Michael Tortoni: Rockstar to Venue Owner

Updated: Oct 20

By Jake Amy and Hugh Heller

Photo: Taste Music

Melbourne’s jazz culture survives and thrives in the city’s atmospheric jazz clubs, where the creative genius of the top musicians in the country is on display every night for locals and visitors alike. Once a year, these clubs are flooded with artists from all over the globe who gather here for the vibrant Melbourne International Jazz Festival (MIJF), a cornucopia of music and culture. Michael Tortoni has been a significant figure in making the Melbourne scene what it is today. The bassist and former rock musician founded the legendary Bennetts Lane Jazz Club, incarnated its descendant venue ‘The Jazzlab’, serves as Artistic Director of the MIJF and helps thousands of musicians find a platform for their art.

Photo: Greg Noakes

You were a teen rockstar! Can you talk about that?

To cut a long story short, at the age of 15, I played in a band called Taste with Virgil Donati, Ken Murdoch and Joey Amenta. Bill Joseph Promotions had us working as a school band and had Chris Nolan (an A&R guy from Warner Brothers) come and see us one night where we were playing. As soon as he saw us, we quickly got signed to Warner Brother Records. Within months we had hits. Top 10 hits one after the other. It all happened very quickly and as those stories tend to go, success came too early.

Our manager Chris Nolan was very friendly with the guy who ran the record label for Queen. The first time that Queen came to Australia, they were booed off stage. Chris was there and stood beside them. A few years later, Queen heard our third album ‘Signs of Love’, loved it and we did a deal. We were set to tour the United States with them. By then, Queen were big stars. Virtually on the plane’s doorstep, Joey and Virgil’s fathers got involved and gatecrashed one of the band parties. They found all sorts of things going on. Girls. Drugs... We were having a great time, but they definitely didn't like their children being involved. They got us all by the ear and said, “That’s it. It’s over. It's finished”. So that was it. They basically killed the band and we’re still crying about it. For me, it’s very funny in some ways and quite choking in other ways. I went on to do a whole lot of other things which I’ve enjoyed and am very happy with. Virgil too. Ken and Joey continue to do music full time, but I think they’ve struggled from those days to recapture that sort of success that we had. As we learnt later in life, it's not that easy to have record labels falling over themselves trying to sign you up. Certainly not these days. 

What was it like being signed with Warner?

Well, we were kids, in our teens. We were younger than a lot of bands who we toured with, such as Cold Chisel, AC/DC, Skyhooks. Being signed to Warner, I felt like I lost control and I was just part of a juggernaut. We were on the road or in the studio continuously. It was quite a hard existence in many ways because we were always under pressure to deliver. If that sort of success happened again now, it’d be different because I’m an adult and I know what’s going on - I’d negotiate a much better arrangement. In those days and as a teenager (not having any real developed skills), we kind of let them dictate everything. We saw very little money. 

What were some of the pros of having a record label?

When you’re charting they fund everything. They put you everywhere. You’re not scratching your head about where you’re going to play next. You have a whole list of gigs and there are always offers coming in. We were able to meet Queen and were offered to tour with them. Opportunities like that are much harder without a record label with some clout. Everyone is independent today and it’s so hard when it’s such a crowded market. Our manager negotiated the best thing for our band, but at the end of a day, we were just a product and Warner was trying to maximise their return. 

How did you move on?

After the whole thing was blown up on us, I didn’t really want to join another rock band. It was quite devastating in terms of what happened. Even though we considered ourselves as serious musicians, I still couldn’t read music and I didn’t know anything about music other than what I could hear (I listen back to the first two albums and I still scratch my head), so I went back to school to try and unravel what the hell I’d been doing. I did Year 12, then auditioned for the VCA classical stream on double bass.

What was your experience like directly after you completed your course at VCA? Did you know what would become?

While I was studying at the VCA, I realised what an incredible pool of talent Melbourne had. Although I completed the classical stream, I used to sit in with the jazz stream and I came to love jazz music (I thought I actually chose to study the wrong stream). While studying, I was doing a lot of gigs around town and on the way home, I’d always wish that there was somewhere really cool to go back to, have a drink and listen to some great musicians jam. There was really nothing around that was staged properly and that had the right sort of atmosphere fit for the music. I dreamt for many years of starting a jazz club. It was always a fantasy. Not coming from money I didn’t know how on earth I could ever do it, but I always felt like I would. Once I’d finished at college, I had made up my mind.

What were the pressures that you encountered when starting up Bennetts?

There was always financial pressure. In the early 1990s, things had gone very quiet. In 1987, the property and stock markets had crashed, and that’s how I got my hands on the Bennetts Lane property… because nobody wanted it! I scraped every penny I had and I finally managed to open my own jazz club in the city in 1992, but no one was around. In the end, I was the only person who stayed open. All the little places seemed to just have died. Whilst there wasn’t much happening (and that was a problem), it kind of left that space to me for about 10 years.  Everyone asks me what my business plan was for Bennetts Lane. I opened the doors to see what happened! I was prepared to take all the risks that I had to take all the risks that I had to and I knew that I was young enough to recover if I lost everything. It was all an experiment for me as I’d never owned a bar. I didn’t know if I could charge for jazz music. I asked my staff at the time, “It’s not really working out to be paying the musicians over the bar. Do you reckon we could charge a few dollars over the door?”. 

How did Bennetts Lane Jazz Club become synonymous with Australian jazz?

I had actually graduated from VCA in 1985. My connections to the college were still very strong because I continued playing with the musicians I met there. For me, Bennetts Lane was really a continuation of the VCA. It was there for the musicians, where the music was right - an ideal place for musicians to play and experiment. I guess the “serious” musicians understood what Bennetts was and what I was trying to achieve. The success fed on itself. Bennett’s was genuinely where musicians wanted to play and I was genuine about my endeavours. It was a great marriage and it all happened very quickly. Bennetts became this institution where visiting international musicians would come back and play. That built such a strong reputation. I became a flagship venue for the MIJF when I opened a second room in 2000.

Your venues have attracted some incredible performers from all over the world. How did you start developing those relationships with artists? 

I always thought of Bennetts Lane as a late-night jam place. My contemporaries (people like Paul Grabowsky, Christine Sullivan) fell in love with it. It didn’t take long for [other] musicians to catch on. A lot of touring artists [who visited Melbourne] came and played. Betty Carter’s band, Christian McBride from Sting’s band, Maceo Parker in Prince’s band, Janet Jackson’s band, Kenny Kirkland, Harry Connick [Jnr]. Once those musicians started hanging out at Bennetts Lane it fed on itself. Some nights I’d sit on the stairs at Bennetts, look down at the stage and think, “I could be anywhere in the world with these great musicians. New York, Paris, London. This is absolutely what I dreamt of and what I’d envisaged in my deepest dreams, and there it is, happening in front of me”. Leroy Jones had his birthday at Bennetts Lane and Harry Connick was there playing piano. Harry took a solo on my double bass (which freaked me out), and I thought, “How the fuck did you do that?”. [Playing the] double bass takes strength and technique… you haven’t got the notes sitting in front of you… I still play that bass.  At the end of the first year I’d been open, I remember standing next to Wynton Marsalis and him saying, “this is a great place you’ve got here”. I said, “you must play in these places all the time”, and he replied, “No. There aren’t too many jazz clubs like this around the world. You’re on the right track”. Those words from Wynton really stuck in my mind for my whole career. 

Photo: Kevin Peterson

What's so special about the Melbourne music scene?

You hear everyone talking about Melbourne being culturally rich. I think the key is that you have quite a depth of talent that live here, a bit like New York, London and Paris. In New York, you’ve got 40 jazz clubs and you can hear some great world-renowned musicians. World-renowned musicians playing small clubs for very little money because that’s where they live. Melbourne, to some extent, is a bit like that. Bennetts Lane was open seven nights a week, and we always had great musicians playing. It might have only been to 10 or 15 people on a Monday night, but the point was that those 15 people would walk out and say how incredible it was. I definitely wasn’t scratching around to get somebody on stage. Melbourne has a really special depth of talent that will play seven nights a week.

Now being artistic director of MIJF, what challenges do/have you faced when creating a diverse and inclusive program?

I’ve always worked on an inclusive, expansive and edgy program that pushes boundaries all the time. I see jazz as something that absorbs so many influences and then keeps re-informing. Politics, fashion, all sorts of things. [Jazz] is part of the culture, it’s part of life. In terms of diversity, I’ve always tried to include all sorts of musicians [in my program]. Whoever deserves the gig gets it, regardless of race, gender. If they are there and at the ability that we need to maintain the standard, then they’ll get the gig. The thing with music is that having a qualification [is irrelevant]. Your peers will know where you’re at in the first four bars that you play. That’s the overriding measure, at the end of the day (which can be quite harsh in itself). I understand that people can develop and become something else given time and I’m very open minded and willing to give everybody another go. In recent years, the issues of women in jazz and gender diversity have been pretty big. Instinctively, I have been addressing these important issues my entire career, both through the jazz clubs and the MIJF.

Over the last decade, [MIJF] has built a really strong international reputation. Herbie Hancock was here last year. He’s still the biggest name in jazz (even at 80 years old). It seems that now everybody will pick up my [MIJF] call. In the last 5 to 6 years, I’ve really strengthened our relationship with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO) - that’s the synergistic meeting of my two careers (the classical world and the jazz [world]). MSO are so happy with the collaboration and the cross-pollination of the audience that we are now doing yearly concerts. It's been a huge success and very satisfying on many levels. 

As a jazz club owner, what’s the most amazing musical experience that you’ve had?

There are two. The first? I hate to be obvious. Prince. Both times he played at Bennetts were just unbelievable musical experiences that went on for hours. He is just such an incredible musician - he can play anything that he wants. Both of his appearances were simply exciting and amazing.  A little story: Prince came to the club the night before his first show, and he said, “Look, there will just be a few people coming tomorrow… some friends, family. Nothing big”. I don't know how the news got out, but by the morning, there was a queue right down to Little Lonsdale Street and the police had to come. The funniest thing was that my brother was in the lane and trying to get in. I was on the door and he was shouting, “I’m Michael’s brother, let me through”. Suddenly everybody started saying, “I’m Michael’s brother”, in an attempt to get in! It was a nightmare. 

There were so many great nights that I can’t even recall them all. A personal memory: one night I was playing, the room was full and everybody was clapping. I looked across the room and thought, “I’ve got an absolutely full room in the city. Everybody’s happy and applauding. I’m the owner. I’m the bass player. What more could a human being want? This is utopia”. When I realised Bennetts was working, I was content and I didn’t want anything more. And I think that’s the thing… knowing about how to keep yourself in the saddle. People keep wanting more and more and more and more, but I don’t want more and more and more and more. I just want my jazz club… and that’s why I’m so pissed off that it’s closed at the moment!

How have you dealt with the COVID closures?

I’m desperately trying to work out when we can open the Jazzlab so that I can start programming again, but most of my attention has been turned to programming the 2021 MIJF. I’m very deep into it now. We’re moving to October 2021 and it’s going to be a strong program so I’ve focussed on keeping the energy levels up. We’re going to be doing some online streaming with the festival starting on the 30th of May. Technological innovation has been pushed ahead so fast now due to the current situation.

What are your thoughts on live streaming music events?

To be honest, I’m not a great fan of live streaming. For my whole career I’ve been interested in live performance. That’s where the magic happens. It’s that synergy between the audience and the musicians. It’s when the audience is genuinely applauding and you can feel them being genuine about it. When you lock in, there’s a whole different energy. I’ve experienced that with jazz and I’ve experienced that in the rock band. It’s what I play for and that’s what drives me to play and book gigs. For me, streaming is a whole different experience. My Prince experience - you could only be there to really feel it and remember it forever. Ultimately, I believe the world is a far better place with live music.

What's next?

A new Taste album is going to be released soon. Down the track I have this idea that I might open a second room next door to the Jazzlab and make that a real jazz hub. Also growing the MIJF in terms of presentation, exploration and collaboration globally. 

Keep up to date with Michael on Jazzlab's website

We would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognise their continuing connection in our community. We would like to pay respect to the Elders both past and present of the Kulin Nation and extend that respect to other Indigenous Australians who have read this article.

Please consider donating to one of these causes as part of Black Lives Matter.

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