The Chelsea Wilson guide to Stonnington Jazz

Chelsea Wilson 2“I keep my fingers and toes crossed”. Chelsea Wilson is equally anxious and excited, waiting to see her ideas coming to fruition. In this instance, she is referring to one specific idea: a screening of ‘Mad Max’, George Miller’s seminal film, with a live band performing the soundtrack. And not any band: Adelaide’s Shaolin Afronauts, an electrifying ensemble, playing a jazzed-up version of afrobeat grooves. The screening, aptly named ‘Mad Jazz‘, is scheduled to take place in Melbourne’s iconic ‘Astor‘theatre, on Tuesday 17 May, as part of this year’s Stonnington Jazz Festival.

Labeled as “100% Australian”, Stonnington Jazz has become a staple of the jazz community in Melbourne and this edition will be the first with Chelsea Wilson at its helm. Broadcaster with a penchant for jazz at day (her show on PBS, ‘Jazz Got Soul‘, is one of the most reliable sources of pleasure on a Thursday morning) and soul diva with a voice of gold at night, she has long been involved in Melbourne’s music industry in various roles, and last year she produced one of the Stonnington Jazz main – and most successful – events: the tribute to Kerrie Biddell, featuring Kristin Berardi and Fem Belling. Which might have played some part to her becoming the festival’s artistic director.

“I feel very lucky to have the [City of Stonnington] Council supporting of my ideas”, she says. Which brings us back to ‘Mad Jazz’: “I’ve been to similar shows, in the past”, she says, stating as example last year’s screening of‘Back to the Future’ with Melbourne Symphony Orchestra performing the soundtrack. “I imagined something completely different; instead of a live recreation of the exact soundtrack, a reinterpretation, in a jazz context”, she says. Action-packed, ‘Mad Max’ proved to be ideal for this, as the film’s relatively sparse dialogue leaves enough room for the band to work on. “Besides, some scenes were shot at the city of Stonnington”, she says.

While screening a genuine Australian cult classic movie is certainly in line with the “100% Australian” label, there is another festival event that lives up to this promise. Aptly named “the Australian Songbook“, the opening concert will feature six wonderful vocalists – the legendary Wilma Reading, the game-changing Gian Slater, cabaret star Mama Alto, up-and-coming jazz stars Josh Kyle and Clancye Milne and the artistic director herself – “It was not my idea, it was the council’s idea”, she says, admitting that she “couldn’t resist”. The six singers will sing one original and one of their favourite Australian songs, backed by a jazz band and string orchestra, conducted and arranged by the luminous James Mustafa. “James wanted to do a program with a string orchestra, so we developed the idea together”, says the director. This concert is bound to set the tone for the festival, as a celebration of Australian Jazz in all its glory. “The Australian jazz scene is really diverse”, says Chelsea Wilson, stating her ambition to have as many sub-genres as possible featured, represented and explored in the course of the festival, from New Orleans trad jazz (as played by the duelling pianos of Adam Rudegeair and Bob Sedegreen) to latin jazz and afro-fusion (represented by Paul Van Ross’ Clavemania and the Senegambian Jazz Band, both featured at a ‘Worldwide Jazz Party‘), to a jazz mass.

“My first thought when I took over the role was that I want people who think they don’t like jazz to discover it in new ways, in new formats”, she says, explaining her detailed plans to present the various jazz idioms in any format possible: from a New Orleans street party ( featuring Horns of Leroy, Henry Manetta and The Trip, The Sugarfoot Ramblers, Brass Knuckle Brass Band + DJ Mohair Slim) to lush high tea events in Malvern Town Hall on weekend afternoons, featuring the elegant vocal talents of Hetty Kate and Vanessa Fernandez. The Toorak Library will host a Jazz Poetry Slam and the Northbrook pop-up gallery will feature an exhibition, ‘Backbeat: Stories of Australian Jazz‘, from the collection of the Australian Jazz Museum. Both events will be free, as will be the four masterclasses presented by Fem Belling, Tamara Murphy, Andrew Murray and Adam Rudegeair. “The concept is to make it as inclusive as possible”, says Chelsea Wilson. She then goes on to speak about two of the festival events that are really close to her heart. One is the tribute to the great Gil Scott-Heron, an artist who influenced jazz, soul, blues, hip-hop, and so on. “This is very important to me”, says Chelsea, thrilled that she managed to attract to the project artists such as Ryan Ritchie (the Raah Project), Hue Blanes and Vince Jones, who shares Gil Scott-Heron’s political ideals. The other is ‘Boss Tenors in Orbit‘, which will set the Anton Delecca Quartet against the Remco Keijzer Quartet, in a “jazzhead sort of night”, inspired by Sonny Stitt’s double tenor ventures with Gene Ammons.

Ideas like these seem to be flowing from Chelsea Wilson. “We only have a limited budget”, she says. “There are so many more artists I hope to have the opportunity to work with in the future”. Juggling with the artists’ timetables has been one of the challenges of the role, she admits, as was “finding the right locations, spaces with the right atmosphere for each project” – and, of course, the biggest challenge was getting permission from George Miller to screen Mad Max. But overall, it is telling that she asserts that, even if she had a bigger budget, she wouldn’t change anything on the Festival’s program. “This has been a really exciting process”, she says. “I’m happy with the program”. She’s also happy to be part of Melbourne’s “fantastic music community”: “That’s why I live here; not for the weather”, she adds, laughing.

  • Stonnington Jazz 2016 will take place from 12 to 22 May. To see the full program and purchase tickets, visit