Last Saturday we went to the Helpmann Academy jazz student awards night. I’ve been to quite a few over the years. Actually, I helped establish the awards more than 20 years ago, when I was the first Director of the Academy. How it has grown. The prizes now total more than $15,000, compared to my first cup-rattling efforts, which raised less than $2,000. And the event has developed from when students, their families and friends and a few jazz buffs came to a hall for a performance, into a social event that the glitterati can’t afford to miss. A four-course meal and wines at the Hilton, entertained by a superb 8-piece graduate student ensemble lead by an outstanding musical couple from New York, the Hot Sardines. A couple of hundred people paying $150 a head—for Adelaide, this is hitting the big time.
The skill of the graduating students lit me up as always. I love watching live music in many forms, and especially jazz. The star 21 and 22 year-olds can bring me to tears with their sincerity and sheer joy of playing well. I was particularly struck by the young woman on the bass, who was nailing it with flair and passion, claiming the rightful place of an instrument that so often gets lost in a band. These musicians are on the cusp of professional standards in their chosen instrument (or voice), but we all know that very few of them will break through to earning a good living from jazz. For that you need really out-of-the-ordinary skills, ridiculous amounts of luck and a single-minded drive to put music before all else. So my joy at their performances is tempered with the sadness of knowing that because we can’t find a way in our societies to value our best artists equally with our lawyers, scientists and business entrepreneurs, nearly all of these talented youngsters will never be professional musicians. But thank heavens they keep coming and keep striving; they will have some great adventures along the way, and our lives are enriched.
Jazz has been in my life from my first memories, because of my Dad. He was a good pianist, mainly in jazz forms but also trying his hand at the classics. A family legend was that Mum and Dad had to sell his Bechstein grand piano when she was expecting me, because they needed the space in their small house in Scotland. As a teenager he had dreamed of playing in a jazz big band, and he managed to get one gig when the piano player in a Glasgow outfit got sick. To his horror, he realised almost instantly they began rehearsing that he was nowhere near good enough to fit in smoothly, and he didn’t even ask if he could play with them again.
The connections he had made had one great result however. In August 1938 Fats Waller came to Glasgow, for one night only. Dad got the job of being Fat’s minder for a whole day of rehearsals. Most of the songs we were listening to on records 20 years later, he heard live that day: ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love’, ‘Honeysuckle Rose’(Dad’s favourite), “The Joint Is Jumping’, ‘Your Feets Too Big’ and my favourite, ‘Two Sleepy People’. He had to stand near the piano while Fats played, and keep his gin glass topped up. A whole bottle of Gordons was consumed, but Dad didn’t find out till much later what the frequent trips to the toilet were about. Fats snorted many lines, was full of gin, and yet kept on playing and singing, in my Dad’s words, ‘like an angel’. Again, Dad’s self-esteem as a pianist took a big hit. For the rest of his life he wrestled with the deceptive intricacies of ‘Honeysuckle Rose’, but drunk or sober, he just knew he never came close to the casual artistry of Fats Waller. I thought Dad sounded great, but there was no way into his damaged psyche on this topic.
This didn’t stop our house being filled with music in my youth. When I was just a toddler, I can remember Django Reinhardt music playing. Mum and Dad had been to Paris several times after the war, mainly to go to the best jazz clubs. The biggest thing in town in 1950 was Django and Stephane Grappelli in ‘Quintette du Hot Club de France’ and they saw them as often as they could.
On my first day in Australia, July 31st 1954 (coincidentally the same day my partner Charmaine was born), our family stayed at the Savoy Plaza Hotel in Melbourne. As we came into the lobby, a group of people came by, surrounding a black woman who was laughing loudly. Dad grabbed me by the sleeve, and said quietly ‘Look at her and don’t forget this moment—you’re looking at the greatest jazz singer in the world.’ It was Ella Fitzgerald.
We always had the latest ‘Radiogram’, after about 1955 complete with a ‘Stereophonic six-disc record player’ for our ‘Hi-Fidelity Long Playing Records’—and my older brother’s 78’s and 45’s blasting out rock and roll from Elvis Presley, Eddie Cochran, Chuck Berry and other immortals. Mum and Dad always bought jazz and classical, so my musical memories are filled with Sibelius, Bartok, Chopin and Schubert, along with Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck and, of course, Ella Fitzgerald. I remember running home from school—at least three kilometres—because Dad had told us he would bring the latest Dave Brubeck album home that day. The whole family sat down to listen that evening, hearing ‘Take Five’ for the first time. My first record purchase was The Platters’ ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’, costing me several weeks’ pocket money. I got Dad’s approval because it had been a big hit since his teenage years, covered by many famous artists. After spending seven shillings and sixpence to buy it, I played it endlessly, until the family said enough.
With a household like that, it is a great sadness to me that none of us three boys learnt an instrument. It takes close oversight by parents to get children through the mind-numbing repetition involved, and they just weren’t interested. Dad’s parents had wanted him to play the violin, and never got enthusiastic about his preference for the piano, so he had done it on his own. Maybe that was why he didn’t make an effort with us, maybe it was being too busy, or maybe it was yet another casualty of his alcoholism. Whatever the reason, all my life I have loved watching a good pianist, but it is always tinged with regret that I never gave it a good try.
I only ever had one job in the arts world, establishing and running the Helpmann Academy for a few years. When I took it on, I was advised to show no preferences, or even above-average acquaintance with any art form. Trying to bring together teachers from all the visual and performing arts meant meetings of people who had little regard for each other and suspected the worst intentions in any co-locations or joint subjects. So I had to turn off my office radio, and show equal amounts of admiration for jewellery, jazz and dancing; for classical music, acting and ceramics; for textiles and photography. This turned out to be no hardship, because I found joy in all of them. However, with music so central to my happiness, I was delighted to find that my office was adjacent to the rehearsal spaces for the jazz students. When they were final-year students, it was like being in a night-club all day long.
In 1994, my Dad was in a nursing home, dementia having long finished off whatever comfort he had enjoyed from playing a piano. One day that year I sat still in the Helpmann Academy office for an hour or more, as a gifted student—I never saw who—worked to get ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ right on the piano. I was trying to write a report, but I had to give up and just drown in the beauty of the piece and the memories it carried. That young musician would never have known how much his playing meant to the middle-aged man in the room next door.