All that jazz

(This is a re-working of an earlier piece with the this name, to include more about my work with the Helpmann Academy)

Recently 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.

Establishing and running the Helpmann Academy for a few years was my one and only job in the arts world. When I took it on, I was advised to show no preferences, or any 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. I had to turn off my office radio, usually playing classical music, and show equal amounts of admiration for jewellery, jazz and dancing; for classical music, acting and ceramics; for painting, textiles and photography. This turned out to be no hardship, because I found joy in all of them.

The concept of the Helpmann Academy had started with a grand plan to spend large amounts of money on a new central location, named in honour of one of South Australia’s most famous exports, the dancer and actor Robert Helpmann. The Academy would bring together the visual and performing arts schools of the three universities in Adelaide, and the Vocational Education (called TAFE in South Australia) institutes. In 1989, before a recession and the State Bank disaster that created a $3 billion hole in the public budget, all this had seemed feasible. With real money promised, all the players were seriously interested. We were going to take on the VCA in Melbourne, and WAAPA in Perth, and show them that the Festival City was the future of elite arts education.

Early in 1994, with a new Liberal (meaning conservative in Australia) Government, the Academy, which had been in the bottom of the ‘pending’ basket for a year or more, got a new lease of life because the Premier had heard that the Helpmann family’s sole survivor, Robert Helpmann’s sister Sheila, might be interested in a large bequest to honour Robert. But the Universities and TAFE were not enthusiastic without guaranteed money on the table.

I was ‘in the waiting room’, the phrase used for Executives who were persona non grata with the Liberals just then, who had been removed from their posts (Director of Schools in my case) and told to sit in their office until something was found, to be offered on a take it or leave the public service basis. I’d just been to see my old boss in the Health Department, because he wanted me to revolutionise a large institution for disabled people. I was keen but I suggested he had better check with the Premier’s office before we went ahead. The answer, which I could see shocked my colleague, was ‘No significant jobs for Meldrum, we’ve got a little project that’s going nowhere that he can have a go at.’ All this was payback for a run-in I’d had with the then Leader of the Opposition over the closing of a mental hospital. I’d been warned, and now it had happened.

I was told to report to the Director General of TAFE for further instructions. He passed me on to his deputy, who told me my only job offer was to have a go at breathing life into the Helpmann Academy. With a young family to support, I didn’t hesitate. Surprisingly, it sounded just like my sort of thing; an office, one assistant, two computers, no money and an ambitious vision nobody seemed to think would become real. An odd characteristic of my ‘imposter syndrome’ is that I always preferred jobs where I couldn’t make things any worse. What others sometimes saw as career-suicide bravery was really me playing it safe.

Once I’d been confirmed as taking on the project, with the lowly title of Coordinator because the Universities had made it clear nobody would be telling them what to do, I was asked to meet the Premier. This was a little tense, given our history, but he got straight into explaining that my key job was to ‘get the Helpmann millions for South Australia’. I hadn’t realised that Robert Helpmann had come from a seriously rich family in Mount Gambier, where they ran 250,000 sheep at one time. The Premier was guessing they were worth more than $100 million, and wrapped up by saying ‘That money came from South Australia, and it belongs back here.’

I had nothing to lose, so I just went for it. I got appointments with the three Vice-Chancellors and the Director General of TAFE in the next couple of weeks. I found them cautiously interested, but all wary of each other. It was astonishing for me to hear these people bagging each other to someone they’d just met. I started trying to imagine how I could ease their minds, and/or leverage off that competitive energy to give the project some drive. The best idea came from one of the VCs. ‘You need a Board David, with a chairperson who has nothing to do with any of us, but is impeccably connected and powerful. That way, none of us can try to get the upper hand.’ Judith Roberts popped into my head immediately.

Judith had recently achieved what was thought impossible, the closure of the Queen Victoria Maternity Hospital, to be amalgamated into an enlarged Women and Childrens Hospital. She was a doyenne of old Adelaide society, known and to some extent feared as a maker and breaker of reputations. I knew she liked me, and she accepted the gig with alacrity. We met as a board not long after, with her in the Chair, the three VCs and the DG of TAFE, together with the head of a big legal firm, ——————

On the plus side, everybody liked the idea of me chasing the Helpmann money, and in return they gave me the OK to talk with their academics about collaborative projects across institutions between complementary courses. The DG of TAFE also announced a grant of $150,000 from the government to be used to give students extra opportunities. But when the head of the legal firm asked if the four teaching organisations were seriously interested in benchmarking their standards against top schools interstate and overseas, so we could work towards a claim for excellence, he got a flat no. A stony-faced, we won’t be going there, flat out no. Collaboration yes, but transparent competitive standards, no way. The original concept of a world-beating centre of arts education died right there.

The collaborative projects came thick and fast. I learnt a light touch, giving new opportunities rather than pushing for change, such as the combined music schools’ performance of the Berlioz ‘Requiem’ at the Adelaide Entertainment Centre, which attracted 4,500 people. The Governor was there, heads of government departments; most of the A-list of Adelaide society came. Judith and I went to see her old family friend, the CEO of the Commonwealth Bank, who gave us $40,000 on the spot to make it happen. She had real door-opening muscle. The government minister now responsible for Helpmann had a Chief of Staff who was a Berlioz nut, and he was totally loyal to me after that night.

The two schools of acting, long contemptuous of each other, came to me to propose a merger. This gob-smacked everybody, me included. I couldn’t understand the process of these warring tribes getting to this point; too many harsh words had been traded for several years. It lasted a few weeks, not even making it to the first joint performance. They divorced on the grounds of irreconcilable differences and exist separately to this day. Several other projects were moving along slowly, with reasonable cooperation between like courses, but serious talk about mergers faded for a few years. Except for music, there have been none since.

I concentrated on the Helpmann money. I visited Sheila Helpmann in her amazing Elizabeth Bay apartment, one of the best bits of real estate on Sydney harbour. We hit it off immediately. I loved her endless stories of Hollywood and London, and the gossip about the rich and famous. At 78, she had seen all the golden years of Hollywood, and she knew them all. One day Katherine Hepburn called her on the phone, and I had to wait for nearly half an hour. She liked what I had to say about the potential of the Helpmann Academy, and decided to come to Adelaide to talk to the Premier and her old friend the Governor, Dame Roma Mitchell. Old friends. Old family friends. So this is how it worked.

It was a huge success. The Premier was almost embarrassingly polite and deferential to Sheila, and she and Dame Roma spent many happy hours together. They went to the ballet one night, as the honoured guests of course. After another trip by me to Sydney, to talk more about the future, she called me. ‘David, I have decided to endow the Helpmann Academy. I had been planning to place the bulk of the money with NIDA, the Sydney Conservatorium and the Australian Ballet, but I am re-thinking all that. Robert would have wanted me to do this. When can you come over again—I’d like to take you out to a celebratory dinner.’

It was also her birthday that week. I sent a huge bunch of flowers which she rang to thank me for. Then, that same day, she had a massive stroke. She never regained consciousness, and died two days later. Her ‘constant companion’, also called Robert, called just before she died, and said he had never seen her happier than in the days before it happened. She’d loved the times she had spent with me. He added that he thought the excitement may have been too much for her, which made me feel a bit queasy. At the funeral, several people came over to congratulate me quietly, telling me they were so happy she lived long enough to endow the Helpmann Academy. But I was starting to find out that they were wrong. In Australia at that time, the fact that she had a very clear will, and had not changed it, or even given her lawyers notice that she intended to, meant we had no prospect of a bequest.

The Premier was furious. I was amazed I had come that close to such a huge coup, and looking for some sign of shared sadness at the loss of a lovely lady, but he was having none of it. The Crown Solicitor was called in, to give the same advice I had. After a few days of getting other legal opinions, it was over. Those Sydney institutions, already the richest in the country, got the lot. And the Helpmann Academy’s time on the short list of projects that might have cast a rosy glow on the new government were over.

After that, my fund-raising efforts were continual, but always at the usual Adelaide arts philanthropy level of a couple of thousand here, lots of smaller amounts there, and very occasional gifts of as much as $10,000. We once raised more than $20,000 at a glittering dinner/performance in the Hilton, and several Helpmann initiatives we dreamed up then remain as good as anything else in Australia, and better than most. So many young people got new opportunities from Helpmann; grants, mentorships, prizes, access to famous visiting artists, and even residencies overseas. It wasn’t the grand affair envisaged in the late 1980’s, and it wasn’t rattling competitor institutions anywhere else in the art education world, but it was pretty good. And one of my perennial favourites has been the jazz awards I was describing above.

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.

With music so central to my happiness, one of my chief delights about being in the Helpmann Academy was that my office was adjacent to the rehearsal spaces for the jazz students. Listening to some of the first-years was a bit tedious, but when they were final-year and Masters 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 office for an hour or more, as a gifted student—I never saw who—worked hard to get ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ right on the piano in the room next door. I was trying to write a report, but I had to give up and just drown in the beauty of the piece and the images of my father. That young musician would never have known of the middle-aged man in the room next door, sitting very still, misty-eyed and lost in memories.

With the 25th anniversary of the Academy pending, I’ve been reflecting on those days, filled with hope, adventures among the rich and famous, some despairing moments, but many more of pure pleasure. For a variety of reasons, I moved on to another job in 1997. It was partly due to some major own-goals in my personal life, and partly a sense that this wasn’t my true vocation. Of course, I had loved helping a prodigiously talented young pianist get to the Prague Competition, a violinist win a scholarship to Julliard in New York, or a group of visual arts students to work with their counterparts in Yogyakarta. I read last week that since that time, more than 5000 students have won those grants, awards, residencies, exchanges and other extra chances to shorten the long odds against success in the art of their choice. It’s not a bad record, even if it’s not the game-changer I was hoping for.

But it was time to move on. Young offenders, abused children, marginalised homeless people, men and women struggling with mental illness; these and others have always been my natural element. A real job for me was helping the punters battling stigma, rejection and ham-fisted efforts to deliver health and welfare services when and where they needed them. In the next few years I was privileged to get several great opportunities doing just that.

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