05 December 2009

Jazz narratives of nationhood

It was a different jazz experience when I heard Bruce Johnson present his lecture on jazz in Australia and its relationship to film over the first half of the 20th Century. The talk was one of a three lecture series by Bruce. The Canberra talk was entitled Jazz & Australia: Bridging the gap on screen. My summary of Bruce’s presentation is this.

Australia was a masculine place in its early days, with its ethos determined by the bush and male strength and perseverance. Jazz was more feminine, a product of an urban environment, a component in the decline of Western civilisation. Think drunken jazz parties and jazz as an ecstatic dance form in silent films. This association with dance as primarily a feminine art was threatening to the honest labour of the bush. As films added sound and industrialisation was promoted in Australia between the world wars, jazz came to be legitimised within the narratives of a more urban nationhood. Interestingly, this parallelled the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, representing a link between the industrialised south shore and the more rural north shore. Well before the time of Dingo, Ralf de Heer’s 1991 outback film featuring Miles Davis, jazz had taken on a musical seriousness in the popular consciousness, become the music of modernity and found a synergy with the bush. Bruce showed snippets of early films featuring jazz bands (The cheaters, Showgirl’s lunch, Squatter’s daughter) to display the early view of jazz as wanton and depraved and to confirm the modernising thesis. These snippets are always amusing to our eyes, and they got a few chuckles. As did the song called “Can’t sleep in the movies anymore” referring to the new-fangled talking movies. And the poster for a lost film, Can a girl propose, which was obviously indicative of early feminism and a changing society.

We heard plenty of interesting bits of trivia. The first jazz concert in Australia was a theatre burlesque affair, sometime around 1918. The first jazz festival held anywhere was staged in Australia, and it was so successful that it ran for an extra week. Jazz parties were a form of indulgent, bohemian affairs at the time. As an ex-librarian, I was particularly interested to hear that the State Library of South Australia has a unique collection of 80 shelf metres of sheet music to accompany silent films, from the archives of the now demolished State Theatre in Sydney. It is perhaps the only collection of its type in the world, and is particularly valuable as each piece of music has a date and place of performance, so it could be linked to a film being presented in a town on a certain date. Another fascinating snippet was about a ban against black/foreign (?) musicians performing in Australia that stood until Louis Armstrong visited in the 1950s. (See John Sharpe's corrections below). The ban followed a promiscuous visit early in the century that was busted by the police. Apparently the Musicians’ Union combined with the forces of propriety and intolerance to oust that band and establish the regulations to prevent further visits. All interesting, and a very different form of jazz outing from the other gigs that get reported here.


Thanks to John Sharpe for his email with the corrections copied below. John is the author of our local history of jazz and obviously a far better historian than me. John’s book is A cool capital : the Canberra jazz scene, 1925-2005 / John Sharpe. http://shop.nla.gov.au/product_info.php?products_id=3708 Eric

There was a discussion about race relations in jazz in Australia. Mention was made about the sex, drugs and jazz scandal at the time of the first African-American jazz band to visit Australia in 1928 - Sonny Clay’s Plantation Band (this is covered in my book ‘A Cool Capital, pages 19-22). It’s interesting that Ivy Anderson, later to sing with the Duke Ellington Orchestra was in that band (dancing in photo). Someone said (not Bruce) that visits to Australia by black jazz musicians were then banned until Louis Armstrong came out in the 1950s. Not so. Rex Stewart, ex Duke Ellington trumpet player came to Australia and toured with Graeme Bell in 1949 (see photo).

This was opposed by the Australian Musicians Union which eventually reluctantly agreed that Rex could play near but not with the band. He had to appear as a soloist and at all times had to stand at least 60 centimetres in front of any accompanying orchestra (see photo). This visit is covered in Graeme’s autobiography pages 126-34.

While in Australia Rex also recorded with some of our then leading modernists, including Frank Smith, Don Andrews, Bruce Clarke and Don Banks (Australian Jazz on Record 1925-80 – Jack Mitchell, page 197).

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