The museum saving Australia’s disappearing jazz records

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In an old truck-servicing garage at the end of a gravel drive sits one of Melbourne’s overlooked landmarks. The Australian Jazz Museum is the only place in the world where you can hear the many hours of classic Aussie jazz that never made it to Spotify.

Though it’s only 30 minutes’ drive from the CBD, this unique monument to Australia’s jazz culture sometimes admits only a dozen visitors in a week. Even Melbourne’s most distinguished jazz artists seem only half-aware it exists. Why?

“Melbourne’s quite a jazz town,” says collections manager Mel Blachford. “It’s pretty obvious that, if you did it right, this could be quite a tourist attraction.”

The Victorian Jazz Archive incorporated in 1996, moving into a disused Wantirna garage on a $1-per-week community service lease. With donations from universities and philanthropic groups, and a $25,000 cheque from Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, the archive was able to buy three mouse- and fire-proof shipping containers and start taking donations of records, photos, instruments and other items.

“Everybody said it wasn’t going to last,” says Blachford. “They thought the people running the archive would drop dead or just lose interest. At any rate, the fact of the matter is that it did survive.”

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At the time, the plan was for each state to have its own jazz archive, associated with the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra. However, not every archive was as successful as Victoria’s. When the New South Wales Jazz Archive folded, the heads of the Victorian archive drove in and loaded up its jumbled and deteriorating collection to bring back to Wantirna for cataloguing. As more music came in from Tasmania and Western Australia, it became clear that the Victorian Jazz Archive’s name was no longer adequate. In 2014, after accreditation by Museums Australia, the archive was officially rechristened the Australian Jazz Museum.

“We’re still coming to grips with the difference,” says Blachford. “We’re still in the process of making that quantum leap from being an archive, which is, in effect, just a storage facility, into being a museum.”

Blachford has worked for the museum since 2006, sifting through thousands of donated artefacts and deciding what to store and what to sell off. Like most other staff, Blachford is a retiree volunteer with no background in museum work. He’s adapted the skills he picked up as a pharmacist to keep collections running with precision.

“You’ve got to use your brains and your life experience,” says Blachford. “The principles of running a pharmacy are, in some ways, similar to this. In pharmacy, if you put the wrong name on a prescription, you’re going to kill somebody, so you learn early on that youve got to do things in a systematic way.”

Each year, the museum receives hundreds of hours of music left behind by the switch to online – recordings by giants of Australian jazz not to be found on iTunes or YouTube, locked away in gradually decaying vinyl and plastic.

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Keith Lukey, one-time jazz columnist for the Radio Times, plans to donate his personal jazz collection to the museum. Lukey’s love of jazz first blossomed in the 1930s, when a neighbour, on his way to fight in the Spanish Civil War, left Lukey in possession of his gramophone and a stack of eight records. Since then, Lukey’s love of jazz has grown with his collection, which now includes over 500 albums and a selection of hard-to-find Glenn Miller recordings

“The family would like the collection to be kept in safe hands and by those who just simply love Jazz,” wrote Lukey in an email.

Not every donated album arrives as an easy-to-work-with CD or record, however. Technicians have to wrangle LaserDiscs, Betamax tapes, heat-warped cassettes and acetate discs that flake away like plaster.

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Recording technician Ken Simpson-Bull has become an expert in obsolete and delicate technology, extracting rare music from crumbling media and uploading it to the cloud. In some cases, he’s been able to make fractured acetate discs play again by gluing fragments of lacquer back onto the aluminium core.

“I started at the ABC in 1955 in radio, doing editing and recording and that sort of thing,” says Simpson-Bull. “So, it’s full circle: I’m now back doing what I was doing 60 years ago.”

The museum still has a dauntingly big stack of recordings to digitise – a CD can be downloaded in just a minute or two, but records and tapes have to be recorded in real time. This means that a single 52-minute record takes at least 52 minutes to digitise.

One of Simpson-Bull’s biggest technical achievements is Almost Ampersand, a two-volume album of Dixieland from early Australian jazz label Ampersand. Simpson-Bull painstakingly patched together flawed takes ripped from 70-year-old acetate discs, splicing them into a smooth, continuous set of never-before-released tunes. Almost Ampersand and other rare out-of-copyright music is sold at the museum’s gift shop.

“We’re preserving social history, and it is part of our history,” says Simpson-Bull.

But the museum isn’t just a system for preserving and organising music; it’s also a social hub for older musos who lived through the early days of Australian jazz. Volunteers like the genteel 91-year-old Peter Skafte played Dixieland and swing in skeevy Melbourne dance halls during the days when jazz was disreputable. “Retirement age at the museum is 105,” jokes Blachford.

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At 65, Adrian Daff is still a freshman. In 2014, Daff lost his job at a company that produced street directories – a casualty of Google Maps. Since then, he’s undertaken the task of cleaning up the museum’s 6,600-item catalogue of 78 records from outside Australia.

“It’s become an important part of my life,” says Daff. “I live alone and, unless I come here to get some social interaction, I could go five days a week not speaking to anybody.”

From his previous job, Daff has brought a strong sense of purpose and an impatience with disorganisation, correcting mislabeled items and bringing together albums recorded by the same band under different names. It’s a task he approaches with snarky relish.

“When I was younger, guys would retire around 60 or 65, and within a year or two theyd be dead!” exclaims Daff. You’ve got to keep your mind active. I’m learning stuff here every day – it’s terrific… It’s detective work, and I love detective work. It gives you a sense of achievement.”

The museum receives no fixed funding, and gets most of its money from grants and from fees from its 600 members. This has been enough to keep digitising music and organising artefacts, like photos, posters and instruments. But what the museum really needs is government funding to hire one paid staff member with proper training in museum management, says Blachford.

Claire Liersch would be the ideal candidate for the job. With a masters in cultural heritage, Liersch is an expert in making sure that artefacts dont get misplaced, moldy, or chewed by rodents – and that they don’t bore or befuddle visitors. Liersch has been volunteering part-time since January and though she might prefer Mozart to Miles Davis, she has strong ideas about how the museum could reach a bigger audience.

“Getting the younger generation involved in this institution is a key challenge,” says Liersch. “This is a fantastic opportunity for a student to build their resume and to gain practical skills.”

Liersch believes that recruiting other museum management graduates to volunteer may provide a low-cost avenue to more vibrant and attention-getting exhibitions.

Storytelling lies at the heart of an effective exhibition, Liersch says. The Australian Jazz Museum has plenty of items with big stories behind them, like a brass cornet played by legendary improviser Benny Featherstone, or a rare plastic saxophone taken on tour by ‘Lazy’ Ade Monsbourgh. But, without a properly designed exhibit to tell visitors their histories, these items would be merely two old instruments.

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With Liersch’s help, the museum is refining its cataloguing system and drawing up plans for a new series of exhibitions that will, hopefully, catch the eye of Melbourne jazz-lovers. A branch in the Melbourne CBD, better positioned to attract interest and revenue could even be possible, suggests Blachford.

“There’s still so much to achieve, and so much potential,” says Liersch. Being part of that development is really exciting, rather than working in a large organisation that’s been established for 150 years, where all the processes are in place and you’re just a little tiny cog in that big machine. This is something where you can have a real impact.”

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