Megan Evans: How Allan Browne saved Bennetts Lane

Yes. Bennetts Lane closed. Yes. It is open. It’s not a postmodern conundrum, don’t lose faith in the media (maybe a little). Time and the agents of change haven’t colluded to confuse you. Bennetts Lane Jazz Club closed and reopened, old but new, new but old.
The question still lingers over a year after the re-opening; “Didn’t you close..?”
To wonder about the gravity of the loss, the rich tapestry of its history, is to be lit by a community of mind that reflects on the multitude of contributions made by musicians, staff and audiences to the making of Bennetts Lane Jazz Club.

The creation of a cultural asset is no easy feat. It’s not something one can design, commission, administrate or legislate into being. The great cultural assets of time are forged by the caring caress and critical engagement of everyone who deems them worthy of their attention. To recognise over 23 years worth of continuous contribution amounting to a generous, valuable and vital cultural investment is to recognise the duty of care that comes with owning, managing and taking responsibility for it.
The closure of the club coincided with the tragic loss of one of its greatest advocates, Allan Browne (person – as his card announced). The only artist who could officially ‘close’ the club, having performed Monday nights for over two decades and inspiring the very essence of the club’s persona, died just two days before his date to bid it farewell. In the inconceivable shock of his loss, the club closed for a significant circle of musicians, staff and friends in a gigantic shadow of grief, one loss disguised in the desperate despair of another. And yet perhaps it was precisely in this darkness that a poetic seed of peripeteia was planted.
The sale of the property at 25 Bennetts Lane had been signed a year before it closed. The conceivability of selling the property had been an itching temptation for years before that. This is the clarity of hindsight, but at the time the obscurity may be forgiven for a conflict of conscience – how do you tell your staff who have dedicated a collective lifetime that a date for vacant possession has been given as June 30th 2015? The grapevine of gossip murmured and the cat was forced to meow. It was a very hard reality for us to swallow.
Divorcing the concept of Bennetts Lane Jazz Club from the bricks and mortar of Bennetts Lane Jazz Club was a surprising revelation, akin to a reality for reincarnation – where the spirit of something might once again become embodied in another; and it was very late. The duty of care community contract of trust had been broken, compounded by grief and frustration, and topped with the avalanche of history (that clubs close), it was in this space that David Marriner made the distinction with an offer to buy it. Michael Tortoni accepted. Hope for the Phoenix for Bennetts Lane was born.
Bennetts Lane Jazz Club version 1 was born on November 27th 1992. It upgraded to two rooms on the 14th of January 2000. And it closed on June 15th 2015. During its almost 23 years in the service of live jazz performance it helped usher in a new environment for musicians to bring their art to their community.

In small and slow steps we instituted a seemingly natural progression of policies; a token door charge evolved into a more respectful door charge; an elective smoking policy (decided by the musicians performing) became a non-smoking policy; don’t scoop the bass solo – a listening policy; the birth of madam-spank-a-lot became the social self-discipline of the silencing the phone; musicians responsibility to the venue turned into the venue’s responsibility to the musician. Driving a wedge between an entertainment/background music model for live jazz for audiences in bars, clubs and cafes turned to an arts based model where their offering is the focus of audience attention brought with it a number of questions.
The experience and insight we learned through mistakes, discussion and respectful negotiation have largely been retained in Bennetts Lane version 2.

The moment when David Marriner paid Michael Tortoni for the sale of Bennetts Lane Jazz club before Megan and Simon Evans at Federici cafe, Spring street, Melbourne. | photo: Megan Evans
The moment when David Marriner paid Michael Tortoni for the sale of Bennetts Lane Jazz club before Megan and Simon Evans at Federici cafe, Spring street, Melbourne. | photo: Megan Evans

David purchased the intellectual property from Michael on June 22nd 2015, just a week after it had closed. Reborn on August 27th 2016, at the site of the original room, a Phoenix of Bennetts Lane Jazz Club opened with a new sound system, new staff, and a new future. From the very ashes of the original a new horizon of hope has been traversed for a community gifted with talent and creativity. We will take our new home in Flinders Lane early in the new year and will continue the quest to answer the questions posed by its parent.
What is a jazz club, for who is a jazz club, why is a jazz club, and (sadly) for how long is a jazz club? These questions have long shadows. Society’s relationship with art and culture, entertainment and competition, the music ‘industry’ and the plight of musicians; the value of skilled musicianship for the creation, development and reflection of social vitality is poorly judged and sadly misunderstood by much of the mainstream. What jazz offers is a both a window and a mirror – a view into a world of respectful, responsible freedom, courageous creativity and hopeful humanity, and a reflection of the troubled, discriminative, privileged and fearful world we’re led to believe we struggle in.

A great jazz club just is, for everyone, for reason to remember itself, and always and only for now. The making of Bennetts Lane was a careful collective effort contributed to by every person who worked here, performed here and/or attended, day or night, and even those who simply imagine coming to our jazz club. This jazz club is authored by the shared memory and imagination of them all – I am so very very grateful. Allan never did get to bid it farewell; as long as it is open he and his inspiration will keep the beat and breath of Bennetts a-live, here, now and hopefully always.