Horst Liepolt, the man who helped build a brand for Australian jazz

Born and raised in Berlin, Horst Liepolt immigrated to Australia in 1951. By 1957, he had started a small jazz club at the Katherina Cafe in Melbourne’s bayside entertainment precinct, St Kilda – the infamous Jazz Centre 44. It was the beginning of 30 years of his dedication to Australian jazz and he became its most significant promoter and producer. But there’s been no Bell Award, no ARIA Hall of Fame entry, no Order of Australia. Here’s just a snapshot of why there should be some form of recognition for all he achieved here.

Founder of Jazz Centre 44

Liepolt created the first modern jazz club in Australia at Jazz Centre 44, which hed named after the year he first heard a Louis Armstrong record. He was open to experimentation and gave new talent a break. There were several weekly gigs – Friday nights and Sundays, then later, Thursday nights; and poetry and jazz on Tuesdays. Regulars included the Brian Brown Quartet and the Allan Lee Quartet.

Jazz Centre 44 quickly became the place to go to hear progressive jazz and drew a diverse audience of jazz enthusiasts, artists, writers, and passers-by. It became a regular hang-out for modern jazz musicians and an emerging bebop scene. Word travelled to Adelaide and Sydney and jazz musos would come to the centre to hear what was happening. It was the hipster hangout of the late ’50s.

“During that time [the Brian Brown Quintet] were the top modern outfit in Melbourne,” Liepolt said. “[They] played a very exciting hard swinging brand of hard bop – very influential. It sure turned a lot of heads amongst the visiting out of town musicians.”

When the internationally successful Australian Jazz Quartet/Quintet returned to Australia to tour in 1958, their mate Charlie Blott organised a full professional set at Jazz Centre 44 on a Sunday afternoon – their first gig back in Australia. “They were on for about an hour and played a rip-roaring set,” Liepolt remembers.

Resident Jazz Centre 44 band-leaders included Brown, trumpeter Keith Hounslow and vibist Alan Lee (who Liepolt describes as “a natural born swinger”), with a range of jazz luminaries in their line-ups like Ted Vining, Stewie Speer, Keith Stirling and Graeme Lyall to name just a few.

Regular trad jazz bands included the Barnards and the Melbourne New Orleans Jazz Band. The Yarra Yarra New Orleans Jazz Band began playing there regularly from around 1960, featuring a very young and very popular Judy Jacques on vocals.

From L to R: Barry Buckley, Bob Sedergreen, [unknown], Horst Liepolt, [unknown], Brian Brown, Ted Vining at The Basement, Sydney, 1974. Image courtesy of the Australian Jazz Museum
Once a month Liepolt put on Sunday afternoon concerts with a line-up of modern, bebop, trad and mainstream bands. “Australia loved New Orleans jazz – Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet – so when I did those concerts at 44 once a month, the line-up always mixed up with some traditional jazz,” he explains. “I mean without trad jazz there’s nothing, there’d be nothing today, somewhere it has to start.”

Founder and editor of More Jazz magazine

To help promote the club and local jazz in general, Liepolt started a small free monthly magazine called More Jazz and distributed copies to record stores, galleries and shops around Melbourne. He was editor; his then wife Louise (who worked with Helmut Newton) was photographer; and it was printed using a hand-press belonging to his friend, sculptor Clem Meadmore. Guest writers also contributed articles and reviews.

In More Jazz issue 2 (September 1957), Len Barnard wrote about the second Sunday concert at Jazz Centre 44: “This type of club was needed in Melbourne ten years ago and it is so refreshing to see so many people going along just to dig the stuff.”

“At the time it was like a family affair,” he explains. “The scene was so small, there weren’t that many people, there weren’t that many players. Everybody liked each other, people talked to each other like a family. if you got a new record, you came over to somebody’s house and listened.”

Saxophonist and bandleader Bob Bertles first met Liepolt when visiting Melbourne on a national tour with Lee Gordon, performing with Johnny O’Keefe and the DJs. “As fortune would have it, I found my way out to Jazz Centre 44,” Bertles says. “Walking up the stairs, I saw, standing at the top, this guy with albums under his arm.” That guy was Liepolt, and they have been close friends ever since. “Horst had already revived the Melbourne scene by then,” he adds.

Liepolt moved to Sydney in late 1960, but Jazz Centre 44 continued at the Katherina until the mid 60s, with regular bands including the Yarra Yarras and The Red Onions.

Reviving the Sydney jazz scene

“Sydney was pretty quiet at that time and when Horst arrived, he soon livened up the scene here,” says Bertles. “He had the knack for creating jazz scenes.” Bertles played many gigs which Horst organised and recorded two albums on the 44 Records label.

Liepolt expanded his promotion of Australian jazz extensively in Sydney. His first Sydney venue was the Bird and Bottle in Paddington. He went on to produce jazz concerts for the Festival of Sydney and his series Music Is An Open Sky, and started the Manly Jazz Festival. He helped The Basement establish its reputation as one of the best jazz clubs in Australia, booking regular jazz acts during the ’70s. Artists he managed included Sun – Renee Geyer’s first band.

Founder of 44 Records

Liepolt produced around thirty recordings for Australian artists on his 44 Records label, including Bertles, Peter Boothman, Brian Brown, Don Burrows, Galapagos Duck and Mike Nock. In 2009, Andrew Hurley* wrote that “these records collectively established a brand for Australian jazz.”

Liepolt was also passionate about art. In Sydney, he produced soundtracks for documentaries on sculptor Clem Meadmore (who became a personal friend) and painter John Olsen. In later life Liepolt’s own abstract paintings have featured on posters and album covers.

When Liepolt moved to New York in 1981, Australian jazz lost its greatest champion on the ground. But his love for Australia, its music, and his mates hasnt faded in the slightest.

Image: A note from Graeme Bell inscribed on a copy of Jack Mitchells book Australian Jazz On Record 1925-80 (AGPS Press, Canberra, 1988), courtesy Horst Liepolt

When I met him in August 2017, he had just celebrated his 90th birthday with a solo exhibition of his paintings. His nostalgia for the thirty years he spent in Australia was clearly evident as he talked about his early days in Melbourne. His motivation to support Australian jazz was never fiscal. “I did it because I had a good time doing it,” he says. “I loved doing it, I loved Australia, and I loved my buddies.” Those buddies were many, including Bertles and Ted Vining – their friendships span 60 years.

Vining, Nick Polites and Bob Barnard also speak of Liepolt’s genuine passion and relentless dedication to Australian jazz in recent interviews included in the documentary St Kilda Jazz Stories.

Liepolt’s substantial contribution to Australian jazz over three decades has been remarkable and unquestionably deserves to be formally recognised. His trademark sign-off is “jazz forever.” He should and will be forever remembered for his enduring passion and dedication to Australian jazz.

*Hurley, Andrew W. Tell you vot baby: ze band was svingink und groovink! Horst Lipolt and the Australian jazz boom of the 1970s. Extempore 2: 2009.

3 Replies to “Horst Liepolt, the man who helped build a brand for Australian jazz

  1. Over the last 20 years or so, Australian jazz history has been a sadly neglected field in Australian cultural life. So, its great to see Kaye Blums excellent piece on Horst Liepolt, which fills in some of the hitherto unknown details of Horsts activities in Melbourne. His achievements in Sydney are much better documented. On my Australian jazz history website there are several pieces which may interest those wishing to know more about Horst. They include John Clares Jazz Centre 44: Sounding Many Chords (1995) at this link https://ericmyersjazz.com/john-clare-10. My piece Horst Liepolt: Man With a Passion (1979) and Gordon Dodds piece Horst Liepolt In New York (1984) are both at this link https://ericmyersjazz.com/essays/. Kaye Blum did not mention Horsts magazine Jazz Down Under, 24 editions of which were published between 1974 and 1978. All those editions in full are now available on the internet at this link https://ericmyersjazz.com/jazz-down-under/. Apart from its other merits Jazz Down Under included early reviews and feature articles by a new generation of jazz writers, including Sydneys John Clare and Melbournes Adrian Jackson.

  2. Thanks heaps for this Kaye. Horst sure is “one of a kind”. A tireless promoter of Jazz and all those who perform it with honesty and integrity ! I only wish we had him back in Australia. Jazz needs a guy like Horst these days ….

  3. It is with great sadness that I share the news of Horst’s passing on 9 January 2019, aged 91. Jazz Forever, my friend.

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