Bob Sedergreen: It’s about the music

Bob Sedergreen
Bob Sedergreen

Bob Sedergreen has been involved with jazz in the City of Stonnington (in Melbourne) for a while. Stonnington Jazz—now in its third year—is becoming one of Victoria’s (and Australia’s) better known jazz festivals. It is the third major jazz event in a few short weeks in Melbourne this year: The Jazz Fringe, then Melbourne Jazz and now Stonnington…

Sedergreen’s involvement goes back pre-festival to a series called Blue Mondays that he and wife Rae organised in the venue Chapel off Chapel. Activities evolved to the Jazz in the Gardens series, a series of concerts designed to showcase some of Stonnington’s public gardens. Three years ago, Coordinator of Arts, Culture and Events Peter Redden took a punt on a Jazz Festival and Stonnington Jazz is now going from strength to strength. The Stonnington Youth Jazz Initiative has become an important part of Stonnington’s jazz landscape due in no small part to Sedergreen’s efforts. Their concert with Sedergreen, Don Burrows and Allan Browne is on Thursday 22 May at 8:00pm.

Recently I visited Bob Sedergreen at his home in Melbourne to drink coffee, eat biscuits and chat about his involvement with Stonnington Jazz, and to congratulate him also on receiving the Don Banks Music Award – a prestigious Australia Council award that publicly honours “a senior artist of high distinction who has made an outstanding and sustained contribution to music in Australia”.

Bob Sedergreen: Stonnington asked me to form a show band to show off their gardens… it worked wonderfully well and I used different musicians in the band but basically 7 or 8 piece with two band singers and then special guests on top, like cherries or plums on top of a cake! [laughs] We could ask anyone we liked; Wilbur Wilde one week or Kerrie Simpson the next or Don Burrows or whoever we wanted to…

That was going along really well for some years and—this is true—we actually had over 5,000 people in the park on at least three occasions which is pretty amazing for jazz. And we didn’t play crap music, we played jazz music in a popular style.

Miriam Zolin: What would you call crap music in this context?

BS: Well, we didn’t play Alexander’s Ragtime Band or When the Saints. The programme was a bit more sophisticated. We played Stevie Wonder songs, Billie Harper tunes. We wanted to subtly educate them. We would do blues and stuff they liked as well, but stick in something a little bit left wing.

[The interview is interrupted by Rae with coffee and chocolate chip biscuits from the next door neighbour]

BS: And at the same time, the mayor, Cr Sally Davis suggested that it would be really nice to do something with some kids in the area. There are a lot of schools in Stonnington—they have just about every sort of school there. I went around to all of these schools on a recruiting drive to get some kids to join a youth music group. We did very well at Melbourne High because they had some jazz groups that were already going and we got some girls from Korowa and also from Loreto Mandeville and a boy from King David School. This became the Stonnington Youth Jazz Initiative.

We gave the kids the opportunity to perform in the Jazz in the Gardens series. They played in the final concert to give them exposure to the maximum amount of people. The guest at the time just happened to be Don Burrows. Don in the meantime had retired and he saw himself as a mentor. We did a concert with Don and the kids which worked out very well and this year we are doing it for the second time. And in the meantime, some of the kids played at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival this year.

MZ: And I understand there’s a sort of exchange thing happening now… with Wangaratta and Stonnington.

BS: Adrian Jackson (Artistic Director of Stonnington Jazz and the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz) and Peter Redden (of the City of Stonnington) work well together. Adrian suggested that the Stonnington kids could go up to Wangaratta, and play in the Reid Street Stage. The kids went up there and they loved it; their parents loved it. They loved being part of the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and we did a really good concert, it really was great for everyone. And now we’ve got some Wangaratta kids coming down to play at our concert in Stonnington. It’s working out well….

Now, Allan Browne and I went to school together. I was thinking one day, ‘Who’s Stonnington’s most famous jazz resident – Allan Browne!’ I thought it would be really nice for the kids—to have a role model like Allan. He actually takes notice and he’s into the music. The young drummer Daniel who’s with the group now, he’s getting the most incredible education just being with Allan and watching him. He’s actually performed at a gig without Allan!

So we’ve added Allan as an extra blessing and it’s going really well.

The great thing is that the kids are all denominations—they are across the board. And the biggest kick for me now is that at first, all the kids came in their school uniforms and they were all sitting there in their different tribes. What we’ve done with them is to break that down. The best part of the day isn’t rehearsal; the best part of the day is when Rae brings a whole lot of donuts and fruit and they all get stuck into that and they all have a conversation and they’re mates.. It’s hard to get them back into the rehearsal sometimes.. Friendships are forming and that’s really important.

MZ: So the whole idea is really starting to consolidate now?

BS: Well, a couple of the kids are in university and they still come to rehearsals. So we’re finding it hard to get rid of them and get new kids.

MZ: How many are there in the group?

BS: There never seem to be any more than thirteen.

MZ: Is that he number you aimed for or is that just what happened?

BS: I don’t like to control anything, but it would get a bit obtuse if there were more than fifteen or sixteen—it gets a bit disorganised… I’m not a big fan of the stage band. I’m not a big swing era person…

MZ: So thirteen is manageable?

BS: Thirteen is okay for a small group. We use a little music but we try not to. I call it dead trees and toxic ink and basically we try and work aurally with them and once they get used to that they make great progress.

MZ: Well, as improvisers, it’s going to help them…

BS: They’ve got to improvise. They all have to be able to improvise and they all are improvising.

MZ: You did the Piano for Kids at Melbourne International Jazz Festival

BS: What I did is take the Stonnington kids in there with me, and then we had an interactive concert… we had microphones in the audience and anybody in the audience could ask any question they like of any kid that they like.

Its more about the kids than me… After all it’s Piano for Kids…

MZ: Well you could interpret Piano for Kids in many different ways…

BS: Yes I told them that…. I don’t ever think of my self as a solo player… I always think of my self as an ensemble player. I’m not really a great soloist, although I’ve written one piece for solo piano but I just don’t get off on it. I just don’t enjoy playing on my own – it’s lonely up there… it’s not about me anyway…

MZ: What is it about?

BS: Oh, it’s about music really. The music is more important than the person. I had a little girl tell me that once. I think she must have heard me say it when I taught at PLC for all those years. One of my students was a girl called Monique Dimattina who as you know is a very fine pianist, but she was one of my students then.

She used to say, ‘Mr Sedergreen, the music’s more important than the person isn’t it it’ and I used to say ‘Yes, Monique, it is.’ And you know I do believe it. She’s got that one down.

MZ: I did want to ask you about the Don Banks Award, congratulations by the way.

BS: Thank you

MZ: What does that mean to someone like you, who has worked as you have for the music and the community?

BS: I don’t know if you know about Art Attack at all or if you missed it…

MZ: I missed it…

BS: In the eighties I had a band that had the whole Australian history banged up in a group. It crossed all genders and denominations – it crossed it all. And we had this original music; we had the most unusual repertoire ever. We went to Malaysia and blew them away, from the Prime Minister down. It was like the Australia Council had always been nagging us for… If you go into my garage you’ll see a big poster there saying ‘Support Australian Jazz’. We were supposed to play Australian jazz… that is what everybody was hoping to do. Being with Brian Brown all those years, where we played Australian music and were composing, this idea came and it was the highlight of my life. It just happened, it was like a miracle the way it just all unfolded, and came together. We had a didgeridoo, bagpipes, bouzouki…

The Australia Council didn’t say boo about it and neither did anybody… Jim McLeod who was a big ABC character and became a friend of mine later thought ‘Oh, well Bob’s being novel, he’s got bagpipes in the band…’ But the bagpipes represented Celtic instruments you see, we had the whole history of Australia wrapped up.

Anyway, I knew it was really good, because they just loved it in Malaysia. And some of my mates had a grudging respect for it so I knew it was something! But I was pretty disappointed that the Australia Council didn’t say anything. Not that I wanted anything from them but this was what they were asking us to do; it’s what they were saying we should do, and I’d done it, and I felt pretty put off… All these years later, to have the Don Banks award, which is an Australia Council award, has sort of vindicated everything and now I feel really relaxed

MZ: So is there a message in that for people who are doing something and not getting the acknowledgement they think it deserves?

BS: Yeah, the message is that the music comes before the person. And what we’re doing wrong now is that we’re marketing jazz in a corporate way so that we are marketing brands… we’re marketing people. But the real thing is the music. If the music can happen and if you can add something to the music, a dimension, any dimension, then sooner or later, you’re going to get recognised because you’ve added something to it. Everybody that I admire has added something to the music –

MZ: And it doesn’t always get acknowledged when you’re doing it, does it.

BS: [laughs] And as Don Burrows said to me once, in Australia it takes ten years longer!

And the other thing is… look at Ted Vining. There is a perfect example of someone who should have every possible award in the world, he’s so passionate about his sort of music… and when he plays he puts the music first.

You don’t do it for kudos, you do it because you love the music. You don’t really care if the people don’t applaud you as long as the music applauds you. If the applause comes, that’s a lovely bonus. But the best bonus is that if you know you’ve played well and the music that you play is happening. That’s why I play in Blow.

It’s an ensemble, which means that everyone in the band is trying to work with everyone else, in a team effort… it’s about the music, it’s not about us…

Photo: courtesy of Stonnington Jazz

Stonnington Jazz is happening in Melbourne from 15-24 May 2008. The full program is available here.

Blow plays at The Horn cafe in Collingwood (Melbourne) on Thursday nights.
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Miriam Zolin is a writer who enjoys listening to jazz. She lives in Melbourne and visits Sydney from time to time.