This project first began in 2015 not long after I had returned to live in my home town, St Kilda. In between living overseas and interstate, I’ve had 14 addresses in and around St Kilda since 1984 and have always been fascinated by its diverse architecture and cultural heritage.
When I started exploring the history of the grand 19th century Esplanade Hotel with its sweeping views of Port Phillip Bay, I found it had a long, diverse history of live music dating back to 1920, when a new style of music called ‘jazz’ was attracting huge crowds. St Kilda once had a big reputation as a live music destination, but the stories mostly revolved around the punk scene of the ’70s and ’80s. I realised there was a much bigger story that deserved to be told.
As co-founder of the St Kilda Summer Jazz Festival (2016), then author of the St Kilda Jazz Heritage project (2017), I continued my research into this famous bayside suburb’s many historic music venues. They ranged from grand ballrooms and dance halls to coffee lounges, pubs and bars. Some buildings were stunning examples of architecture, reflecting periods of St Kilda’s social and cultural wealth. Some hosted major international artists of the era (including Louis Armstrong). Others showcased local musicians and provided a hub to foster the development of new jazz styles.
I discovered that many of Australia’s most successful jazz musicians began their careers in the dance halls and coffee lounges of St Kilda and surrounds, including Roger and Graeme Bell, Warwick ‘Wocka’ Dyer and Frank Johnson, Len and Bob Barnard, Nick Polites and the Melbourne New Orleans Jazz Band, several members of the Australian Jazz Quartet, Allan Lee, Ted Vining, Judy Jacques and the Yarra Yarra Jazz Band, The Red Onions (with Allan Browne), and many more.
These musicians made significant contributions to the jazz scene nationally and even internationally. But the women of jazz – their voices, their stories- are barely heard in early Australian jazz history books and documentaries. My film attempts to redress this.
The unsung story of St Kilda’s jazz legacy could easily justify a feature length documentary, but my tiny budget was already stretched for a 10 minute short. I recorded over 24 hours of audio and video interviews with 25 people. My first script draft was over 90 minutes duration. Nine drafts later, I had to eliminate several speakers and venues to get it down to 40 minutes. Cutting it any shorter would have cut out too many voices. My brilliant editor helped keep the pace and duration tight.
Some of the interviewees were in their 80s and even 90s, so the memories they have impressively recalled are all the more precious. I feel immensely privileged to have met and conversed with them. Of course, our seniors love to chat and reminisce, so transcribing the interviews was a lengthy process! One interviewee had just had a triple by-pass only weeks before the interview but he was determined to take part. Editing and mixing the audio was a big job for my small team.
I had a small budget for a camera operator and a film location organised in 2017, but getting musicians together in the same place on the same day is a bit like herding cats. Some of the musicians I’d wanted to interview live interstate, and I was disappointed I couldn’t get them to Melbourne. But the stars aligned early in 2018. I’d wanted to add the story of community radio station 3PBS to the film as they’d been based in St Kilda for 20 years and contributed enormously to the live jazz scene. I planned to film the interviews at the Prince of Wales Hotel where the radio station was first broadcasting, but it was too noisy. I was struggling to find a suitable location, so PBS kindly offered me a two-hour window to record the interviews in one of their current broadcast studios. I filmed Ted Vining, Vince Jones and the PBS team there using my iPhone with a small stereo mic. The studio was sound-proof, but had terrible fluorescent lighting and bulky equipment on the desk which I couldn’t move, so my shots look pretty awful. But the stories are gold.
I also wanted to interview Horst Liepolt, the founder of Jazz Centre 44. Born in Germany, he migrated to Australia in 1951. His love of jazz led him to start his own club in Melbourne – Jazz Centre 44, which became a significant hub for the development of modern jazz in Australia. He then moved to Sydney where he produced albums on his 44 label, managed Australian jazz bands, organised jazz concerts and festivals, and booked acts for The Basement. In the ’80s he moved to New York where he organised and booked acts for the Greenwich Village Jazz Festival, Sweet Basil and Lush Life jazz clubs. His 30 years of dedication to the Australian jazz scene was remarkable but had not been formally acknowledged at the time of making this film, so I dedicated it to him. Meeting him was an inspiration and we spoke regularly on the phone until he passed in January 2019, aged 91. He ended every phone call and email with “Jazz forever!” RIP Horst, forever remembered.
My primary day job has been as a writer in various guises. I’ve always loved visual arts, design and photography, and the challenge of telling stories without words. When I lived in London for seven years, I was involved with a Super 8 group and the London Filmmakers Co-op (which later became the Lux Centre). I loved anything avant-garde and art house and studied the Language of Experimental Cinema at Birkbeck University. I was influenced by film essayists like Chris Marker and Agnes Varda; and the multimedia works of Peter Greenaway.
My intention for this short essay film was to create a pacey montage of archive footage, photographs, memorabilia and interviews with musicians and key personalities to reveal the unsung story of St Kilda’s significant contribution to Australia’s jazz history. My initial treatment idea was to have all the content black and white to give it an overall archival feel, with cutaways of key building exteriors filmed on my old super 8 camera. I shot the super 8 cutaways but ditched the all black and white idea.
I did not want to use narration – I wanted the interviewees to drive the story, vox-pop style to keep it punchy. Silent movie style inter-titles filled some expositional gaps and introduced the venues in their respective eras. The inter-titles, captions, credits and main title use font types from the 1920s-1950s.
The tiny budget eliminated a few other stylistic elements, such as filming some of the interviewees in relevant venues. Overall, it was very much a DIY/guerrilla filmmaking production condensing three years of research. But I hope I’ve created a lively, humorous and culturally significant short film that will entertain music lovers everywhere.
St Kilda Jazz Stories is screened at the St Kild Jazz Festival on Saturday 29 June, followed by a Q&A session with filmmaker Kaye Blum and a special performance by the Margie Lou Dyer Quartet.