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Tim Nikolsky: Getting Real Down Under

Ian Patterson By

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Australian jazz? Although New Orleans is the undisputed historical cradle of jazz, any attempt at a definition of what modern jazz is seems to crash against the rocks of uncertainty at best, and narrow mindedness at worst. Tim Nikolsky—a guitarist who has been part of the Melbourne jazz scene for a decade—agrees that, whilst it is not a simple matter to define a particularly Australian brand of jazz, nevertheless it exists. Like almost every other jazz musician on the planet, Nikolsky cut his teeth with standards from The Great American songbook, but playing in the clubs and bars around Melbourne he was struck by the quality of original compositions by Australian jazz musicians. "Why not an Australian Jazz Real Book?," Nikosly asked himself. It was too late to turn back as the seed had been planted and the idea was already taking form in Nikolsky's mind. Three years of exhaustive research later Nikolsky has completed the mammoth task of producing the Australian Jazz Real Book. It contains nearly 400 tunes and spans seventy years of the colorful history of jazz in Australia.

Jazz reached Australian shores early in the last century, and ragtime and dance bands were popular in Melbourne and Sydney. Not everyone was convinced of the music's merits, however, as author Andrew Bisset recollected in his book, Black Roots, White Flowers: A History of Jazz in Australia (ABC Enterprises, 1979), quoting a magazine of the day:"Under the heading 'Garbage Destructor for Jazz,' Australian Variety (18 Dec. 1919) denounced jazz as 'merely a combination of noise, discord and horseplay' [.]" It got worse, as Bisset underlined, this time quoting from Everyone's in March 1922 , under the gloomy title "Jazz is to Pass Out." "Australia," the magazine declared, "should rejoice that the craze for absurd syncopation, like the futurist and cubist periods is to be but short lived." Talk about stuffing up, to coin a popular Australian saying. Ninety years later, Australia can boast the oldest continuous jazz event in the world in the trad-jazz flavored Australian Jazz Convention which celebrated its 65th edition in Orange, NSW, at the end of 2010.

Australia can also boast a large number of outstanding young jazz musicians: pianists Joe Chindamo, Andrea Keller, Paul Grabowsky and Ben Winkelman; saxophonists Julien Wilson, Jamie Oehlers and Sandy Evans; guitarists Geoff Hughes, James Sherlock and Steve Magnusen; singer Michelle Nicole; bassists Sam Anning and Belinda Moody; and drummer, Tony Buck..The list of original, exciting voices in contemporary Australian jazz is a long one, and provided Nikolsky with something of a headache in selecting tunes for inclusion in the Australian Jazz Real Book. Nikolsky is seeking support to publish the Australian Jazz Real Book, but even before the first volume hits the music and book stores he is already talking about Volumes Two and Three. It seems that there is no end of good Australian jazz tunes.

The Australian Jazz Real Book may have an enormous impact on jazz in Australia, both in the institutions where jazz is taught, and on the bandstands of every venue where jazz is played, from Cootamundra to Hobart and from Toowoomba to Woollongong.

All About Jazz When did the idea to put together an Australian Jazz Real Book first take hold of your imagination?

Tim Nikolsky: Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE is where I first studied music in a tertiary context, and it was all about learning Real Book tunes of predominantly American composers. This was in '97 and '98. I was doing gigs with different people and starting to learn about the Australian jazz scene, who the good players were, and who was writing tunes, and I started to wonder why we play all these American tunes and not so much of our own. That was just the initial thought but I started to think seriously about putting together an Australian Real Book, maybe five or six years ago. I've actually been working on putting it together over the last three years as my PhD project.

AAJ: How much sway does American jazz, be it old or more modern, have over Australian jazz musicians today? Are the classic jazz standards very popular?

TN: The interesting thing is that everyone is doing their own thing to a certain extent and certainly the more famous jazz musicians here and those who have established long careers in Australian jazz have predominantly played their own tunes. Having said that, American jazz tunes , particularly from Real Books are used in educational settings and students use these tools to learn about harmony, theory, and so on, so in an educational context they are still quite widely used. I think standards are still popular in Australia as they are in other areas of the world. Part of that is because audience members generally like to hear things that they have heard before. People still put out albums of standards or incorporate standards alongside originals of their own, so they are still quite predominant.


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