jia header

History of Jazz in Australia


Australia, among other countries worldwide, was introduced to jazz following the musical sensation created in New York USA in 1917-18 by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and its immediate imitators. News of this new music quickly reached Australia via the entertainment press and the vaudeville artists appearing on the popular theatre circuits. Impresarios sensed its potential and Australia’s first known jazz group, formed by Billy Romaine, appeared at Fuller’s National Theatre in June 1918 fronted by Sydney-based singer Belle Sylvia. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing how it sounded. Using singer Mabelle Morgan this jazz band then performed on stage in Melbourne followed by Adelaide and Brisbane theatre appearances. Other jazz bands were formed in response to the new craze and, with the boom in social dancing, it quickly invaded the dance halls and ballrooms and, despite prudish and predictable opposition, became an Australian post-war phenomenon.

To meet demand for the new music promoters imported established American ‘jazz’ bands from California including those led by bandleader Joe Aronson (1922), Frank Ellis and His Californians (1923), Bert Ralton’s Havana Band (1923), Sonny Clay’s Plantation Orchestra (1927) and Ray Tellier’s San Francisco Orchestra (1925 and 1928). These hot dance bands brought the more established forms of jazz music to an eager Australian dancing and theatre public, encouraged imitators and employed local musicians. A Sydney jazz band was featured in Charles Chauvel’s 1926 silent film Greenhide.

As early as the 1890s Australians had been exposed to American black and white entertainers, minstrel troupes, Spiritual choirs, syncopated dancers, Ragtime and associated musical forms via vaudeville theatre, sheet music and piano rolls. Although Australia had embraced the much-celebrated Jazz Age, just how much real jazz was being played can only be guessed at, for there were too few Australian bands recorded in the early-to-mid 1920s compared to the records issued here featuring American and English orchestras. However, intrigued musicians and enthusiasts soon discovered the real jazz hidden within the commercial record catalogues of Tin Pan Alley tunes when the Australian record industry emerged in the late 1920s and genuine US jazz records, featuring black and white groups, became readily available.

Unfortunately, professional Australian musicians, including future popular bandleaders Jim Davidson and Frank Coughlan, although influenced by jazz music rarely had an opportunity to play it publicly.
Following the introduction of news radio in Australia in 1923 (via 2BL and 2FC) dance music became an added on-air attraction. Imported and local records were broadcast frequently to a large audience, our professional orchestras introduced the latest renditions of US and English popular music using imported arrangements and the Australian sheet music publishing industry flourished.

Initially, Australia’s early record industry was dominated by English parent companies, which meant that popular English orchestras and dance bands were well represented here on record. But Australian protectionism was strong and from the early 1930s, due to political pressure from the Australian Musicians’ Union, American bands and performers found it increasingly difficult to find work here. Swing and popular music was eagerly embraced when it appeared during the 1930s and most US jazz and swing records were available in Australia within months of their initial release.

During this period diehards and interested musicians formed jazz appreciation societies and jazz clubs, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne. From these specialist cliques authentic Australian jazz emerged, encouraged by interested professional musicians, but performed and refined mainly by jazz-only amateurs emulating what they were hearing on records. Although not specifically confined to a particular city, jazz in Australia, played professionally for its own sake and in its own right, emerged more strongly in Melbourne in the late 1930s with Roger Bell, his brother Graeme, Ade Monsbourgh and their friends, influenced by 1920-30s recorded music from Chicago and New York sources. However, it depends on how jazz is defined and swing-influenced jazz and its more modern offshoots emanating from the US in the early 1940s influenced other young Australian jazzmen.

Although jazz/swing appreciation societies had been established in most Australian cities during the 1930s and dance band musicians jammed after hours, it was the Bell brothers and associates who eventually took undiluted jazz music to the public. These youngsters dared to defy the musical establishment. And they succeeded. However in 1939, another war interrupted these pioneer efforts as mobilisation took place. In 1945, when the international chaos subsided, the jazzmen returned to civilian life and their music. Musical ties had been established during the war when it was realised that others in Australia were also playing jazz. Someone proposed that a jazz function be held in Melbourne when the world conflict had been resolved and the idea of a Jazz Convention took hold. A committee was formed, invitations went out and musicians, friends, enthusiasts, wives and girlfriends from all over Australia gathered on 26th December 1946 at the Eureka Youth Hall in North Melbourne. A program had been devised and for four days the 20-something-year-old musicians and the teenagers they had influenced along the way during the latter war years ‘jammed’ together. This first Australian Jazz Convention was a great success and all resolved to return the next year. They did and the annual event has continued, uninterrupted, ever since.

Outstanding early post-war Melbourne jazz bands included the Bells (as the Graeme Bell Dixieland Jazz Band was affectionately known), Tony Newstead’s Jazz Gang, Frank Johnson’s Fabulous Dixielanders and Len Barnard’s Jazz Band. Other popular and influential working bands were constantly being formed, younger musicians were influenced and mentored and this unique system has kept Australian jazz alive and well over the years.

In Sydney, a vibrant commercial nightclub culture dominated the music scene and jazz-influenced musicians had the opportunity to jam all night and be paid to do it. Which meant that traditional jazz, prominent in Melbourne and Adelaide, was slower taking hold in Australia’s largest city. Early Sydney revivalist groups in the mid 1940s-50s included the Port Jackson, Illawarra, Riverside, Paramount and Black Opal Jazz Bands. In Adelaide it was Malcolm Bills’ Jazz Band and the Southern Jazz Group and Brisbane had The Canecutters.

Jazz was evolving in wartime America and young musicians, inspired by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and their colleagues, were exploring new musical ideas, soon to be labelled bebop by the critics. The popular 1930s swing bands were giving way to progressive big bands exemplified by Stan Kenton’s Orchestra and Woody Herman’s First Herd; and impressed Australian musicians were listening keenly and absorbing the music from records. However, due to a US Musicians’ Union recording ban (1942-44) the evolution of this new jazz went unnoticed by many for several years.

Modern Australian jazz followed this musical path and in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Brisbane musicians eschewed the traditional 1920s-30s movement and progressives including Errol Buddle, Splinter Reeves, Ron Falson, Bryce Rohde, Frank Smith, Jack Brokensha, Ralph Mallen, Les Welch, Brian Brown, Keith Hounslow, John Pochee and friends championed the new music. These young moderns played in clubs, coffee lounges and pubs, appeared on the popular jazz concert platforms and created an enthusiastic following. As the music became popular dedicated venues opened to support it including The Basement and El Rocco in Sydney and Jazz Centre 44 and The Embers in Melbourne.
Although jazz was being recorded and released by numerous independent, private record producers during the early 1940s, the major Australian record company, Columbia, did not realise its potential until July 1945 when a pseudo jazz group, organised by dance band leader George Trevare, waxed six titles for its Regal Zonophone label and followed these in April 1947 with six bona fide jazz sides by Graeme Bell and His Dixieland Band. Record dates by other jazz bands including Frank Johnson and Len Barnard followed for Parlophone in the 1940s-50s and Australian jazz entered the major catalogues. But as Beatle-mania and rock & roll became popular, the big record companies all but stopped recording Australian jazz. Young audiences defected and musicians, particularly in NSW, found refuge on the licensed club and pub scene. Jazz, once again, took a back seat.

Thankfully, over the years, the declining market for traditional and modern jazz was served by independent record producers including Ampersand, Prestophone, Swaggie, Crest, Planet, W&G, Festival and the privately produced records put out by the bands. Otherwise, this period of Australian jazz would have been very poorly documented. When the worldwide jazz revival, which had emerged in Australia during the 1940s, ran out of steam in the early 1960s it was kept alive by enthusiasts and jazz musicians through the Australian Jazz Convention, jazz clubs and societies, concerts and festivals. It continues to survive thanks to this small, enthusiastic, active and dedicated enclave.

Jazz in Australia, as elsewhere, covers a wide stylistic musical range from New Orleans, dixieland, traditional and mainstream to modern and avant-garde. However, over the years, notwithstanding some emphatic divisions in the 1940s and 50s, the musical borders and differences have blurred with many Australian musicians equally proficient in all genres.

For many years individual Australian musicians ventured abroad to sample jazz at its sources, but it was not until mid 1947 that the Graeme Bell Dixieland Jazz Band became the first organised group to undertake an organised overseas tour. This 1947-48 odyssey took it to war-torn Czechoslovakia, France and England where the band had a strong influence on traditional jazz emerging in those countries. The Bells returned for a second triumphant tour of Europe and the UK in 1950-52. On both occasions the band recorded extensively. Other groups followed this lead including a 1957 historic tour through China and Russia to Moscow (where it recorded) by the Southern Cross Jazz Band. Eventually musical trips overseas became common and today Australian bands and musicians are regularly featured at jazz festivals in the US, Britain, Europe, Asia and Japan where our talented jazzmen have earned high praise and well-deserved international recognition.

In spite of the current downturn in public support for jazz in Australia there remains a relatively small but healthy niche for the music in all Australian states. Jazz is now completely ignored by commercial radio and television organisations but can be heard on dedicated community radio programmes across the country. Jazz clubs can be found in most urban and regional centres, over fifty Australian jazz festivals bring jazz to enthusiastic audiences and pubs and licensed clubs in Australian cities and towns feature the music every weekend.

© Bill Haesler OAM

Jazz Concerts & Festivals in Australia

In the immediate post-war period, from the 1940s up to the end of the 1950s, Australia followed international trends and used the concert platform to present jazz to the public. It also became a means of featuring overseas jazz groups and artists and frequent and popular jazz visitors included Kenny Ball, Acker Bilk, the Dutch Swing College Band, Louis Armstrong, et al.

  But as public interest in jazz waned Australian promoters, eventually, borrowed the idea of the annual jazz festival popular in the US and Europe. The 1948 Nice Jazz Festival in France was the first regular international festival, followed by The Newport Jazz Festival held each summer in Newport, Rhode Island, USA and established in 1954 by the jazz impresario George Wein. Other now long-established festivals followed include the Prague International Jazz Festival, Czech Republic (1964); JazzFest Berlin (also known as the Berlin Jazz Festival) founded in 1964 in West Berlin, Germany; The Montreux Jazz Festival on the shores of Lake Geneva, Switzerland (1967); The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (1970) and the North Sea Jazz Festival (1976).

Jazz festivals in Australia are usually programmed as single one-day events or three/four-day functions coinciding with one of our celebrated public holiday long-weekends. Initially, these jazz festivals were loosely based on the Australian Jazz Convention format but most now use the familiar international model, hiring and presenting the best available Australian and overseas jazz groups and performers in a jazz concert situation. Generally organised by specialist jazz entrepreneurs Australian jazz festivals are also run and funded by jazz clubs, municipal councils, state governments, wineries, holiday resorts and the like, often in conjunction with a major corporate sponsor.

Existing pioneer Australian Jazz Festivals include Manly NSW (founded in 1977), Mildura, Victoria (1979), Merimbula NSW (1980), Thredbo NSW (1987), Newcastle NSW (1987), Bellingen NSW (1989), Wangaratta, Victoria  (1989), Dubbo NSW (1990) and Wagg Wagga (1994). Currently there are approximately fifty annual jazz festivals held in Australia.

© Bill Haesler OAM

Australian Jazz Convention

This long-established event is held annually between Christmas and New Year. The First Australian Jazz Convention was conceived as a private post-war reunion and four-day jam session where Australian jazz musicians, enthusiasts, wives, girlfriends and friends from Melbourne, Adelaide, Hobart, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth gathered in Melbourne on Boxing Day 1946 to play, listen and discuss their music. It was a great success and a repeat event, leading to permanency, was held in 1947. Participating musicians receive no fee and each Convention is organised and run by a local voluntary committee with guidance and assistance from the Convention Trustees and a Steering Committee. The AJC, which is not a festival, has been held without interruption in pre-selected cities and towns in all Australian states since its inception in 1946.

Click here for the Australian Jazz Convention website.

The 66 Australian Jazz Convention will be held in Bundaberg, Queensland from 26 to 31 December 2011. Click here for details.

Original Tunes Competition

When Graeme Bell's Dixieland Jazz Band recorded the first genuine Australian jazz records for a major company, Regal Zonophone, at Columbia's Sydney studios in April 1947 the band decided to include three original tunes. This did not present a problem, as Australian jazzmen had been writing and recording originals for private jazz record labels since the early 1940s. However, it was not until the advent of the Australian Jazz Convention that the practice came to prominence. For the 2nd AJC someone (thought to be Dave Dallwitz) suggested an Original Tunes Competition and (except for 1953) the popular event has become an integral part of the annual AJC programme. Similarly the annual Australian Jazz Bell Awards (to honour jazz pioneer Graeme Bell), which originated in Melbourne in 2003, has a category for Best Australian Jazz Composition of the Year.

Previous Winners of the AJC Original Tunes Competition

No Year Location Original Tune Composer
1 1946 Melbourne No Competition  
2 1947 Melbourne Boot Hill Bob Wright
3 1948 Cootamundra NSW Ragtime Tuba  Dave Dallwitz
4 1949 Melbourne Clarinet Sugar Dave Dallwitz
5 1950 Sydney Hilarity March  Frank Johnson 
6 1951 Adelaide Stomp Miss Hannah Ade Monsbourgh
7 1952 Melbourne Reed Warblers  Dave Dallwitz
8 1953 Hobart No Competition  
9 1954 Sydney That Ain’t Right   Peter Pretty
10 1955 Cootamundra NSW Taki It Away Henry Peter Pretty
11 1956 Melbourne Old Nick Rag Ross Collins
12 1957 Adelaide Green Jar Grind Col Nettleback
13 1958 Sydney I Know The Feeling Well Bob Cruickshanks
14 1959 Cootamundra NSW Bondi Babes Ade Monsborough
15 1960 Melbourne I Don't Know Yet Neville Stribbling/Ken Colyer
16 1961 Adelaide Black Diamond Strut Alex Frame
17 1962 Sydney Joe Blow King Fisher
18 1963 Melbourne Jop John Roberts
19 1964 Newcastle NSW B for A John Bishop
20 1965 Sydney Nickin' Off Nick Polites
21 1966 Melbourne Teardrops Dave Hetherington
22 1967 Hobart Helping Hand Rag
Late Hour
Nick Polites
Tom Pickering
23 1968 Adelaide Goolwa Grind Chris Kelsey
24 1969 Ballarat Vic Alone John Colborne-Veal
25 1970 Dubbo NSW Hourigan Swing Paul Furniss
26 1971 Hobart If You Don't Know The Words Tom Pickering
27 1972 Adelaide Bean Bag Strut Peter Voss
28 1973 Queanbeyan NSW Minor Iginal Alex Frame
29 1974 Melbourne Vy Vee Adrian Ford
30 1975 Balmain Ex and Bacon Adrian Ford
31 1976 Brisbane JB Stomp John Bates
32 1977 Hobart 'Twas A Time Paul Furniss
33 1978 Adelaide The Golden City Strut Herb Jennings
34 1979 Fremantle WA Melaleuca Murray Williams
35 1980 Forbes NSW Christmas Stomp Ken Evans
36 1981 Geelong Vic Roll On Friday Alex Frame
37 1982 Toowoomba Qld Late Again Adrian Ford
38 1983 Forbes NSW Don't Waste Your Time Ken & Betty Evans
/Danny Moss & Digby
39 1984 Wollongong NSW One For You
Tich Bray
Tony Faulkner
40 1985 Ballarat Vic I Love That Jazz Ken Sutton
41 1986 Adelaide Sauerkraut Stomp Chris Kelsey
42 1987 Armidale NSW Dance of the Yowies John Roberts
43 1988 Sydney Wistful Eric Holroyd
44 1989 Perth My Sweet Toute Suite John Roberts
45 1990 Launceston Golden Blues Rag Chris Kelsey
46 1991 Newcastle NSW The New Newcastle
You Never Care
John Bates
Geoff Bland
47 1992 Geelong Vic Noalimba Breakout
Like Fire (Young Composer)
Eric Holroyd
Ben Johnson
48 1993 Adelaide Crown and Anchor Stomp Herb Jennings
49 1994 Gold Coast Qld Forty Nine and Stoked Mal Jennings
50 1995 Melbourne Thinking Of Yourself Mal Jennings
51 1996 Bathurst NSW Someday You'll Know The Blues John Bates
52 1997 Launceston Adina John Roberts
53 1998 Geelong Vic Why Should I Be Blue
Serenity (Young Composer)
John Bates
Ben Calderazzo
54 1999 Perth Leneva John Roberts
55 2000 Forbes NSW Welcome To Jazz Land Ade Monsborough
56 2001 Adelaide Kangarilla John Roberts
57 2002 Launceston Bev's Washboard Stomp in B# Graeme Bell
58 2003 Forbes NSW Poor Forgotten Sweetheart John Bates
59 2004 Stawell Vic Bonza Stomp Herb Jennings
60 2005 Lismore NSW Scuttly Butt Swing Mal Jennings
61 2006 Adelaide Christabel Danny Hodgson
62 2007 Goulburn NSW Silent Movie Peter Wolstenholme
63 2008 Lismore NSW I Know That My Wife Cares Adrian Ford
64 2009 Melbourne Use It Or Lose It John Bates
65 2010 Orange NSW This Is Paradise Adrian Ford



Overseas Guest Artists

In 1949 the ex-Duke Ellington cornet player Rex Stewart toured Australia with Graeme Bell’s Australian Jazz Band. While here he also played and recorded with the Sydney modernists and appeared at the 4th Australian Jazz Convention in Melbourne. As the not-for-profit AJC became financially successful, an early dream finally became a reality with the involvement of an international jazz identity. It was finally implemented in December 1960 by the autonomous Sydney committee who brought out English jazz trumpet player, Ken Colyer. Over the years, until 1985, AJC committees organised and funded important overseas guest artists including diverse jazz personalities Alton Purnell, Bud Freeman, Dick Cary, Kenny Davern, Dill Jones, Danny Moss, Digby Fairweather, Art Hodes, the Turk Murphy Band and The World’s Greatest Jazz Band. Additionally, other overseas jazz musicians performing in Australia at the time attended the AJC including Billy Banks, Sammy Price, Tom Pletcher and Beryl Bryden.  

© Bill Haesler OAM


Jazz Archives in Australia

The need for a dedicated jazz archive had long been an objective for Australian jazz historians, researchers and record collectors. An earlier attempt to establish an Australia-wide archive was initiated at an Australian Jazz Convention but, notwithstanding the availability of material and enthusiasm, the venture was hampered by lack of adequate on-going funding, trained archivists and a central repository. This did not deter the dedicated activists and in late 1993, jazz musician, writer and academic, Bruce Johnson, approached the Australian government for support. The bureaucratic progress was slow and it was not until February 1996 that discussions took place with the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra ACT out of which came a productive public meeting in Sydney NSW, the formation of the Australian Jazz Archive Council comprising delegates representing regional jazz-community groups and meetings in Sydney and Melbourne leading to the formation of the independent Victorian and NSW Jazz Archives in September 1996 and October 1996 respectively. In February 1998, with the cooperation of the NF&SA, a dedicated Australian Jazz Archive was formally established at the NF&SA in Canberra ACT. The South Australian Jazz Archive was inaugurated in July 2003 but attempts to set up jazz archives in other states has, so far, met with limited results.

© Bill Haesler OAM

State Title Comments
ACT National Film & Sound Archive

The National Film and Sound Archive is Australia’s audiovisual archive, collecting, preserving and sharing this rich heritage. On 1 July 2008, the NFSA became an independent statutory authority. Now a national collecting institution in its own right, the NFSA is further committed to building the national collection and expanding public access and outreach.

NSW NSW Jazz Archives Peter Newton: 02 - 4739 1715


Vic Victorian Jazz Archive This not-for-profit Incorporated Association was established to: Collect, exhibit, preserve and store on a permanent basis all material and memorabilia of whatever nature pertaining to jazz music, performed and/or composed by Australian musicians, covering the period from the 1920's through to the present day. Collect and store recordings of jazz produced outside Australia, to be used as a reference source.


Jazz Clubs in Australia

Jazz clubs in Australia grew out of the scholarly interest in the music during the early 1930s, when enthusiasts, dance band musicians and record collectors gathered informally to listen to the latest records and discuss the music. Some clubs were formed for listening and discussion only, while others, working in conjunction with radio stations and music magazines, presented live music for both listening and dancing. But all had a similar focus - jazz.

Pre-war clubs included the Sydney Swing Music Club (founded in 1936), 3AW [radio] Swing Club in Melbourne (1937), Melbourne University Rhythm Club (1937), Brisbane Jazz Club (1941), Newcastle Hot Jazz Club (1941) and the Adelaide Jazz Lovers Society (1941).
Post-war clubs included the Uptown Club (Melbourne 1946), Brisbane Hot Jazz Society (1947), Southern Jazz Society (Melbourne 1959-58), Sydney Jazz Club (1953 - present), Melbourne Jazz Club (1958-65), Victorian Jazz Club 1968 - present) and the Southern Jazz Club, Adelaide SA (1971 -present). During the early 1960s in Melbourne, and a new jazz boom, numerous traditional jazz bands operated jazz clubs specifically to attract followers and young dancing fans.

The modern jazz movement also set up similar organisations including the now defunct Modern Music Society (Melbourne 1947), the loosely affiliated Australia-wide Jazz Action Society (Sydney from 1974) and the Sydney Improvised Music Association (from 1984), both of which are still influential and active organisations.

© Bill Haesler OAM

Click here to see a list of current Jazz Clubs in Australia.



NSW State Conservatorium of Music


Top of page