Hot spot: 505 in Surry Hills is one of Rhys Muldoon's favourite jazz venues. Photo: Edwina Pickles
One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz. Lou Reed
Sorry Lou, while I love you very much, I also love jazz. And while being a Lou Reed fan was, for a long time, like being a member of a secret society, so, too, is being a jazz fan. There’s an old joke that goes like this:
Q: What’s the definition of an optimist?
Jazz hands: Rhys Muldoon. Photo: Simon Schluter
A: A jazz oboist with a pager
You could insert “an Australian” in there and it would be extra cutting. Australian jazz, while undoubtedly some of the best in the world, with some of the finest players, is, still, a secret. You may have stumbled across the name of one or two, but most are only known to that strange cat, the jazz aficionado. Deciding to become a jazz musician is not what one would call a “wise economic decision”, yet these intergalactic soul explorers are out there jamming every night in dark little rooms serving dodgy wine to an extremely appreciative crowd of oddballs.
The technical standard of a jazz musician who plays professionally is so ludicrously high as to be scandalous when compared to their pay packet. The only game that comes close for the hard work/payday divide, is dance. Occasionally you’ll see a truly great player, gigging at a casino or in a foyer somewhere while badly dressed drunks try to cheat on their wives at conventions. It makes me think of a laptop being used as a cricket bat. The waste. But these pros just keep throwing their pearls into the wind. Bless them.
Jazz clubs in Sydney come and go. Only those in the Secret Society will remember names such as Soup Plus, Jenny’s Wine Bar and the Side On Cafe. These small rooms, now gone, were bathed in the precious ephemera of gigs once played, of notes once heard, of peaks and troughs, of spit hitting the stage when a trumpet is cleared, of the echo of hands clapping following a fine solo, of memories of memories. There is a famous jazz standard called, fittingly, Autumn Leaves. That should almost be the name of every jazz venue. Beautiful, but will not last.
Having said that, one venue that has lasted, is of course, the Basement. Now somewhat of an institution, the Basement was for me, the perfect jazz club. It was in a secret location, hidden (as it still is) unsurprisingly, in a basement. There was no name out the front, you just had to KNOW. So many greats have played at the basement, both indigenous and international. The jazz world is very much a world of exiles. Great American musicians were often far more appreciated in Germany or Sweden or Russia or France, and the same is true of our players. If you are a jazz musician, you’d better be endowed with wanderlust, because you WILL travel. Whether it’s Japan or Paris or Stuttgart, if you want to play and be appreciated, pack your bags young traveller, for the world is just one big gig with many venues.
Our venues at the moment (the Sound Lounge, 505, the Vanguard, the Basement and, two I’m looking forward to discovering, Camelot Lounge and Foundry 616) are keeping the flame alive. It is almost impossible to see a bad gig in Sydney, thus is the standard of the talent. I can’t recall a gig I thought was rubbish. A jazz gig for me is sometimes meditative, sometimes joyful, sometimes melancholic, but always joyful. It speaks of the glory of human endeavour in the face of an often difficult and banal world. It cries to be heard. It speaks to the soul, to the loins, to the heart. It demands nothing of you, but will reward any effort you make to listen and feel and yes, think. I’ve always felt jazz is the genre that best expresses the human soul. The instruments get in the way of expression less than other forms. They serve, not dictate. Jazz has an ongoing fascination with structure. How much to use, how much to throw away. Which chords? Which notes? Often every note, or even distant relation of a note within a chord, will be explored or caressed or examined in the hunt for the essence of a song. Think of it as a painter breaking down every colour and combination of colour in, say, that old standard the Mona Lisa, and discovering exactly what’s behind that smile. The pursuit is artistic, intellectual, spiritual and of course, supremely musical.
So, if you have the inclination, and would like to explore the cosmos, I suggest you pop down to a jazz club. Oh,and don’t worry, most jazz musos aren’t even junkies these days. Those cats be clean now. Those cats just gotta play.