dance." This pair first played together in 1969, and the empathy between them was obvious. The speed at which they took the playing was exhilarating, and it was fascinating to observe a master washboard player at work.

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