Jazz in Adelaide: Reminiscing about the Cellar and the Creole Room

[In September 2003 I was asked to prepare notes to accompany a set to be played at the 2003 Glenelg Jazz Festival in December. The original notes follow.]

In the late 1950s, Maurie Rothenberg translated his vision for a regular jazz club in Adelaide into reality. He persuaded the management of Gays Arcade, Twin Street, to lease him a fair-sized cellar beneath the South side of the Arcade; and then, by enlisting help from a number of very enthusiastic young people interested in playing or listening to jazz, he excavated a smaller area that could be transformed into a kitchen-servery.

We immediately moved an initially serviceable, hired, upright piano from the cellar beneath Bill Ross’ parents’ home to the new club; but, because we managed to drop it from about halfway down the stairs to the bottom, it was then deemed no longer serviceable by its owner. “Written off” – and therefore now rent-free – the piano was actually in reasonable shape. It held its tune reliably; and it never left the Cellar until the club finally closed its doors in the early ’70s.

Early “Cellar” activities involved pianists Graham Schrader, Neville Dunn and me, the bassists Ron Carson and Dick Korff, John Hall (guitar), John Bayliss (vibraphone), Bill Greenecklee (alto), trumpeters Roger Swanson, Charlie Foster, Geoff Whitman (the Corporal) and trombonist Kevin Davis (the Constable), with all groups built around the drummer Billy Ross. However, the Cellar’s golden years were undoubtedly the early 1960s, by which time I was playing on a full-time basis in Melbourne and London. John Howell took over as owner, establishing Bill Ross as leader of a house band that included Bobby Gebert (piano), Michael Pank (bass), Bobby Jeffery (tenor) and several interstate musicians with national reputations, including Keith Barr and Bob Bertles (saxes), and Keith Stirling (trumpet). These musicians collectively established the Cellar as a premier Australian jazz venue.

By 1965, when I returned to Adelaide, the best had passed. John Howell had sold his interest to Alex Innocenti, who continued to promote a jazz policy, but laced with blues and other forms of music. Weekends still saw jazz groups led by Billy Ross, with Bobby Gebert; and myself in a trio with Dave Kemp (bass) and Trevor Frost (drums); but levels of attendance never achieved those in the early 60s. By the early 70s the original premises had been converted to a restaurant, while the trade-name ‘The Cellar’ identified Alex Innocenti’s new clothing store, opposite the entrance to Twin Street, on the North side of Rundle Mall.

Adelaide did not see levels of enthusiasm for jazz that had supported the Cellar at its most popular until the late 1970s, when Michael Strautmanis opened the Creole Room in O’Connell Street, North Adelaide. Most of Adelaide’s jazz musicians played there to capacity crowds; Glen Henrich (saxes, vibraphone), Dave Coulton and Larry Golder (guitar), Bruce Hancock (piano), Freddy Payne (trumpet), Sue Barker and Onions (the band that brought tears to your eyes).

My involvement was as pianist in Schmoe & Co., built around a nucleus of Schmoe (tenor), Angela Smith (voice), myself (piano) and Laurie Kennedy (drums), together with a succession of bass players, the most memorable of whom were Geoff Kluke, Steve Elphick and David Seidel.

Thanks to Mike Strautmanis entrepreneurial adventurousness, the Creole Room presented such stellar performers as Barney Kessell, Herb Ellis, Phil Woods, and Dave Liebman with a band that included John Scofield and Jaco Pastorius. By the mid-80s, however, attendances were falling; when Mike decided to marry and take up secure employment with TAFE it was all over.

Post Script added 14 August 2020:

Sylvan Elhay (Schmoe) has pointed to two errors in my recollections. The first is that Maurie Rothenberg named his club Blinks; and it only became The Cellar following its purchase by John Howell.

Today no trace of The Cellar at 29A Twin Street. Adelaide remains. By 2000, the room immediately above the downstairs restaurant was operating as The Jade Monkey, a live music venue, but The Cellar area beneath was permanently closed, although the street-level door entrance from Twin Street at 29A was still there. A State Heritage Listing Application in late 2012 failed to save the historic Steam Biscuit Factory building (1872 — the site of the original Balfours baking business) at 29 Twin Street, which immediately adjoined the south-west side of Gays Arcade, and which housed a basement where The Cellar had been located. The building was demolished to improve access for construction of the Ibis Hotel when this was built during 2013-14 at 122 Grenfell St. The basement at 29A was buried beneath what became the carpark at the rear of the new hotel.

My second error was to place Jaco Pastorius in Dave Liebman’s band. In fact, in addition to Liebman and Scofield, personnel were Adam Nussbaum (drums), Terumasa Hino (trumpet) and Ron McLure (bass). On a different night, when Weather Report were in town, Pastorius and drummer Pete played a duo because Joe Zawinul would not allow them to play with the local band led by Glen Heinrich.

The site of the Creole Room can still be seen. It was on the first floor of the building still standing at the south-east corner of O’Connell and George Streets, North Adelaide. Tynte Street Florist is still on the north-west corner of George. The Creole Room was entered by the outside steps located inside the back yard to the building, entered from about 20 metres down George. The advertising sign on the building now reads ‘Endota Spa’. Both windows seen above the verandah were at the front of The Creole Room.

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