Tim Nikolsky: Getting Real Down Under

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.

AAJ: Do you think the use of American Real Books in educational settings has been detrimental to the development of Australian jazz at all?

TN: That's a really big question. At the Thailand International Jazz Conference '11, I was talking to [guitarist] Kurt Rosenwinkel's manager, Ander Chan-Tidemann, and he described American musicians coming to Denmark in the '80s and collaborating with local musicians like [bassist] Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen and guys like that, and he said it was a little bit of a double-edged sword because, whilst the Americans brought a great sense of discipline regarding time and rhythm—and also an immense vocabulary of jazz phrasing, of jazz language—and the Danish, Swedish and Norwegian jazz musicians were able to collaborate with these fantastic jazz musicians regularly, he felt that that somehow along the way their original sound was diluted. Relating that back to Australian jazz, I think that's quite possible as well. You have to look at educational practice and the use of Real Books in education as a way of learning tunes and vocabulary, and learning commonly known tunes so that musicians can get together and play, but this has to be balanced with developing your own approach and your own voice.

There's a college here in Melbourne, called the Victorian College of the Arts, and their approach to jazz education has predominantly not been about learning for instance, tunes, scales, the fundamentals of music, but much more about developing your voice and what have you got to say. I think that, over the years, this has proved to have developed quite a lot of unique voices in Australian jazz and they would not have used Real Books as extensively there as they would have in other places. They're much more about writing tunes and group improvisation and those sorts of things.

AAJ: Who could you name that has come through this college that is deserving of attention?

TN: There's Steve Magnusson, a guitarist. He has a really unique voice and that's quite difficult on guitar, because there have been so many innovators and it's such a widely played instrument, so it's hard to develop a unique voice, particularly in jazz where there are so many well-trodden paths, like the Wes Montgomery approach, or the Pat Metheny style. Steve is definitely about doing his own thing. There are many others that have come through the VCA, [pianist] Barney McAll being another who has developed a unique voice and is an amazing composer.

AAJ: How supportive of your idea for an Australian Jazz Real Book have Australian jazz musicians been?

TN: The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. It's the main thing which has sustained my efforts to continually work at it because without their support I don't think it would have been done. I have to admit that it's a thrill for me that I can call up my peers, people that I respect deeply, and talk to them about tunes or whatever, and this has really propelled me in working on the project and getting it done. There has been a lot of really positive encouragement. There has also been tremendous recognition of the Australian jazz sound, of what has come before.

An Australian Jazz Real Book was attempted in the early to mid-eighties, but the project didn't get off the ground because they ran out of funding. Part of the study that I've been involved in has been to try and track down those efforts and figure out where they got up to but a lot of the material was lost. Their approach was a little bit different actually; what they did essentially was have a committee decide on tunes, and they collected tunes from Australian jazz musicians at the time, they wrote them up in standard form, they left the title off the lead sheets and the dubbed tapes of the heads of each tune and they sent them to this committee, which would vote on a tune's merit and appropriateness for a Real Book. This was their way of making it a bit more impartial.

AAJ: Like a blindfold test.

TN: Exactly right.

AAJ: To what extent has this book been shaped by the feedback from the musicians whose opinions you asked for?

TN: It has been mostly created from the input of Australian jazz musicians. My approach has taken a leaf out of Chuck Sher's New Real Book Volume 1, whose title, Created by musicians for musicians, really set out a way of doing things for me. Firstly, I tried to get the opinions of the Australian jazz community as a whole by doing a web survey and using the answers as a set of prescriptions for creating a draft Real Book. I then interviewed key musicians in Australian jazz, across performance and education and used their feedback to fine tune the draft Real Book. Their opinions carried a lot of weight because they have all been involved in Australian jazz for a long time, and they are all experts in their field. I want the educators to be able to use the book with their students so I obviously have to listen to what they have to say and make changes according to what would work in an educational setting.

AAJ: How difficult has it been to construct a Real Book, which can be used both in an educational setting and on gigs?

TN: It's been an immense amount of hard work. It's the hardest thing I've ever done. Far out! The sheer volume of work is a challenge. Music by a lot of these composers isn't digitized so I have to spend time digitizing that and putting it into a music notation program called Sibelius and essentially formatting that in a readable, usable shape and form. That takes time. A lot of the tunes are hard to find for the reason that some of the composers have passed on. There is an Australian jazz archive, which is part of the national film and sound archive but it doesn't have that many resources and not too many people know about it. People's archives are given to friends or they're in boxes in a garage somewhere. Another challenge is trying to decide what would be an appropriate tune for representation in the Real Book , there's a lot that goes into that, including personal preference, I have to admit.

The web survey respondents in the Australian jazz community have identified that they wanted a range of tunes and varying levels of difficulty, with some tunes that you could just put on a bandstand and sight read but other tunes that you need to sit down and rehearse. I've tried to fulfill both of these criteria. Some of the tunes are pretty straight-ahead, straightforward, but there are other tunes where you'd need to sit down with a metronome and nut it out.

AAJ: There are about 400 tunes in the book, aren't there?

TN: Yeah, at the moment there about 380. I'm working on draft four at the moment and I think I've taken out about 150 tunes, as part of the editing process, through talking to these "key informants." These people that I'm interviewing that are experts suggested a lot of things and I took out a lot of tunes and went out and found a lot of tunes. I made it a bit more inclusive, had more people represented and a wider variety of music represented in the book as well.

AAJ: Of the list of tunes on the draft you sent, me it's interesting to note that more than half the tunes are from the 2000s; is that still where it stands at the moment?

TN: Yes, that's right. I think the average year worked out at about 2000. That's for several reasons. I haven't put a lot of really old tunes in there, because it's important to balance older tunes with more contemporary tunes and include different styles. The web survey in general showed that most people wanted the book to be inclusive in terms of styles. There were some notable exceptions about the age of compositions that people would like to see most represented. Some people were adamant that only tunes written after 1980 should be included, where as others wanted older tunes and others a balance of everything.

AAJ: It's an almost impossible task to keep everybody happy, isn't it?

TN: I think you've hit the nail on the head there because I think once I put it out I think people are going to be putting up "Wanted" signs with some money on my head [laughs].

AAJ: You'd better put your helmet on.

TN: I think I already know that I'm going to be criticized for not putting in certain things but my answer to that is that there's always Australian Jazz Real Book Volume 2, and also, if they think they can do a Real Book they can have a go themselves [laughs]. I think that the important thing though is to get an AJRB out there in people's hands and them using it.

AAJ: Do you think that the high proportion of tunes written after 2000 reflects the strength of contemporary jazz in Australia, or is it, perhaps, more a reflection of the demographic of the web survey?

TN: I think it largely reflects the demographic of the people who completed the survey, for sure. Obviously doing a survey on the internet lends itself to a certain demographic. I could be accused of not being entirely inclusive in that respect, but where people were not able to respond to the web survey I called them up, asked them the questions and wrote down their answers. I made sure that those people who were not computer literate had a voice in the survey too.

I also had to think about creating a resource that is potentially going to be used by the next generation of jazz musicians that are coming through the ranks. I think it's important that they have tunes of their immediate peers that they can aspire to. A lot of the older musicians who play jazz are probably less inclined to play other people's music and more inclined to be doing their own thing if they've been playing for more than twenty years. So, yeah, it is a conscious decision to keep it fairly contemporary, so that young musicians can relate to musicians who they can actually go to a gig and see or check out a YouTube of them performing, or buy an album of the people who are in this Real Book.

AAJ: That's very sound logic. Traditional jazz has a long history in Australia, and a wonderful tradition in the Australian Jazz Convention, which has been going since 1946, yet that particular demographic, the over 60s by and large, seems to be missing from your survey, looking at the age of the respondents. Is there a reason why these people are absent from the survey?

TN: Absolutely. The people in the Australian Jazz Convention are either doing or have done a publication of tunes from the Australian Jazz Convention Original Tunes Competition from 1946 onwards. So, that resource is available and I didn't want to tread on their toes, by doubling up on a whole lot of things. I've tried to steer clear of all those Original Tunes winners, because I don't want to put anyone's nose out of joint by doubling up on those tunes. But a lot of the people who play in that scene are represented in the book anyway, you know, [reed player] Ade Monsbourgh, [pianist] Graeme Bell, and [trumpeter] Bob Banard—all those guys are here, and that's important.

AAJ: What did you learn from researching existing Real Books, which helped you to shape this one?

TN: Having played from Real Books from many years ago, I have a deep respect for those standard tunes and I still love playing those tunes. Gershwin, Rogers and Hart. I have a very deep respect for those particular composers. Those tunes are timeless for a reason. They're great melodies and they're great to blow over. The Australian Jazz Real Book is different because we don't have the whole Tin Pan Alley show tune history in Australia. What I've learnt from Real Books is that they are easy to read and easy to use, they have consistent formatting, and they are designed very well for use by musicians. There's a fantastic book out about the development of fake books, and how they came about, from tune-dex cards. [The Story of Fake Books: Bootlegging Songs to Musicians (Kernfeld, 2006)]. The book is really worth checking out. Fake books and Real Books have had a very chunky history, shall we say [laughs]. The guys at Berklee in the '70s, who created those Real Books. they were trying to pay their way through university and they were fulfilling a need. I'm not sure how many people play "A Call for all Demons," which is the first tune in that Berklee Real Book, but it's in there.

AAJ: In your opinion, is there such a thing as an Australian sound in jazz?

TN: Well, I've been discussing this with all the people I've interviewed, and I've been reading up about it a lot as well and it seems to me that there is something of the Australian nature in the music; Australians are pretty easy going, pretty good natured, have a bit of a larrikin attitude, and definitely a sense of humor in Australian jazz. In more musical terms, some people have said that there is a definite lyricism in Australian jazz, which could mean it's the opposite to New York 8th-note jazz and bebop vocabulary, for instance, and it could also be reflective of the big, wide open spaces we have here. There is a definite openness on lots of different levels. There's an openness, in terms of mixing different cultures and a crosspollination of different things going on in Australian jazz, which I guess you could call fusion and Third Stream and Latin jazz. There are all these different hybrids going on, which is a reflection of Australia being so multicultural.

I would say that here, in Melbourne, we have a different voice to jazz musicians in Sydney; the weather is different, and I think that plays a big part in it, but in Melbourne we're more integrated with different cultures, which has enabled us to collaborated with a whole lot of different musicians. The latest wave of migration here has been African, which is absolutely fantastic, because they've brought a whole tradition of African music with them and we've been able to work with these great African musicians in Melbourne, and that's really exciting. I think there is an Australian jazz, but it's very hard to put your finger on it. There's also, I wouldn't call it a lack of respect for convention, but a more relaxed attitude towards rules and conventions.

AAJ: It makes sense that something of the Australian character is reflected to a degree in the folk music, and what is jazz if it's not folk music?

TN: Yeah, absolutely. In post-war Australia there wasn't much of a lot of stuff and we had to make do with what we had in a very young country. People had to learn to adapt to what they had, and those kinds of cultures make really good improvisers. I think cultures that have that ability to adapt and to improvise with what they have, in order to get by, have a basis for creating a musical sound that is unique.

AAJ: There is a Kiwi Real Book, in your research did you come across any other Real Books that are based along national lines?

TN: Yeah, I've been speaking to Walter Van der Leur, and Tony Whyton, who's at Salford University and I believe, they have some funding to put together a Dutch Real Book. I have seen the Kiwi Real Book, and hats off to them, they've created a Real Book with Kiwi jazz musicians, and they use it on gigs and they use it in educational institutions, so it's definitely overdue for Australia to do one as well.

AAJ: Will the Aussie Jazz Real Book include transcriptions of solos?

TN: I would certainly like there to be transcriptions of solos. I think it would be particularly useful for students in high school. Students in high school don't have jazz to play in the various syllabi. There's a subject called music performance, which you can do in your final years of secondary school. If you are doing saxophone, you'll probably do a [John] Coltrane piece, another 20th century thing and you might do a Bach thing or something like that, but there's a real absence of Australian content in those lists. The government talks about having quotas for Australian content in educational curriculum but there aren't the resources available for them to do that. There's a lack of Australian Jazz in education. and I think solo transcriptions would be great for students to learn.

AAJ: Is there a danger that the Australian Jazz Real Book or indeed any Real Book might actually stifle creativity among young musicians?

TN: It's an interesting question. It's a double edged sword because you talk to some university lecturers and their approach is that, yeah, it's great students learn transcriptions and language but you're not developing your own style, you're not developing your own improvisational voice. Some people believe it's better to enable the students by having the space to improvise so that they can express themselves. If you look at the average teenager in high school who has picked up an instrument and are starting to get serious, the people of this generation are so switched on and so open to any music from anywhere around the world. Their potential to be inspired by different things is essentially unlimited. There other side of the coin is that they get bombarded with so many things that there's a danger they can't see the wood for the trees. Hopefully, young musicians will feel inspired at the availability of tunes composed by their peers, and feel that, one day, they might have their tunes in a Real Book, too. I think learning tunes doesn't stifle creativity; it opens you up to more possibilities, and also stops you from trying to reinvent the wheel.

I would like to see the Australian Jazz Real Book widely used but I don't think it will be overused because I think people will always be doing their own thing, and creating their own voice.

AAJ: What stage is the book at? When do you hope it will be published?

TN: I'm pretty much done with the fourth draft and I don't think there'll be many more changes . I've been talking to publishing companies to negotiate the rights to publish composers' works legally, which is obviously important, and I think that's going to be quite a process. There are probably only a couple of dozen Australian jazz artists who have existing publishing agreements in place that I would have to negotiate with and, once I know what I'm able to negotiate and how much it would cost to license those particular tunes, I'll look at publishing it. I'll probably end up doing it myself, and I hope to apply to the Australian Council for funding to go towards the costs of printing it. I'm still a little ways off at the moment but getting closer and closer all the time.

AAJ: How do you hope the Australian Jazz Real Book impacts on the Australian jazz scene?

TN I hope that the Australian Jazz Real Book brings the jazz community closer together. I'd really like us to play each others' tunes more. If I see [trumpeter] Paul Williamson on a gig, then we'll actually have shared knowledge about each other's tunes that we can blow over. The best thing would be that the pathways of communication between people open up a bit more. And hopefully, people will contribute their ideas for what they'd like to see in Volume 2. But I'd just like to get Volume One out first, and see how it goes. Hopefully, it'll get into educational institutions, and the next generation of jazz musicians will be checking out Jamie Oehlers and [multi-instrumentalist] Dale Barlow, as well as John Coltrane. Hopefully the AJRB will help there to be a bit more of an awareness of Australian jazz, and encourage the development of an Australian jazz sound.

Photo Credits
Pages 1, 3, 5: Kaye Pratt

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