Is there such a thing as Australian Jazz?

By Chanan Hanspal

I was inspired to write this essay after my brother brought to my attention an article he had read written by Bruce Johnson about the impact Australian jazz had made on the jazz scene in the UK and Europe during the late 1940s. I found the article to be quite sweeping in claiming to such a great extent that Australian jazz was so influential and also surprised that somebody as intellectually equipped as Johnson, could make such sweeping generalisations.

Anyway, here is my response, but first, a quote from NZ pianist/composer, Mike Nock;

'Sometimes you find musicians and you’ve probably heard this about Australian jazz, that a lot of musicians feel that there’s an Australian music: we don’t need to look at any other models. That’s a lot of crap! Its like really avoiding the issue. The issue is that the music comes from Africa via America. Whatever we choose to do with it is something else.'

This paper explores Jazz in Australian culture and as to whether there is such a thing as Australian jazz. Through close analysis of how the interpretation of jazz was initially misappropriated in Australia, it is hoped that a binding element will be found which explains the way jazz progressed and how the cultural difference affected the way it was played and received and if there is any truth to the claim of Australian jazz being distinct from any other kind. A brief and thinly outlined chronology from the late teens of the 20th century to post-world war II will be used to create a juxtaposition of timelines between the emergence of jazz musical permutations in the United States and the subsequent and somewhat delayed arrival of them in Australia and if this disjunctive lapse had any bearing on the way each progressive formation of jazz was perceived.

It is indeed difficult to distinguish purely from a listening perspective if jazz performed by Australians is exclusive in style to any other region of the world where it is played. The difficulty is also compounded by the inability to concisely decree what it is that makes Australian jazz unique, and exactitude of the contents, which are assumed by some to transfers to the listener of Australian jazz.

Quite unconsciously, an Australian style of jazz has developed. It is still immediately recognisable as jazz to anyone in the world but while it is the same meal, all the herbs and spices are subtly different. Whatever it is that makes people ‘Australian’ has been able to withstand the advent of jazz, and inject jazz, as played in Australia with its essence. (Bisset.)

It is implied from this extract that, within this context, being Australian is redeemable in that it has embraced jazz to become part of its cultural musical life and whatever constitutes being Australian is to be experienced through the music. The transference of this ‘subtly different ingredient’ does not indicate clearly what Australian jazz is and how it differs from any other kind of jazz. In a way one can see an inherent flaw in the term Australian jazz, to call it Australian immediately invokes connotations of some unique distinction between it and jazz residing outside Australia.

At this point we should briefly take into account the sociological factors that shaped jazz music and the way those factors contributed to the sound and to acknowledge the origins of jazz from its beginnings in the late teens of the 20th century in New Orleans in order to build a chronology and create a yardstick by which to measure developments in Australia. To understand the importance of jazz not only as music but also as a product of ruthless suppression of constitutional liberty is essential in defining the origins and cultural aspects that created such a unique style of music. From a musical standpoint the main stylistic contributories to jazz were African rhythms, Marching Brass Band music and the Blues. The instrumentation in which gave jazz a specific timbre was a result of poor economic climate within the black communities whereby instruments were donated or given away to the under privileged courtesy of marching brass bands and so consequently those instruments became the nominated ones used. If we look at jazz in socio-political terms, the racial perturbations inherent in the mixed race societies of America and the subsequent endeavours of the persecuted to express the harshness of their existence in musical form goes back to the origins of the blues, and those same racial perturbations which induced self expression as being the only thing the ‘White Man’ could not take away were rife throughout the history of jazz in America. This is quite an important realisation when considering the performance of jazz by musicians having not experienced the kind of hardships as the American Blacks at the time, and so the essence of Australian jazz has to be addressed to a certain degree within this context. The result of the social and political climate of Australia in the early days of jazz did not stimulate a movement of such intensity as the jazz movement in the United States because the closest example of such unjust behaviour by ruthless white Europeans inflicting appalling barbarism on less civilised beings did not yield any kind of musical retaliation that would prove to be as controversial as Jazz.

The American Negro has impregnated the whole American people, and through them the whole civilised world, with the barbaric culture of the jungle through the medium of jazz. American commercial genius has facilitated this spreading of jazz mania. Thus it has come to pass that these African exiles in America have wrought a far-reaching and terrible revenge for the unspeakable enormities of the slave trade…And. Quite justly, this revenge has not been confined to the United States, but, like a deadly infection, has spread to every nation which profited by that lucrative, loathsome traffic in human flesh and blood. (Sydney Morning Herald 19th may 1934)

As awareness of jazz increased throughout the 1920s in Australia it was possible for people to experience some of the virtues of indecorous behaviour in the form of lurid dancing and for musicians to replicate albeit unconvincing but hitherto unnoticed permutations of jazz. Although jazz became widespread, the perception of it was one of tomfoolery, the purpose of which to entertain and provide dancing stimulation for those with a penchant for reckless abandonment of what the people of the conservative persuasion proclaimed as decorum and self-respect. To most, jazz was a depiction of the visual depravity of over excited musicians and the novelty aspects of weird noises. The harmonic structure of jazz and the improvisational element practically went unnoticed throughout the 1920s due in large part to the way in which jazz was experienced. It is implicit that the performance of jazz at this time was extremely derivative and lacking any discerning qualities of an Australian style if such a thing existed.

We should not imagine, however, that what these Australian jazz bands were playing sounded much like the music of black American groups of the same period. Australian musicians would have had a different level of access to the ‘source’ from amateurs in a remote rural group whose only adjustment to the new musical vogue was likely to have been the addition of the word ‘Jazz’ to the band name and perhaps a bit of onstage clowning. (Johnson)

Australian musicians who revered jazz had to contend with the difficulties of authentic musical emulation for the only kind of exposition of jazz in Australia was by visiting white Americans who brought with them their own interpretations of jazz. And, when Australian musicians went overseas they often adopted characteristics of jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong and on their return would set forth to inflict on the unsuspecting and consequently unfortunate listener the wonders of Louis Armstrong mimicry.

It is regrettable to find jazz musicians who should know better, who will sing in a way entirely unnatural and foreign to them, apparently convinced that this is the only way to sing jazz. Armstrong’s singing was marvellous, but hearing Australians and Dutchmen and Englishmen do it is not so good. (Bisset)

This kind of replication would have been deemed contentious among the jazz world at large, however, in 1932 the Sydney publication of ‘Australian Music Maker’ addressed a number of issues pertinent to the understanding and appreciation of jazz, the journal carried historical articles on jazz, essays by leading Australian instrumentalists on all technical aspects of music, from playing ‘hot’, to arranging, harmony and the finer details of practice. At the same time broadcasters began to acquire through importation, records from the United States which proved advantageous for one did not have to rely on the often quasi-playing style of inept interpreters, finally Australians could hear for themselves the real thing insomuch as advocators of aesthetic capital can purport experience of the real thing, in particular the art of musical spontaneity.

After the depression, jazz of the 1920s was given the classificatory amendment of ‘anachronistic’, aptly used by critics who’s misinterpretations and misconceptions of the integrity and purpose of jazz was evidently apparent. Throughout the 1930s, jazz in Australia became less audibly intrusive and consequently the reason for the success of the swing big bands. The sound of swing was sweet but yet still conducive to the virtues of dancing and in many ways was widely appropriated as new dance music as opposed to a re-emergence of jazz which contrary to popular belief was still steeped in the ‘anachronistic’ musical conventions of 1920s jazz just slightly watered down to fit the popular tastes of the time. But, if the misinterpretation of traditional jazz as played by Australian musicians in the 1920s due to a lack of exposure to live performances of the protagonists of jazz in America and the embargo levied on the importation of records from the United States set the precedent for the foundation of the subsequent style of jazz in the 1930s there would be a flawed perpetuation of musical style however, as we will find out later on in this essay the flawed quality is assumed to be the determining factor of an Australian style.

The advent of swing in Australia formulated a musical accessibility unperturbed by the collective improvisation of its predecessor and the general public seemed to be at ease with its congeniality and embraced it as the new music to dance to. Although there was dissension amongst the jazz fraternity and intellectuals, who regarded swing as merely pandering to public tastes and lacking in authenticity, for them jazz was about improvisation and emotional expressiveness, swing adhered to the philosophy of giving the audience exactly what they wanted and nothing more and if we attempt to quantify the peculiarities of the performer and audience relationship as being somewhat repulsive to intellectuals, it proves redundant to do so without the inclusion of socio-economic factors. Nevertheless, as the Second World War dawned, big bands in the United States became an economic liability and gradually dissipated, some principle performers of the swing era were enlisted and the demise of big band swing grew closer. Australia was not exempt from this eventuality either, but one must acknowledge the term ‘swing’ in Australia represented something completely different to its usage in America. The term ‘swing’ was incorrectly applied to the music of the 1930s in Australia, and along with other critical discrepancies perpetuated the falsity that swing in Australia resembled that of the United States. Apart from being musically conservative in relation to the earlier interpretations of jazz, swing in Australia exhibited a lack of refinement found in the music of Duke Ellington and Count Basie, however this fact did not underestimate the gravity of swing and its recreational function.

It is self evident that music coexists with language, which is used to shape the audible experience in guidance with socio-political doctrines. It is at this juncture we should address the function of the critic and his contribution to the betterment of man and his infallible consequence, scribbling with great haste and forcing opinions through the propulsion of his hand guided by an agility of mind through the medium of lead and wood.

Jazz is cynically the orchestra of brutes with unopposable thumbs and still prehensile toes, in the forest of Voodoo. It is entirely excess… the monkey is left to his own devices, without morals, without discipline, thrown back to the groves of instinct, showing his meat still more obscene. These slaves must be subjugated, or there will be no more master. (The French Revue Musicale 1920)

The critic during the inter-war years was compelled to indulge in printed absurdities on the notion of jazz, and enforce a subjective point of view with little or no understanding of what it was he was trying to define. It comes as no surprise, when one investigates early critical opinion of jazz and the flamboyant usage of derogatory, white supremacy indoctrinated language in describing it as music which threatened the conventions of a predominantly white society, the art form was undocumented and lacked any cohesive chronology of musical style. Another reason for these critics to expound without fear of attack was that the jazz purist contingent had an adversity to intellectualising jazz music, it was spontaneous, a free, expressive type of music, which based on those ideals, defied a coherent analysis in social and musical terms. Those analyses were left to the ill informed and consequently jazz was initially defined as an inferior music. If we juxtapose this definition of reality in terms of how jazz critics defined it and that of the 19th century classical aesthetics view of European music and the pontificating and extravagant use of rhetoric to assert the importance of European music insomuch as it created a definite template in which classical music should be appreciated, an almost imposed perception of music if you will, enabled classical music to flourish in tandem with the language used to define it just as the arrogance of the jazz critics had created a perception that would be inflicted on the listeners of jazz. In America at least, at the beginning of the 1940s the attitude towards jazz as blasphemous music began to change and thus became even more blasphemous with the emergence of a radical style called Bebop.

Bebop was a statement of unmitigated audaciousness by black musicians who had grown tired of the concept of the ingratiating Negro entertainer who’s anxiety to please white audiences was unsurpassable in the form of Louis Armstrong. The pioneer of Bebop Charlie Parker had diametrically opposed feelings for Louis Armstrong, affection for the musicality and genius of Armstrong and loathing of his eagerness to please white audiences.

Charlie Parker was rejecting the idea of the black musician as entertainer; he wanted his musicto be taken on its own merits, to speak for itself… he was readjusting the whole relationship of performing artist and audience… He had to flout the tenets of the white society that dominated American life because it demanded that. (Ian Carr)

Bebop expropriated the easy co-existence of jazz and the dance halls and it was simultaneously profusely disobedient to the ideals of the constituents of previous styles of jazz and embracive of its fundamental harmonic qualities in combination with newly discovered harmonic concepts. Jazz had reached the point where it would exert unprecedented pressure on the practising musician to transcend previous notions of what constituted a good musician. The harmonic advances made in bebop set the standard for the next generation of musicians. Some of the characteristics of bebop were extensive usage of chromaticism, chord extensions, harmonic substitution, symmetrical scales and other exotic devices. Bebop was fast and furious, a depiction of the anxious and precarious nature of the black American’s position in society, but how did Bebop affect jazz in Australia at that time and if indeed it did?

The truth is Bebop did not revolutionise jazz in Australia in the same way it did overseas partly because Traditional Jazz was making resurgence and Bebop did not yield the same kind of social or economic gratification. The musical challenges were by far greater than the demands of Dixieland or New Orleans style and so were confined to the curiosities of the more adventurous musician. It is during the post-war period with the revival of Trad Jazz some regard as being the inception of an Australian style. Probably one of the most committed advocators for the acceptance of an international contribution made by Australian jazz musicians is Bruce Johnson. His endeavours to construct some kind of acceptance of this through his writings often lead to exaggerated expositions on the influence of Australian jazz in other parts of the world. For instance, the tendency to refer to the overwhelming contribution visiting Australian jazz musicians had on the English jazz scene in the 1940s and the implicit contention that English jazz was in need of assistance is preposterous.

Australian jazz had a powerful bearing on the way in which popular music in England was produced and consumed, and by whom, for some decades after the war. (Johnson)

One needs to be specific, are we talking about a distinctive re-articulation of jazz in the traditional sense, a Dixieland revival of sorts assuming a catalytic affect on the progress of jazz in other countries as a result of one single group’s reputed conquer of Europe and Great Britain between 1947-48, I refer to the tour of Europe and England by Graeme Bell, one of the leading exponents of traditional jazz in Australia, or, is the implication generic in terms of jazz, as in embracing a multiplicity of evolving styles in which Australian jazz might signify, as having some kind of authority on the development of jazz in Europe and England at the time. This presumptuousness of the importance of Australian jazz outside Australia is almost comical, and in a way lacks a certain amount of awareness and appreciation for concrete artistic developments in England and Europe prior to the Graeme Bell visit. It is frivolous to ignore the indelible impact the visiting ambassadors of jazz such as Sidney Bichet, James P. Johnson, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington had on the jazz community in the British Isles in the inter-war years.

When discussing regional qualities inherent in jazz it must be assumed that the regional quality is representative not solely as a state of social consequence, which unless stated to the listener, eludes the immediate act of discrimination, but as an immediate response of familiarity with personnel, period and locality. For example, the music of Django Reinhardt is immediately distinguishable as jazz inflected with Belgian Gipsy elements and it is those exact Gipsy inflections that are culturally bound to the performer and permeate the listener instantaneously, it is the Gipsyness that is being conveyed and is symbolic of Belgian Gipsy extraction. If we take Stravinsky as another example and the early ballets, it is perfectly plausible to assume with relative immediacy that we are listening to a composer who apart from utilising essential devices of established harmonic concepts in combination with musical polemics, is conspicuous in his usage of Russian folk melodies, a clear indication of Russian identity which is invariably perceptible. The supposition of a unique idiom in Australian jazz however, is negligible.

Jazz was our national art form, I don’t think any other country in Europe would lay claim to a sustained jazz tradition as Australia can do. (Max Harris)

One finds it difficult to concur that Australian jazz is unique in form, and there is probably a good reason for that, namely, the musical practices being used are of American derivation and the ‘Australian-ingredient’ is not strong enough to be instantly recognisable to the international listener. To augment the claim of regional uniqueness, a distinction of musical standard is established whereby amateurship is the underlying determinant of what Australian jazz personifies. It is this very personification put forth by Johnson that sheds some light on the jazz experience he labours so hard to ratify.

Musicianship was formed in a vivid relationship with a local culture, in front of audiences who were also friends and, in increasing numbers of cases, even family. Amateurism also had obvious affinities with a range of other supposed Australian characteristics, from the suspicion of virtuoso professionalism to the ‘she’ll be right’ spirit that improvises workable solutions from whatever is lying around. (Johnson)

This propounds a kind of folkloric experience of jazz and is less heretic and more modest in claim of the importance of jazz to Australians. The names of jazz musicians Johnson sites are almost unheard of in the regions he claims to be undeniably affected by their impact and there is no mention of them in the world-renowned encyclopaedias of jazz. It is emphatically not the intention of this essay to belittle or trivialise the importance of Australian jazz musicians, however it is axiomatic that the importance of Australian jazz is exclusive to Australia. Johnson goes to great lengths to validate his argument for the existence of Australian Jazz, in his exemplification of modernity and modernism being in some ways analogous to the state of jazz in Australia. He also exposes the not so revelatory construct of cultural politics having an adverse affect on the funding of certain types of music, in particular jazz.

The problem with the words Australian jazz is that they conjure up the uniqueness of an indiscernible ideal of what actually constitutes Australian jazz. Apart from the fact that it is either played in Australia or by Australian musicians I see no other distinction. One does not use the term American jazz when describing the music of Miles Davis or Duke Ellington; there is no special ‘ingredient’ that pervades my listening experience of jazz performed by Australians as being indicative of its location.


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