Speak Up For Australian Jazz

Updated: Oct 20, 2020

By Adam Simmons

Photo: Michelle Dunn

This is a mixture of invitation, plea and manifesto to encourage each and every reader to participate in shaping the future for Australia’s jazz community.

Right now, the conditions we face are challenging – largely no viable gigs (especially for Victorians), restricted travel, lack of visibility, lack of connection and lack of voice. But from a different perspective, if we recognise these conditions for the opportunities they present, we might just “weather the storm” and come out much stronger as we emerge.

An opportunity upon us, is the upcoming Parliamentary Inquiry into Australia’s creative and cultural industries and institutions – with a deadline of Oct 22nd. An inquiry gives us access to the government to tell our stories, share our experiences and present our facts and figures. With this inquiry’s terms of reference, there is the chance to explain our integral part of the music sector, as well as society more broadly and to imagine what might be.

I am preparing a submission based on previous research as well as recent consultation. I will give an outline of that here, but I hope that you will each consider your own submission also.

A quick clarification about the word “jazz”. I will use it here in a broad, encompassing sense to cover traditional, swing, mainstream, bebop, cool, fusion, avant-garde, free, smooth, neo-classic, contemporary, experimental, noise, acid, pop, whatever else – I’m not concerned about the style. For me, jazz is a process, or as Ronny Ferella has put it, “It’s not what jazz is, it’s what jazz does.”

Jazz In My Time

I’ve just hit 50 years of age a few weeks ago. I started playing recorder when I was seven, clarinet at eight and saxophone at age 12. I’ve been playing in bands for almost 40 years, professionally for over 30. I studied improvisation at the Victorian College of the Arts, and I can now look back and recognise how the skills I learnt there have informed the wide range of activities I’ve engaged in including: performance, composition, education, sculpture, theatre, curation, mentorship, advocacy and more.

Things have changed over that time.

Visibility of jazz has been lost – in the 80’s and 90’s I remember seeing artists like Sandy Evans Trio, Paul Grabowsky, Don Burrows, The Swingin’ Sidewalks, Brian Brown and Judy Jacques on TV – all presenting their music. Around the mid 90’s my quartet featured on Bert Newton’s morning show on Channel 10, playing original music. This all seemed possible and attainable because I saw friends and colleagues there also. But it feels the only times I see them now is in backing bands for Carols by Candlelight, acts at the AFL Grand Final and shows like Dancing with the Stars. I don’t see our Australian jazz artists telling our stories on TV anymore and national radio is not much better – a whole generation or two have been neglected.

Linked to this is the lack of sustainability within the scene due to decline in real value of gig fees and the impact of the internet and streaming on record/CD sales. The general rate for a gig is often around $100 – that’s if you’re not doing a door deal which for a jazz gig carries the very real risk of getting much less. But I was doing gigs in the mid 90’s for $100. My first wedding gig around 1986 paid $150. And my father tells me the story of knocking back a regular weekly nightclub gig for $100 because he didn’t feel he was good enough – that was in 1969! And it’s not much different at festivals: one prominent Australian festival where I have performed for over 20 years, the rate I have received has stayed steady around $280-300.

Same for the prices of CDs/albums, which have been pretty much the same since for 30 years, but the return has suffered from a reduction in sales numbers as music is consumed in different ways now and revenue from royalties has diminished due to digital disruption. There has been a corresponding loss of record label support as retail outlets and support have disappeared.

There have been positive changes also.

I see the standard of general musicianship of students increasing as each generation passes on the benefits of their learnings, with teachers often coming from a trained jazz background.

Origami with Flora Carbo. Photo: Adam Simmons

Gender diversity may not be perfect, but it has come a long way in terms of numbers, consideration and awareness over the decades. There are no excuses for curators to not be presenting balanced line-ups, especially as audiences are increasingly demanding this.

Access to information, education and recordings has changed unbelievably due to digital and technological advances. The ease and speed of communication has helped jazz develop as an international form with strong national differences in each country. It has also made it easier to connect internationally for touring, promoting/releasing music and facilitating international collaborations.

Where Are Things At?

The Australian arts sector, including jazz, has been decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic and largely ignored by the Federal Government in its response. This has just compounded the structural issues that have been slowly eroded and neglected over many years, particularly since the change of government back in 2013, which led to the abandonment of a national cultural policy that had been bilaterally approved.

Australia’s jazz sector has not been immune or unaffected by this neglect. If the Global Financial Crisis was not bad enough in the loss of major sponsors for various national jazz festivals, that have not returned, the funding fiascos perpetrated by George Brandis’ Catalyst program have had lasting effects. Not least of which, was the loss of federal funding for Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues for several years, noted as Australia’s premier jazz and blues festival.

Spiderbait and the Wangaratta Horns of Death. Photo: Paul Martin

As mentioned above, a bunch of other conditions exist for Australian jazz – minimal mainstream media presence, education funding cuts, stagnant (or decreasing) artist fees, erosion of revenue sources from recordings due to emergence of streaming, lack of organisational infrastructure, gradual shift in funding focus of narrowing contemporary music to exclude jazz.

But on the positive side, we have a wealth of young and talented musicians across a range of jazz styles, we have and are contributing internationally, our audiences are passionate and loyal, we have skills that are utilised within many other sectors and more broadly, there is strong international activity in jazz that is interested in engaging with Australia. Jazz can be a dirty word when used to dismiss what we do as old hat, impenetrable, elitist or low-brow, but if you’re David Bowie, Paul Kelly, Kendrick Lamar, Outkast or Beyonce, jazz might be informing the music and worn as a badge of approval.

Things are not perfect, but jazz is not dead - and in my humble opinion, far from it!

Is Anyone Doing Anything?

Actually, there’s a bunch of things happening now – or rather that have been slowly developing over the past couple of years or more. Different industry gatherings, organisations and individuals have been researching and considering ways to improve support for Australian jazz. The examples I know about include the National Jazz Alliance, Sounds Australia, Australian Music Centre, Stonnington Jazz Industry Summit, Port Fairy Jazz Festival’s Jazz Workshop, Eric Myers (Discussion Forum/National Jazz Think Tank), Richard Letts (The Music Trust/Music in Australia), Johannes Luebbers and Tim Nikolsky (Australian Jazz Real Book). There are many good people who care deeply for this community.

Concerto for Piano & Toy Band. Photo: Sarah Walker

I took on a pro bono role to look at developing a state/nation-wide jazz industry as outlined in the Victorian Jazz Industry’s Strategic Action Plan. This 2019 report was based on the consultation done by Port Fairy Jazz Festival. The similar notion of a peak body for jazz was raised at the Stonnington Jazz Industry Summit. Given the same conversation was being had by very different groups within the broad spectrum of jazz, it made sense to combine efforts. Slowly, my work got a kickstart through preparing and consulting for a submission to Victoria’s Creative State 2020+ last years. COVID disrupted most of my plans, but there have been other ways to further the cause, including the Australian Jazz Forum held recently.

And that brings me to the upcoming Parliamentary Inquiry into Australia’s creative and cultural industries and institutions.

On 26 August 2020 Minister for Communications, Hon Paul Fletcher MP asked the Standing Committee on Communications And The Arts to inquire into and report on Australia’s creative and cultural industries and institutions. The terms of reference are broadly looking to gain an overview of the state of the arts sector and elicit potential opportunities for its development.

Aside from considering the impact of COVID-19 (which I have already written about in terms of jazz) and identifying avenues for innovation, the inquiry is looking for guidance about how to recognise, measure and grow the economic and non-economic benefits, including community, social wellbeing and national identity. While I may be sceptical of the motivations of the current Federal Government, this is an opportunity to convey the value of the arts beyond the more common economic lens that has helped spawn “creative industries”.

There is no national arts and cultural policy in Australia. The first one was Creative Nation, delivered by Paul Keating in 1994. The second one, Creative Australia, was launched by Simon Crean in 2013, but was abandoned after the election that year by Tony Abbott’s new government. So, despite the final report to the 2015 Senate Inquiry on the Impact of the 2014 and 2015 Commonwealth Budget decisions on the Arts recommending the development of a national arts policy in consultation with the arts sector (page 77) and creativity being recognised as being crucial to international prosperity in the 21st century, why is it we still have nothing in place in terms of real support for arts and culture in Australia?

Giving Jazz A Voice

Jazz sits squarely in this picture – both in terms of the scaffolding it provides across contemporary music as well as having a part to play in contributing to Australia’s national identity. Jazz is entwined with the fortunes of other sectors including hospitality, tourism, education, health and more.

But it has been almost 20 years since Australia had a formal national voice for the jazz sector. Who is going to tell the story now?

Who is going to tell about how jazz develops skills for creating music spontaneously together with complete strangers? Who is going to talk about the regional towns whose communities benefit from the tourism dollars brought in by jazz festivals? Who is going to talk about the influence our jazz musicians are exerting internationally in cities like New York, Berlin, Tokyo, Singapore and more? Who is going to talk about the fact that our music is just as deserving and just as relevant as any other style within contemporary music?

Us. That’s who.

It's Time To Get Involved

Here is where I make the case for you, the reader, to become part of making change.

Let’s assume for a moment that the Government takes notice of the final report from this inquiry. It will be based only on the information they seek or are given. And they will be looking to see where they can have the most impact, get the biggest bang for buck and basically win votes. There will be many people making a lot of noise for themselves. If you and your community are not represented, then you can’t count on anyone else to do it for you – as someone quoted today, “you have to be in it to change it”.

Power of numbers – the more voices speaking for jazz, especially in all its diverse forms, the better. And one of the strengths of jazz is the fact we cross over so many generations and communities. As a musician I have played with both my teachers and my students, sometimes even all together, but all as equals in service to the music. If we can engage with Government in the same way as we play music, our unified voice will carry much greater weight.

That’s being positive. But what if my inner cynic is correct instead? If all our hard work and passion was to fall on deaf ears, wouldn’t it all be pointless?

No – then it’s even more vital to do - and this is more why I’m making this plea now. It will be the passion, the ideas, the discussions, the dreaming, all of this and more that we really need to express while we can. Working together to create a shared understanding of what we each need and imagining what we might be and articulating that clearly – just think what we might achieve if we could do that?

Whatever we do now is actually the beginning of a much bigger plan.

But What's The Plan?

At the time of writing, I am still pulling that all together, but here’s what has been going on and the rough plan before next week’s October 22nd deadline for submissions.

About three weeks ago, the Australian Jazz Forum was held. Over 70 people were in attendance, sharing ideas, thoughts, information and solutions about how we might improve the jazz sector. All of that is available on the Mural platform: a digital whiteboard, as a shared community resource for information and contributions.

This is helping inform a submission to the Inquiry that I am preparing for community comment and feedback – that should be almost available by the time this article is published.

Then what is required of you is any combination of:

Whatever you do, it needs to be your story, your voice. This may be as an individual, collective or an organisation. I hope the work and resources I’m preparing will be of use, but whether you use it or even agree with my approach to things – the main thing is that you make the most of the opportunity to have your voice heard as part of a democratic process that you might just be able to have an influence upon for you and your community.

Read my draft outline here

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 First Nations people who have read this article.