Adrian Jackson – 25 years of Wangaratta

This story was commissioned for – and appeared in – the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues 25th anniversary program.
Photo of Enrico Rava provided by the festival
Allan Turnbull anecdote was not printed in the program.

He’s a familiar sight around Melbourne jazz venues – and beyond. In fact Adrian Jackson is hard to miss. He’s quite tall – and he’s at a lot of gigs. Not only has he been Artistic Director of the Wangaratta Jazz Festival since its inception 25 years ago, he has also curated Stonnington Jazz Festival since 2006 and was Artistic Director of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival from 1998 to 2004.

If Jazz Festival Artistic Directors have a scale, from the kind of AD who simply collates a wishlist, right down to the ones who are involved at every level, then Jackson is at the ‘hands-on’ end of things. ‘The workload can be overwhelming,’ he admits, ‘although I’m probably happier now, and more balanced and more sane – to the extent that I was ever that – than I might have been if I’d stayed in my previous job.’

Given the option one day to take a voluntary retrenchment package from his marketing and product management role at Telecom (now Telstra) he had a coffee at Campari in Melbourne’s CBD to consider his options, and then went home and spoke to his wife Amanda.

‘It took her all of two minutes to tell me, “If you’re not happy, you might as well leave”‘.

He hasn’t looked back.

He had been working as a freelance journalist for a while, and initially that was his main focus – with mixed results. ‘It was a struggle.’ The Wangaratta festival Artistic Director job was a serendipitous opportunity for a man with relatively little experience in the organisation of jazz festivals. ‘I’d never organised a gig in my life before that first festival, let alone a weekend of gigs.’

Programming had been an interest though, and he was certainly keen on the music. Jackson’s brother Martin had been presenting concerts at the Melbourne Jazz Co-op since 1982 and prior to that had been booking bands for a number of venues. As a private promoter, Martin Jackson had also started touring internationals like Clifford Jordan, Sheila Jordan, Jimmy Witherspoon, Junior Cook. ‘Having seen him do that for maybe seven or eight years, I had some idea of what I’d be facing.’ Jackson had been listening to and appreciating jazz for years; he had been the jazz critic for The Age since 1978 and had even learned saxophone for a while.

When he started work as Artistic Director for the first festival, the schedule had been pretty much drawn up by Geoff Carruthers, who’d compiled the weekend’s program after taking advice from a number of jazz industry figures like Peter Rechniewski (Sydney Improvised Music Association and now Foundry616), Lee McIver, Graeme Lyall, NSW and Victorian jazz Co-ordinators Eric Myers and Martin Jackson and others. ‘I made a few changes, but I can’t take all the credit for that first year being the strong program that it was.’

Jackson suggested it would be good to have an international performer at the festival – even if it was just the one – and the Board eventually agreed.

‘I got Joe Henderson’s number from Mike Nock, and had several phone calls with him. He wanted to play with Mike of course and wanted to know “where is Wangaratta?” He was prepared to fly economy and take a reasonable fee. It took a while for the Board to make a decision and by the time we got back to him he’d taken another booking.’

In 1992, Henderson released Lush Life: the Music of Billy Strayhorn on Verve records. ‘That kickstarted his career to a higher level – and we could never afford him after that.’

In that first year, festival audiences were treated instead to Vincent Herring (alto saxophone), who had been to Australia a couple of times before. He played with local musicians Mickey Tucker and the festival’s first National Jazz Award winner, Barney McAll – and appears on McAll’s 1994 recording Exit. This feature of Wangaratta continues to this day – it’s a festival that prides itself on providing the opportunity for musicians to play together who otherwise might never have the opportunity to do so. The encouragement of (and space for) new collaborations is largely down to Adrian Jackson.

Enrico-Rava---sunglassesProgramming challenges are part of the job. In 2014 we’ll be hearing Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava, who was booked but unable to attend in 1996 due to visa issues. In the scramble to find an international guest to replace Rava in ’96, Jackson was able to book the now departed keyboard player Kenny Kirkland. Jackson and his brother Martin had met Kirkland previously, when he had toured here with Chico Freeman. It was one of those ‘meant to be’ situations. Kirkland was touring with Sting, and had a night off on the Sunday night of the festival. As long as Jackson could get him to Wangaratta and then back to Sydney in time for his next concert, Kirkland could do it. ‘When I called Andrew Gander and told him who he and bassist Adam Armstrong would be playing with on the Sunday, there was a silence and then a disbelieving “Get out!” from Andrew,’ says Jackson.

‘I’m a big believer in not continuing to do things you’ve always done just because it’s the way you’ve always done them.’ At the same time, he says, he doesn’t see a pressing need to change the festival. Recent years have seen the governance and financial side of the festival consolidate, but growth beyond the current size and scope is not on the cards. ‘It’s not a boutique event, but I’m not sure it has to get to the size of “Big Day Out” to be successful.’

And his favourite part of the job? Again, he’s pressed to name any one thing, but says he likes having been able to provide exposure and performance opportunities for younger musicians. He has enjoyed the chance to watch some of our established names – McAll, Keller, Magnusson, Choulai and many, many others – grow from their early years.

A calm demeanour – the trademark smile, the head slightly on one side, the pause before answering in case you have something else to add – is part of the way he makes the job look easy. To an outsider he seems to be gliding along without a care in the world. The truth is that he’s quietly very proud of the work he has been doing for the last 25 years, and looking forward to more.

Remembering Allan Turnbull

Adrian recounts an anecdote from the festival’s first year.

The first year at Wangaratta. I was learning to swim in the deep end. Alan Turnbull was there to play in the house band for the National Jazz Awards, also to play with Vincent Herring. Al was (in hindsight) testing me out a little bit, he kept suggesting reasons why he should get paid extra, why he should get paid in cash etc. etc. In the end, I said “Look, the contract says you’ll get paid $x, by cheque, by next week. That’s it.” He grumbled, “Man, you’re the hardest f**ing c** I’ve ever worked for.” I said, “What about my brother?” He pushed his glasses down his nose to look at me, held a blank expression for about a minute – which I returned, until he broke into a big grin. We were okay after that. The next year, post-festival, I drove back from Wang with Al and Tony Gould. Non-stop stories, all hilarious.