Sydney’s 42nd Street – Glebe’s live music renaissance

He is only half-joking.

Steve Brien - photo by Carrol Brien
Steve Brien – photo by Carrol Brien

It is 10pm, and I am talking with Sydney jazz guitarist Steve Brien. We sit in a small, cosy, scarlet-lit bar in Glebe. Steve, partly tongue in cheek, has compared Glebe Point Road to the bustling, fervent jazz strips of 1930s and 1940s New York.

‘Three bands on the same street?’ he says excitedly of the string of gigs stirring along the road as we speak. ‘It’s like 42nd Street or something. It’s fantastic.’

The comparison, no matter the slightly humoured turn of his voice, is apt. Glebe Point Road has become a prime example of a brilliant and recent flourishing: the re-emergence of a previously dry and wilting Sydney live music scene.

I have caught Steve, a lecturer at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and integral member of the Sydney jazz scene, at the end of his Thursday night gig with bassist Steve Arié at Mr Falcon’s – a weekly residency.

‘It’s probably better now than it’s been for twenty years,’ says Steve.

A range of music has been bursting into the bars and cafés along Glebe Point Road. Small, swanky venues like The Little Guy and Sam I Am offer blues-rock. Teru Café and Pizza, Well Connected Café, and Sapphos Books run amongst themselves a busy gig sheet of jazz.

Meanwhile, Toku Toku restaurant plays the plastic styling of live Japanese pop. Even the Turkish restaurant Mengen Sofrasi has a resident Trad-Jazz band.

Mike Nock Colbourne Ave - photo - Andrew Lorian
Mike Nock Colbourne Ave – photo – Andrew Lorian

Off Glebe Point Road, the music continues at the Colbourne Avenue gig. Every Thursday is candlelit jazz. The audience brings their own dinner and wine, and lounges in couches placed in a circle around the musicians. The likes of Judy Bailey, Steve Brien, Matt McMahon and Mike Nock have all played in the acoustically sweet hall.

Importantly, several of these gigs, including Steve’s Mr Falcon’s engagement, are recent arrivals. Many are less than a year old; some are only a few months young; most are a regular affair.

Glebe, like the Sydney scene in general, is recovering from the parched days of a restrictive licensing framework. Both Steve and Australian jazz legend, Judy Bailey, declare that such changes – through the hard work of groups like Raise the Bar, and individuals like John Wardle and Richard Ruhle – were the catalyst for the rebirth.

Two licenses in particular were the cause of the problem: the former liquor license, and the Place of Public Entertainment (PoPE) license. The previous liquor licensing arrangement levied a cost of $60, 000 for the right to serve alcohol. The fees now, after the change in laws around five years ago, are $500.

Meanwhile, the PoPE laws acted as many policies do: strangely. Any venue interested in hosting live music was required to seek approval from local council. Then they were often obliged to take part in costly renovations. Such was not the case for non-live distractions. The scheme’s oddity was that without approval a sound system blaring CDs was still legal; an unplugged singer not so. In 2009 this license was scrapped, and venues no longer face this barrier.

Though the legal shift is a few years old, Steve says the ball is only now starting to roll. Judy has noticed a change in the last year. ‘Of course, as you know,’ she says emphatically, ‘these things take time to have any real noticeable impact.’

Steve reckons the changes are bringing the scene back to what it was when he was in his twenties around the late 1970s and the early to mid-1980s. When, as he puts it, ‘there were all the little small bars around Sydney where jazz was flourishing.’

In the old system, Mr Falcon’s would likely not exist, or so is the opinion of its proprietor, Nik Hoar.

Inside Mr Falcon's
Inside Mr Falcon’s

‘From an owner’s point of view, it was prohibitively expensive for something like this. You basically have to have pokies because you need to generate the money somehow. You can’t have a small venue, you can’t have an intimate feeling venue… And I don’t like beer-barns,’ he explains.

Steve is quick to note the benefits of small venue gigging. It is not so much the money but rather the musical dividends of a residency. Prosaic as it is: to get good, a musician needs to gig.

‘One of the things that a jazz musician needs is a place to play. A sort of place they play every week, where what fan-base you have can get used to coming down to see you,’ Steve points out.

‘It creates a place where you can work out your ideas, play tunes, and just a home where you know you’re going to be playing. Something to practice for.

‘I look forward to the gig each week. I look forward to all gigs. But when you have a residency like this one where you’re playing what we like to play it’s quite a treat for a jazz musician.’

Live music in Glebe still faces an age-old difficulty: noise.

Nik, who moved to Sydney around two and a half years ago after more than a decade in Melbourne’s hospitality scene, explains. ‘I really limit the use of drums and electric guitar. I have issues with noise in the area. I have a neighbour who is not 100% keen on having that sort of stuff,’

None of Mr Falcon’s several regular acts, which also include the Gypsy Jazz troupe Gadjo Guitars, are aggressively amplified. Rock and funk would be great, he explains, but are just not possible. He does, however, appreciate the vibe of a semi-acoustic sound.

While Mr Falcon’s continues its live music, other venues have been less fortunate. The manager of a bar in Glebe told me they had to cease live music (a jazz-funk affair) at the end of 2011 because of noise complaints. The residential zoning in the area, he explains, makes it especially hard.

Regardless of the noise complaints, live performance is clearly booming. However, no one is suggesting that the re-emergence of small gigs in Glebe, to say nothing of the rest of Sydney, is a panacea for the music scene’s many concerns. Simply put, small venues pay small change.

‘I’m a small bar. I can’t afford to pay them the money that they’re probably worth, but they’re all willing to play here for a lot less so they have a venue to play that is supportive,’ Nik says.

He sees the venue more as a stepping-stone, admitting it cannot become like The Basement on account of its size. Its largest room holds around 40 people.

‘The hope is that ten years down the track we have a celebration and one of the bands that I had start off here ditch their tour through Europe to come-back and play a small side-line gig for twenty people instead of playing for two thousand,’ he says.

Judy-Bailey - Colbourne Ave photo Andrew Lorian
Judy-Bailey – Colbourne Ave – photo Andrew Lorian

Steve comments on how the figures stack up for musicians: ‘You’d have to do twenty of these a week to make your rent I think,’ Thinking a moment, he adjusts the figure: ‘Thirty of these a week, which is unreasonable. It has to be mixed with commercial type work.’

These concerns also play a part in Judy Bailey’s assessment. There is currently, as she sees it, an under-supply of work and an over-supply of quality musicians.

‘From a personal point of view I worry about the actual numbers of really good musicians graduating from the Con [Sydney Conservatorium of Music]. Because I worry about whether all of them are going to find enough work to sustain them and, eventually, them and their families.’

Corporate work and studio gigs are more lucrative. Yet the former suffers from the capricious dives of the global economy; the latter – such as movie work – has simply been dwindling.

‘If one part of an industry dies down that affects other industries, for example the film industry here has not been very active for quite some time,’ she says. ‘That straight away affects a section of the music industry, because you need musicians to provide soundtracks for films.’

Further, the current live music renaissance does not yet – in the eyes of some of its practitioners – rival the heydays of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

These were the days, as Judy and Steve note, when most RSLs would hire big-bands to perform several nights a week. The occasional tennis club or business club might do something similar.

‘You could earn a living by just being in a resident band that played Friday, Saturday, and Sunday,’ Judy says. ‘That would be enough to sustain a family.’

Then there were the resident orchestras employed by the TV stations and ABC radio. It was the sort of salaried gig which is unthinkable now.

Nor is the current iteration of Glebe Point Road the only moment in Sydney’s history where gigs have been stacked in such close proximity. Reiby Place, where The Basement is located, was once a thriving live music lane.

‘There was a time in the late 70s when Reiby Place had The Basement,’ Steve recalls, ‘then straight across the road there was a place called the Pinball Wiz – just a coffee and pancake joint – then just down there for a brief period another coffee house opened up and that had jazz on. So there were three places in the one little lane, all with jazz.’

It is still, however, a heady period for Glebe Point Road. One with cultural repercussions through, as Steve puts it, the creation of a sub-culture of music: grass roots and local. Part of the Inner West; not constrained to entertainment centres or the Opera House.

‘Pictures in your mind of the jazz era are imagining 42nd or 52nd street in the heyday and being able to walk, and hear that music coming out of those clubs. Or going to the Cotton Club. It’s not just entertainment, you’ve got a culture that’s palpable,’ he says excitedly, ‘that’s growing out of the side-walk’.

‘It would be nice to get that happening more in Sydney. It’s starting to happen here. Live music does that: it sets a scene; it creates a mood; it entertains people. It gets people in touch with an art that’s happening now.’


Steve Brien:
Judy Bailey:
Mr Falcon’s:

The Basement: