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

Ian Patterson By

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63rd Annual Australian Jazz Convention
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 Australia—reveals 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 bands—an 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 Conventions—a 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.

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."

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."

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.

Ford also won the Original Tunes competition, which he had previously won in 1974, 1975 and 1982, pipping the colorful Peter 'Daddy Cool' Olson into second place. Olson, originally from Minnesota, spent twenty two years in Alaska working as a trapper before helping set up a blues festival there. The winning score was 109.2, or something like that, edging out Olson by .2. One delegate laughed at the technicality of the judges' voting and told me they used to cast their votes on the back of a beer mat in less sophisticated times. The original tunes competition is an important part of the convention, injecting new blood into the body of work from which musicians can draw and helping to preserve the Australian face of traditional-style jazz.

Probably the most popular venue due to its intimacy, not to mention the cool breeze which came through the open side doors, was the Lismore Bowling Club. Pianist Maurie Fabrikant and his Mates from Different States performed an enjoyable set, the highlight of which was Ade Monsbourgh's beautiful tune "Don't Monkey With It," which was accompanied by an electrical storm, a strangely yellow sky and a perfect rainbow.

The more cavernous Worker's Club auditorium and the City Hall auditorium had, by comparison, more than a few concerts where there were perhaps a dozen at most in the audience; once or twice there were more townspeople playing the "pokies" or gaming machines, in the gaming room than there were delegates in attendance at concerts.

Very few actual bands, or complete bands at any rate, turn up at these conventions; rather, individuals turn up and hook up with other musicians there. Most of these arrangements are made beforehand but many are ad hoc, and spontaneous sit-ins and old-style jams drawing from the vast body of traditional tunes have been a perennial feature of the AJC. A kind of ragged yet joyful informality is the order of the day, and lies at the very heart of what these conventions are all about.

Steve Crawford; Phil O'Rourke; Andrew Nolte

The youngest musician at the convention, banjoist Andrew Nolte, at twenty three, drove from Melbourne to attend for a couple of days in the hope of sitting in wherever he could: "I want to learn as much as I can from these guys while I can" he enthused. Nattily attired in bow tie and braces, black and white spats and with bryl-creamed hair, Nolte looked and sounded totally at ease in the company of musicians fifty years his senior.

The line which separates musicians and audience at a jazz festival is fairly non-existent at the AJC. After all, everyone is friends with everyone else, and the banter flying between the performers and the listeners is an enjoyable facet of the event. Delegates talk of past conventions like connoisseurs discussing vintage wines: Forbes 2000 was a great year; Melbourne '95, the fiftieth anniversary, ranks highly too—one man said that if you were at one gig it meant you were missing sixteen others running at the same time; several folk can remember the fourth convention of '49 which featured the great Ellingtonian (trumpeter) Rex Stewart, who was touring with the Graham and Roger Bell's band, but as Don Anderson recalls: "There were too many high notes for a lot of people. "

For Don and his wife Margaret, a member of the steering committee, Melbourne '74 holds special memories: "[Trumpeter] Clark Terry came in '74," Don remembers." He played in the (pianist) Tony Gould trio and, gee, he pushed them hard! On a couple of fast numbers they were flat out." Margaret adds: "Such a nice man too; he still sends us cards." Another conventioner jokingly complains that she and her husband had to displace themselves to attend the twenty consecutive conventions held outside Melbourne between '75 and '94.

Then there was Cootamundra in 1959, which Don and Nick Polites both remember well; Don recounts the legend: "Cootamundra held the tenth and the fourteenth conventions. At the fourteenth convention they used to draw the curtains between bands, and the bands would set up behind the curtains. This time, when it opened, there were thirty banjo players all in their underpants. One was in a nappy, and a couple were playing tennis rackets. They played "The World is Waiting for the Sunrise," which banjo clubs teach people. We were all younger and more stupid in those days! It was great fun."

Given that this year there was only one application to stage the 2010 event from a total of forty seven towns approached, I asked Don if there had ever been a year when the AJC had been in danger of not going ahead. With his customary precise recall Don explains: "There was a convention in Hobart; a rumor went around that it wasn't going to be held because nobody was going to go. But the whole Cootamundra band drove to Melbourne, jumped on the ferry and crossed. They were the only complete band from the mainland to play. There was also a good local band, a very professional quartet; that was the eighth convention, so that would have been '53—just a couple of bands plus a few musicians.


"The Cootamundra jazz band was a pretty professional outfit; it was a country town but they'd play two hundred miles this way and two hundred miles that way. They'd play bloody well and then drive back. They were a commercial Dixieland band ahead of their time.

"In the early days after the convention there'd be an annual general meeting and anyone who was a musician or a delegate could all come to the general meeting and all have their say, and some of them went on for hours. And someone would stand up and say 'I nominate our town,' and somebody else would say 'No, our town.' The pros and cons would be weighed up and then there'd be a vote.

"Then there was a great convention in Adelaide (''57); it was such a great convention that that when they asked who wanted to run the next one everybody thought we can't do it better than this so nobody put their hand up. Then a bloke from Sydney got up and said: 'If no-one's gonna bloody well do it I'll do it. I'll hire a town hall and you can all come along.' And that worked out all right.

"But we're all getting older, and there's not the enthusiasm of people in their thirties and forties—they're just not into traditional jazz."

The enthusiasm and energy levels of the convention attendees, the majority of whom are in their sixties and seventies, is quite something to see, and the last-night party on New Year's Eve sees everybody dancing the new year in to the heady sounds of music older than the conventioneers themselves.

The advancing age of musicians and delegates alike raises the question of what the future holds for the AJC, this wonderful and rather unique event in the international jazz calendar. Bassist Peter Boys echoes the concerns voiced by several other conventioneers when he says: "At the Melbourne convention in '95 we had a thousand musicians, now we're down to about three hundred—the youth is not coming through." I raised this issue with a number of the attendees and the response of one elderly gentleman seemed to sum up the attitude of those present: "The future? Well mate, it's Melbourne next year—that'll be a great convention, so many good musicians in Melbourne—and Orange in 2010. We'll be there mate, we'll be there."

On the Way to Melbourne '09

Such a statement of faith carries in it an optimism indicative of the spirit of the convention, yet it goes hand in hand with the open acknowledgment of most that, to a worrisome degree, too few are coming through to carry the Australian Jazz Convention or the tremendous Victorian Jazz archive into the future. However, as the frontline of trumpet, clarinet and trombone swirls around us, buoyed by the rhythm section and driving the dancers as it has done for sixty three consecutive years, the thoughts of those assembled in Lismore this final week of 2008 are only of having a hot time in the old town tonight.

Photo Credit

Ian Patterson

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