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On 30 April 2019, International Jazz Day was launched in Melbourne. Established by UNESCO in 2011, International Jazz Day is dedicated to the global celebration of the art of jazz, and it is now being celebrated in more than 190 countries around the world.
Jazz music has a long history in Australia with jazz and jazz-influenced syncopated dance music being performed here within a year of its emergence in the early 1900s as a distinct musical genre in the United States. Many Australian jazz musicians have also gone on to gain a high profile in the international jazz arena – perhaps none more so than pianist, composer and band leader Graeme Bell (1914 – 2012) often referred to as the father of Australian jazz. As well as being a superb musician, with over 1500 recordings to his name, Bell is regarded by many as the most influential jazz musician this country has ever produced.
In 1996, Graeme Bell donated his personal archive of papers to the Library, including a series of scrapbooks documenting his remarkable 70-year career. An active member of the Australian jazz community, Bell was also a passionate promoter of jazz who worked to raise its profile in Australia.
Since 2014 the State Library has supported a dedicated group of volunteers at the Australian Jazz Museum, based in Wantirna, Victoria, who have created digital copies of nine scrapbooks complied by Graeme Bell.
Graeme Bell scrapbook, volume 1, September 1939 – May 1950
Graeme Bell was born into a musical family in Melbourne in 1914 and introduced to jazz by his younger brother Roger, playing their first gig together in 1935 in a Scout Hall as the ‘Hot Air Men’. Bell later created opportunities for other jazz musicians to play together, setting up the Uptown Jazz Club and forming groups such as the Victorian Jazz Lovers Society.
In the late 1930s, the two Bells formed a Dixieland jazz band. Joined by Pixie Roberts, Russ Murphy, Adrian Monsbourgh and Lou Silbereisen, the band spearheaded the post -war resurgence of improvised jazz — then considered anti-establishment music – in Australia.
In 1946, the group began a playing a weekly gig with the communist Eureka Youth League’s ‘Hot Jazz’ Society. A year later the League sponsored the band’s participation in the 1947 World Youth Festival in Prague, where they played to an audience of 6000 people. Hailed for the distinctive Australian edge to their music, they became the first Australian jazz band to tour Europe, finally basing themselves in England where they are said to have exerted a strong influence on the European traditional jazz revival of that era.
During their first overseas tour in 1947-8, the band embarked on this trip with only one-way tickets so had succeed or be hopelessly stranded in a country about which they knew virtually nothing. They also took on a new name – ‘Graeme Bell and His Australian Jazz Band’ – anchoring them to their geographical origins of which they were all obsessively proud.
The Bell band arrived in London in the winter of 1947. On the night of 31 January 1948, they joined George Webb and his Dixielanders on stage at the Hot Club of London. When the club closed for business the next day, the Australians took a punt opening the Leicester Square Jazz Club two nights later by. It was an immediate success. Advertised itself as playing jazz for dancing, the new club’s membership rose to 1,000 within a few weeks, leading the local police asked the Club to opened more nights in order to thin out the crowds waiting in the streets.
When the Bell band advertised jazz for dancing, it altered the social role of the music, and brought in a new audience. The changing and enlarging of its audience, and the modification of the social function of the music, made Graeme Bell and his Australian Jazz Band world famous.
Graeme Bell scrapbook, volume 2, May 1950 – September 1960
Bell is also remembered for playing a key role in the foundation of the Australian Jazz Convention. Conceived as a private, post-war reunion and four-day jam session, Australian jazz musicians and enthusiasts from all over the country gathered in Melbourne on Boxing Day 1946 to play, listen and discuss their music. It was such a great success that a repeat event was held in 1947. The Australian Jazz Convention is now the longest running annual jazz event in the world.
Belle enjoyed continued success both here and in Europe in the 1950s with his Australian Jazz Band, before moving to Sydney where he formed the Graeme Bell All Stars jazz band.
Touring extensively both national and internationally throughout his long career, Bell was made a Member of the British Empire (MBE) in 1978, an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1990 and was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 1997.