St Kilda’s music heritage is often associated with the punk and rock scenes of the ’70s and ’80s. But its significance as a live music destination stretches back much further. Before rock ‘n’ roll, St Kilda was the place to go to dance and hear the popular music of the day – jazz.
From the ’20s to the ’60s, venues ranged from grand ballrooms and dance halls to cabarets, coffee lounges and clubs. Some of the buildings were stunning examples of architecture, reflecting periods of Melbourne’s social and cultural wealth. They hosted major international artists of the era, as well as providing a hub to showcase local musicians and foster the emergence of new jazz styles.
Some of the Australian musicians who played in these venues made significant contributions to music nationally and internationally. The Bell band and the Australian Jazz Quartet/Quintet were the most widely-known.
Melbourne-born brothers Graeme Bell (piano) and Roger Bell (vocals, trumpet) began playing jazz in the ’30s. One of their earliest residencies was at Leonard’s Cafe Cabaret at the St Kilda Sea Baths in 1941. Leonard’s had a function room which the Bells hired themselves to put on regular Sunday gigs. The band, ‘Graeme Bell’s Jazz Gang’, included Donald ‘Pixie’ Roberts (sax), Russ Murphy (drums), and Stan Chisholm (double bass).
As their own promoters, there was no pressure to play the more commercial dance music of the nearby dance palais with their orchestras and large purpose-built dance floors.
“What we were about was entirely different in that we were after a collective sound, collective improvisation in the classic jazz mould”, wrote Graeme Bell in his autobiography (1988). The Sunday nights proved popular and they soon added regular Wednesday nights, which they called the Chicago Club.
The Bells’ subsequent success is too long to give justice in this article. In brief, in 1947 they were the first Australian jazz band to tour overseas (with Charlie Blott, Ade Monsbourgh, Ian Pearce, Don Roberts, Lou Silbereisen and Jack Varney). In 1948 they opened a club in London, the Leicester Square Jazz Club, and introduced a style of jazz for dancing which was popular with young Londoners.
Back in Australia, the jazz scene had been brewing in St Kilda’s coffee lounges for several years. Ye Kynge’s Galleone Coffee Lounge (also known as ‘the Galleon’) in Acland Street and the Katherina (which later became Jazz Centre 44) on the Esplanade are the most renowned. But there was another significant venue – the Plaza Coffee Lounge – that hosted some important musicians.
One such musician was Jack Brokensha. A drummer and vibraphone player, Brokensha moved to Melbourne from Adelaide in 1946 with pianist Ron Lucas and bassist John Foster to start a residency at the Plaza. Errol Buddle (bassoon and sax) soon joined them. With Edwin Duff and Marion Morley on vocals, they played the Plaza as The Rockettes.
They changed their name to the Jack Brokensha Quartet with Ron Loughead replacing Lucas on piano in 1948 and were immensely popular. They played club gigs and concerts and toured the east coast. Duff toured with them and, according to Bruce Johnson (The Oxford Companion to Australian Jazz, 1987), eventually became the first performer to establish a national reputation simply and explicitly as a jazz singer.
In the early ’50s, Bryce Rhode and Brokensha joined Errol Buddle overseas and formed the Australian Jazz Quartet with American reeds and bass player Dick Healey completing the initial line-up. They had enormous success in the USA – their first concert shared the bill with Carmen McRae and Dave Brubeck.
They played top venues like Birdland, the Blue Note, Storyville and Carnegie Hall; recorded world-wide releases; appeared on several national TV shows; backed Billie Holiday; and shared billings with the likes of Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Gerry Mulligan, Thelonious Monk and Count Basie.
They returned to Australia in 1958 for an ABC tour then went separate ways. Brokensha returned to the US and joined The Funk Brothers, the house band at Motown’s recording studio in Detroit. He opened his own club, wrote and recorded, and returned temporarily to Australia for several tours, including reunion concerts with the Australian Jazz Quartet in 1986 and 1993.
Mollie Byron also performed at the Plaza. A jazz and blues vocalist and bandleader of an all-women jazz band, she had a voice with low and deep tones. Earlier in her career her shows had included impersonating male singers and she dressed in a man’s suit which she’d had specially made by a tailor.
She also sang with Jim Davidson’s and Ern Pettifer’s orchestras, toured nationally, and made several radio broadcasts some with Graeme Bell. She was most passionate about playing the trumpet.
There were several female vocalists and musicians who started in the dance palais and coffee lounge scenes of St Kilda in the 1930s and ’40s who had successful careers in broadcast, toured nationally, worked professionally overseas, and on television. But that’s another story, worthy of its own book.
These are just brief snapshots of the stories collated during several years of research into the rich history of jazz in St Kilda. Some of this research has been condensed into a digital format for the St Kilda Jazz Heritage Tour website, which was created with support from the Victorian Government and CreativeVictoria, Auspicious Arts Projects, and launched at the City of Port Phillips Live N Local festival in August 2017. Distilling around 100,000 words, choosing from hundreds of images, and cutting over fifteen hours of video and audio interviews to suit a mobile-friendly website was quite a challenge.
An e-book is in development which will provide greater scope for elaboration. Meanwhile, it is hoped that the website will help inform a wider audience of St Kilda’s significant music heritage.
The St Kilda Jazz Heritage Tour (stkildajazztour.com.au) was conceived and created by writer/filmmaker Kaye Blum with support from the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria. A short documentary, St Kilda & All That Jazz, will be made with assistance from the City of Port Phillips Cultural Development Fund and is due for release in early 2018.