Interview: David James, author of The World’s Best Jazz Club

The World’s Best Jazz Club (Major Street Publishing)
by David James
Released June 2014

Book launch at Melbourne International Jazz Festival

bennetts_front-coverThree aspects of the writing of The World’s Best Jazz Club were a surprise to its author David James.

First, when publisher Lesley Williams from Major Street approached him with the idea, he thought it was a great idea ‘and great ideas so rarely get up’. So it’s a happy surprise that the project went ahead and has now come together.

The second surprise was also a good one. ‘I had no idea I would get so much great material.’

He’s a musician as well as a writer. At 17 he was playing in Bananafish – a band that had ‘150 members with a lot of the cream of Melbourne jazz going through it at one point or another’.

He says it gave him a great education in music, but musicians didn’t talk about their music the way they do now. ‘My memory of jazz musicians from that time [the mid-Seventies] is that they could play – really play – but that you’d be lucky if they could navigate their way to the end of a sentence.’

A great deal has changed in the intervening years and he says that one of the joys of putting this book together was how articulate and thoughtful the musicians he interviewed were able to be about their music. He says it’s probably because jazz is now taught in universities. ‘If you don’t know how to talk about things you’re not going to survive. I think musicians have learned to speak a language now that they just didn’t have access to at that time.

David James has been writing for public consumption since he started his cadetship at the Melbourne Herald in 1984.

As a trainee journalist, he was good with numbers, and good at pissing people off. He did such a good job of the latter, that at the end of his cadetship he was one of only two people who didn’t get ‘graded’ [qualified]. ‘And the other guy was a drunk.’

Not shaken, but definitely stirred, up, he stuck with it.

‘I found out that by distorting official statistics, you can get front page stories. And so I did. I also got a big interview with Barry Humphries which went really well and it became impossible at that point to say I wasn’t a journalist.’

After an unlikely non-audition, which involved being asked ‘You like numbers, don’t you mate?’, he started writing for the Business section.

‘I really liked Business. It turned out to be something you could actually learn about. Unlike a lot of journalism where you’re supposed to be perpetually ignorant.’

He ended up working for BRW and was responsible for the satirical back page column for 12 years. ‘I loved the satire.’ He sees an alignment between comedy and jazz; learning to write satire felt like learning to play jazz. ‘It had to do with timing, and something else. I couldn’t formalise why exactly, but it felt similar to me.’

At some point during the eighties he became the jazz writer for the Herald, doing reviews and interviews. He was also awarded a PhD in Shakespeare and had what he calls ‘the interview of my life’.

‘I remember sitting and typing something up. The Arts Editor was sitting in front of me and said “Do you want to interview this guy… Miles Davis?”‘ James laughs ‘Did I? Just a bit!’

He’s thrilled to have been part of The World’s Best Jazz Club. ‘I’ve always been extremely impressed with Bennetts Lane. I was very aware of the degree of difficulty of running a place like that. What often happens with similar clubs is that someone will build up the business, make it look very valuable – often managing the bands very well – and then sell it for a fortune and the next manager would proceed to completely destroy it, sell it cheap and then have it taken over by someone who would build it up again. And then there’s Bennetts Lane – a complete outlier.

He says that Bennetts Lane’s owner Michael Tortoni is impressive because he’s ‘not a gatekeeper’.

‘He’s a businessman. His starting point is that he has to work with the audience, which is a very businesslike approach. I think that’s a distinctive thing about him.’

James had earlier interviewed Tortoni for BRW, and he says it was ‘hilarious’.

‘Every other business person I’d speak to wanted to talk – understandably enough – about their business. Not Michael; he wanted to talk about his bass playing.

‘I approached him after at the beginning of the project. I knew that I could include some information about the club – some business analysis and that kind of thing – but that’s about a quarter of a book. I took the opportunity to do some primary research, with interviews. So the book is centred around the club, but it also documents a period in Australian Jazz, while the club’s been active. So I just set out to do about fifty interviews in six months.’

He says a lot of musicians were keen to be included in the story.

‘I did try and get some insights into the craft behind the music. And I didn’t expect them to say what they said.’ And that was his third surprise.

‘Instead of opening up about their methods, to make them accessible to a layperson, the insight most consistently offered was, “When the music is working, I’m not thinking at all”‘.



Book launch at Melbourne International Jazz Festival

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