The History of Jazz in Australia

Australia, among other countries worldwide, was introduced to jazz following the musical sensation created in New York USA in 1917-18 by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and its immediate imitators. News of this new music quickly reached Australia via the entertainment press and the vaudeville artists appearing on the popular theatre circuits. Impresarios sensed its potential and Australia’s first known jazz group, formed by Billy Romaine, appeared at Fuller’s National Theatre in June 1918 fronted by Sydney-based singer Belle Sylvia. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing how it sounded. Using singer Mabelle Morgan this jazz band then performed on stage in Melbourne followed by Adelaide and Brisbane theatre appearances. Other jazz bands were formed in response to the new craze and, with the boom in social dancing, it quickly invaded the dance halls and ballrooms and, despite prudish and predictable opposition, became an Australian post-war phenomenon.

To meet demand for the new music promoters imported established American ‘jazz’ bands from California including those led by bandleader Joe Aronson (1922), Frank Ellis and His Californians (1923), Bert Ralton’s Havana Band (1923), Sonny Clay’s Plantation Orchestra (1927) and Ray Tellier’s San Francisco Orchestra (1925 and 1928). These hot dance bands brought the more established forms of jazz music to an eager Australian dancing and theatre public, encouraged imitators and employed local musicians. A Sydney jazz band was featured in Charles Chauvel’s 1926 silent film Greenhide.

As early as the 1890s Australians had been exposed to American black and white entertainers, minstrel troupes, Spiritual choirs, syncopated dancers, Ragtime and associated musical forms via vaudeville theatre, sheet music and piano rolls. Although Australia had embraced the much-celebrated Jazz Age, just how much real jazz was being played can only be guessed at, for there were too few Australian bands recorded in the early-to-mid 1920s compared to the records issued here featuring American and English orchestras. However, intrigued musicians and enthusiasts soon discovered the real jazz hidden within the commercial record catalogues of Tin Pan Alley tunes when the Australian record industry emerged in the late 1920s and genuine US jazz records, featuring black and white groups, became readily available.

Unfortunately, professional Australian musicians, including future popular bandleaders Jim Davidson and Frank Coughlan, although influenced by jazz music rarely had an opportunity to play it publicly.
Following the introduction of news radio in Australia in 1923 (via 2BL and 2FC) dance music became an added on-air attraction. Imported and local records were broadcast frequently to a large audience, our professional orchestras introduced the latest renditions of US and English popular music using imported arrangements and the Australian sheet music publishing industry flourished.

Initially, Australia’s early record industry was dominated by English parent companies, which meant that popular English orchestras and dance bands were well represented here on record. But Australian protectionism was strong and from the early 1930s, due to political pressure from the Australian Musicians’ Union, American bands and performers found it increasingly difficult to find work here. Swing and popular music was eagerly embraced when it appeared during the 1930s and most US jazz and swing records were available in Australia within months of their initial release.

During this period diehards and interested musicians formed jazz appreciation societies and jazz clubs, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne. From these specialist cliques authentic Australian jazz emerged, encouraged by interested professional musicians, but performed and refined mainly by jazz-only amateurs emulating what they were hearing on records. Although not specifically confined to a particular city, jazz in Australia, played professionally for its own sake and in its own right, emerged more strongly in Melbourne in the late 1930s with Roger Bell, his brother Graeme, Ade Monsbourgh and their friends, influenced by 1920-30s recorded music from Chicago and New York sources. However, it depends on how jazz is defined and swing-influenced jazz and its more modern offshoots emanating from the US in the early 1940s influenced other young Australian jazzmen.

Although jazz/swing appreciation societies had been established in most Australian cities during the 1930s and dance band musicians jammed after hours, it was the Bell brothers and associates who eventually took undiluted jazz music to the public. These youngsters dared to defy the musical establishment. And they succeeded. However in 1939, another war interrupted these pioneer efforts as mobilisation took place. In 1945, when the international chaos subsided, the jazzmen returned to civilian life and their music. Musical ties had been established during the war when it was realised that others in Australia were also playing jazz. Someone proposed that a jazz function be held in Melbourne when the world conflict had been resolved and the idea of a Jazz Convention took hold. A committee was formed, invitations went out and musicians, friends, enthusiasts, wives and girlfriends from all over Australia gathered on 26th December 1946 at the Eureka Youth Hall in North Melbourne. A program had been devised and for four days the 20-something-year-old musicians and the teenagers they had influenced along the way during the latter war years ‘jammed’ together. This first Australian Jazz Convention was a great success and all resolved to return the next year. They did and the annual event has continued, uninterrupted, ever since.

Outstanding early post-war Melbourne jazz bands included the Bells (as the Graeme Bell Dixieland Jazz Band was affectionately known), Tony Newstead’s Jazz Gang, Frank Johnson’s Fabulous Dixielanders and Len Barnard’s Jazz Band. Other popular and influential working bands were constantly being formed, younger musicians were influenced and mentored and this unique system has kept Australian jazz alive and well over the years.

In Sydney, a vibrant commercial nightclub culture dominated the music scene and jazz-influenced musicians had the opportunity to jam all night and be paid to do it. Which meant that traditional jazz, prominent in Melbourne and Adelaide, was slower taking hold in Australia’s largest city. Early Sydney revivalist groups in the mid 1940s-50s included the Port Jackson, Illawarra, Riverside, Paramount and Black Opal Jazz Bands. In Adelaide it was Malcolm Bills’ Jazz Band and the Southern Jazz Group and Brisbane had The Canecutters.

Jazz was evolving in wartime America and young musicians, inspired by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and their colleagues, were exploring new musical ideas, soon to be labelled bebop by the critics. The popular 1930s swing bands were giving way to progressive big bands exemplified by Stan Kenton’s Orchestra and Woody Herman’s First Herd; and impressed Australian musicians were listening keenly and absorbing the music from records. However, due to a US Musicians’ Union recording ban (1942-44) the evolution of this new jazz went unnoticed by many for several years.

Modern Australian jazz followed this musical path and in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Brisbane musicians eschewed the traditional 1920s-30s movement and progressives including Errol Buddle, Splinter Reeves, Ron Falson, Bryce Rohde, Frank Smith, Jack Brokensha, Ralph Mallen, Les Welch, Brian Brown, Keith Hounslow, John Pochee and friends championed the new music. These young moderns played in clubs, coffee lounges and pubs, appeared on the popular jazz concert platforms and created an enthusiastic following. As the music became popular dedicated venues opened to support it including The Basement and El Rocco in Sydney and Jazz Centre 44 and The Embers in Melbourne.
Although jazz was being recorded and released by numerous independent, private record producers during the early 1940s, the major Australian record company, Columbia, did not realise its potential until July 1945 when a pseudo jazz group, organised by dance band leader George Trevare, waxed six titles for its Regal Zonophone label and followed these in April 1947 with six bona fide jazz sides by Graeme Bell and His Dixieland Band. Record dates by other jazz bands including Frank Johnson and Len Barnard followed for Parlophone in the 1940s-50s and Australian jazz entered the major catalogues. But as Beatle-mania and rock & roll became popular, the big record companies all but stopped recording Australian jazz. Young audiences defected and musicians, particularly in NSW, found refuge on the licensed club and pub scene. Jazz, once again, took a back seat.

Thankfully, over the years, the declining market for traditional and modern jazz was served by independent record producers including Ampersand, Prestophone, Swaggie, Crest, Planet, W&G, Festival and the privately produced records put out by the bands. Otherwise, this period of Australian jazz would have been very poorly documented. When the worldwide jazz revival, which had emerged in Australia during the 1940s, ran out of steam in the early 1960s it was kept alive by enthusiasts and jazz musicians through the Australian Jazz Convention, jazz clubs and societies, concerts and festivals. It continues to survive thanks to this small, enthusiastic, active and dedicated enclave.

Jazz in Australia, as elsewhere, covers a wide stylistic musical range from New Orleans, dixieland, traditional and mainstream to modern and avant-garde. However, over the years, notwithstanding some emphatic divisions in the 1940s and 50s, the musical borders and differences have blurred with many Australian musicians equally proficient in all genres.

For many years individual Australian musicians ventured abroad to sample jazz at its sources, but it was not until mid 1947 that the Graeme Bell Dixieland Jazz Band became the first organised group to undertake an organised overseas tour. This 1947-48 odyssey took it to war-torn Czechoslovakia, France and England where the band had a strong influence on traditional jazz emerging in those countries. The Bells returned for a second triumphant tour of Europe and the UK in 1950-52. On both occasions the band recorded extensively. Other groups followed this lead including a 1957 historic tour through China and Russia to Moscow (where it recorded) by the Southern Cross Jazz Band. Eventually musical trips overseas became common and today Australian bands and musicians are regularly featured at jazz festivals in the US, Britain, Europe, Asia and Japan where our talented jazzmen have earned high praise and well-deserved international recognition.

In spite of the current downturn in public support for jazz in Australia there remains a relatively small but healthy niche for the music in all Australian states. Jazz is now completely ignored by commercial radio and television organisations but can be heard on dedicated community radio programmes across the country. Jazz clubs can be found in most urban and regional centres, over fifty Australian jazz festivals bring jazz to enthusiastic audiences and pubs and licensed clubs in Australian cities and towns feature the music every weekend.

© Bill Haesler OAM