Thursday, 18 July 2013

JAZZ ICONS #7: Graeme Bell

GRAEME BELL, c. 1947

You are the Australian, you're making the music, you're putting the band together to make the music, and to make a band sound. And then what comes out then, the other endalmost unbeknown to you, is an Australian sound. 
 Talking Heads 
ABC TV –– 21 August 2006 

The first Australian performance of the strange new American music known as 'jass' or 'jazz' took place on 15 June 1918 at Fuller's National Theatre on Castlereagh Street in Sydney.  The featured performer was an English 'lady baritone' named Belle Sylvia, backed by a quintet led by an American violinist named Billy Romaine who had been working the city's thriving variety circuit ('variety' was the British and hence the Australian term for vaudeville) since 1912.  A reporter for The Sun newspaper wrote that 'the gay quintettecaused a riot with the audience' but it would take nearly another thirty years for Australia to produce its first fully authentic homegrown jazz superstar.

His name would be Graeme Emerson Bell.


Free Man's Blues (1948)
GRAEME BELL (piano); ROGER BELL (cornet); ADE MONSBOURGH (valve trombone, vocal);
DAVE CAREY (drums) 
Recorded in London 
May 1948  

Bell was only three years old, living in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond with his parents –– his mother was a well-known contralto singer, his father an amateur actor and variety performer –– when the exciting Ms Sylvia and her band took the stage in Sydney that night.  His first exposure to jazz came courtesy of his younger brother Roger, a self-taught drummer (and later cornet player and vocalist), who was at that time a student at Scotch College in Hawthorn – the same school where the elder Bell had excelled at sport and art before leaving in 1929 to take a job as a clerk in an insurance office.  Roger and his clarinet/trombone playing friend 'Lazy' Ade Monsbourgh needed a pianist to flesh out the lineup of their newly-formed jazz band and persuaded the classically trained Graeme to join them.  'Eventually,' Bell remembered in a 2006 television interview, 'I got to like it.  But I never imagined it would be my profession.'

By the end of 1935 the group was playing regularly for dances and had become the featured entertainment in some of Melbourne's most popular nightclubs.  Bell still considered music a hobby, however, and dreamed of making a name for himself as an artist, only abandoning this dream when he realized that music would also allow him to supplement his meagre earnings as an insurance clerk while he played it.  He kept his day job at T&G Insurance for what he called 'nine boring years,' dividing his free time between playing with the band and taking art classes with painter Max Meldrum at the National Gallery of Victoria which allowed him to meet and befriend many emerging young Australian artists, among them Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd.  Despite his success as a musician, he never lost his early love of art and even ran his own Sydney-based gallery for a brief period during the 1970s.

In 1941 he fronted his own band – Graeme Bell's Jazz Gang –– but soon disbanded it to travel to the town of Mackay in central Queensland to entertain Pacific-bound Australian troops who were stationed there.  (He was disqualified from serving in the armed forces for health reasons.)  He married the first of his three wives in 1943 but his music career, plus the work he did for the army and the frequent absences from home that both demanded of him, placed enormous strain on the marriage, which ended within a year.  Back in Melbourne by then, fronting yet another new band, Bell gained a weekly residency at the Heidelberg Town Hall and another at the Palais Royale pavilion located in that city's famous Carlton Gardens.  (Sadly, this beautiful Victorian building was demolished in the 1990s.)  Not only did playing these higher profile gigs expose the pianist to a larger audience, they also allowed him to quit his day job and led, within a few months, to him making his first recordings for the Ampersand label owned and operated by lawyer/jazz fan William Miller.  By the end of 1943 Bell's combo had also become the house band for the Eureka Youth League (which had formerly been known as the Communist Youth League), performing after its weekly meetings and at its various social and fundraising functions.  In time, these performances became so popular that Bell asked the League's permission to start his own club-within-a-club which he named, with his usual panache, the Uptown Club.

The immediate post-war era saw Bell's career take another gigantic if unexpected leap forward when he and his band –– now re-christened Graeme Bell and His Australian Jazz Band and featuring his brother, Monsbourgh, Don 'Pixie' Roberts on clarinet, Jack Varney on guitar and banjo, Lou Silbereisen on bass and Russ Murphy on drums – were invited to perform at the World Youth Festival in Prague.  Although they had to run a raffle to help them raise their passage money, the now remarried Bell (who would also become a father for the first time while overseas) and his bandmates left for Czechoslovakia (via London and Paris) in 1947, playing the festival before touring the country and recording –– at the insistence of a fanatically devoted Czech fan! –– for the classical Prague-based Supraphon Gramophone Company.  These recordings included original tunes by Roger Bell and Monsbourgh and one of the pianist's most outstanding compositions, the catchy and evocative Czechoslovak Journey.  To this day, many European musicians still regard the 1947 visit of the Bell band as the event which marked the rebirth of European jazz following the ravages of World War Two.

Czechoslovak Journey (1947)
GRAEME BELL (piano); ROGER BELL (cornet); ADE MONSBOURGH (valve trombone);
Recorded at Rokaska Studio, Prague 
September 1947


The band relocated to London in the winter of 1947, living for a time in the house of English trumpet star Humphrey Lyttelton (who once quipped to a friend that 'he had Australians like other people had mice').  Lyttelton was the leading light of the new British Trad Revival movement and, like him, his Australian house guests soon found themselves performing regularly in the English capital, performing live on BBC radio and starting their own club in Leicester Square where they played what they and their manager chose to promote as 'Jazz for Dancing.'  Although their so-called 'desertion' of traditional or Dixieland jazz for swing and a smattering of 'pop tunes' saw them scorned by some jazz purists, their performances were received so enthusiastically by entertainment-starved British audiences that they quickly came to be regarded as the hottest, loosest, most exciting band in London.  They combined playing to packed houses in their own club twice a week with a weekly engagement at the London Jazz Club and regular forays into the provinces where their music proved to be equally popular and a welcome Antipodean antidote to the dreariness of life in socially and economically depressed post-war England. 

In February 1948 they were invited to return to Paris – a city they had visited twice before on their way to and from Prague –– where they entered the recording studio again courtesy of Charles Delaunay, friend, manager and future biographer of the already legendary Django Reinhardt.  The eighteen Paris sides and those they recorded following their return to London –– combined with what one English critic described as 'the gale of fresh air' their presence blew through the staid and perhaps overly reverential British jazz scene –– set the seal on their reputation as the most exciting thing to emerge from Australia since star cricketer Donald 'The Don' Bradman.  

They returned to their homeland in 1948 but were back in London in November 1950 to begin another tour.  As Bell himself explained:  'it went off like a rocket.  We were brought back again to Europe by a London firm of agents in 1950, and played all over the continent, too.  And that tour lasted till 1952.  During that period, we accompanied a black jazz singer, Big Bill Broonzy.  And that was a wonderful experience for us. That was in Germany [on 15 September 1951].'  Shortly after this tour, however, the original Australian Jazz Band band officially broke up, Roger Bell and Ade Monsbrough striking out on their own while the pianist sailed back to Australia to form a new band which subsequently toured several Australian military bases in both Japan and South Korea.  (The cold was so severe in Korea, Bell once reminisced to a friend, that the horn players had to thaw the spittle out of their mouthpieces over a camp stove before they could even think about using them to play their instruments.)



Was Leicester Square? (1948)
GRAEME BELL (piano); ROGER BELL (cornet); ADE MONSBOURGH (valve trombone);
Recorded in London
May 1948

Bell's success and the constant touring needed to sustain it made it difficult for him to settle down to any kind of normal family life and, with his second marriage to Catherine Watson now showing signs of strain, he decided to base himself at least semi-permanently in Australia, settling in Sydney where he was soon being asked to write arrangements and back singers for various hotel and nightclub engagements.  He also found time to give piano lessons –– he was teaching seventy-five students a week at one point –– start his own record label Swaggie Records and become a concert promoter, booking the legendary American cornet player Rex Stewart to tour and record with him as he would later do with old English friends like Humphrey Lyttelton.  He was also given the opportunity to interview his hero Louis Armstrong during one of the latter's three visits to Australia.  'I was invited into the VIP room by Channel Seven,' he recalled in 2006, 'when they were interviewing him, and the interviewer passed the microphone over to me and said, "Here, Graeme, you know more about this than I do."  Next minute I'm sitting down on the couch interviewing Louis Armstrong for the Channel Seven news.  Now, that is one of –– if not the –– biggest moment in my whole career.'


Black and Tan Fantasy (c. 1955)
Personnel unknown
 Probably recorded in Australia, c. 1955 

The emergence of a second UK Trad Revival movement in the early 1960s, led by highly successful acts like Acker 'Stranger On The Shore' Bilk and Kenny Ball and His Jazz Men, prompted Bell to re-form the Australian Jazz Band under the new name of The Graeme Bell All Stars.  This threw the pianist into uncharted territory in some respects, making him a true bandleader for the first time instead of playing his usual role as its easygoing if high profile spokesman.  'With the first band,' he explained, 'Rogerand Ade Monsbourgh were really the musical leadersBut I was the nominal leader, and I inherited some of my parents' showbusiness ability to operate from the stage, talk to the audienceconduct the traffic.  But when I formed the All Stars, I was my own man.  And that was the creative period of my life, really.  And I learnt how to try and get the best out of musicians to produce a band and produce a sound.  My own piano playing became quite secondary to the whole thing.'  The All Stars would continue to perform into the 1980s, while Bell himself continued to play as often as he could physically manage to play, still delighting audiences at the age of ninety and beyond while consolidating his reputation as the grand old man of Australian jazz –– something that was formally recognized when the newly-instigated Australian Jazz Awards were officially named 'The Bells' in his honour in 2003.  His autobiography, which it took him five years to research and write, was published in 1988 with a full discography of his more than 1500 recordings compiled by his friend, the musicologist Jack Mitchell.

Graeme Bell died of a stroke, at the age of ninety-seven, on 13 June 2012.  While he may not be considered a groundbreaking stylist by some of the snootier members of the jazz press, he was beloved and respected as few musicians, jazz or otherwise, ever are in Australia or anywhere else.  His music may have been 'light,' 'cheerful' and even possessed of a 'happy Aussie outdoor feel' as he himself once defined it, but it was never anything less than indicative of his lifelong passion for the music which had seduced him as a young man and then become his life's work.  The editors of DownBeat magazine probably provided him with a fitting epitaph when they wrote: 'Bell's is unquestionably the greatest jazz band outside America.'  While this is perhaps no longer the case, as the always modest pianist/composer probably would have been the first person to agree, it becomes far more significant when you stop to consider that he had never played a gig in the USA (due to problems with the American Musician's Union) at the time the statement was made.  

'Many times in my life,' Bell told a journalist in 2004, 'I've thought it was time to withdraw a little and, other times, I've thought I should disappear altogether.'  I, for one, will always be grateful that he didn't surrender to these impulses.  Without his example to follow, it might have taken much longer than it did for Australian jazz to find its own unique voice and develop its own distinctive character.

Biographical Sources:

'How Jazz Came To Australia', article by JACK MITCHELL published in the Sydney Jazz Club magazine The Quarterly Rag (2004?)

'Trailblazer Still Hooked', article by ANDRA JACKSON, The Age (3 September 2004)

Graeme Bell (1914-2012), obituary by HARRIET VEITCH, The Sydney Morning Herald (18 June 2012).

Graeme Bell (1914-2012), obituary by IAIN SHEDDEN, The Australian (14 June 2012)

Roger Bell (1919-2008), obituary by RAY MARGINSON, The Sydney Morning Herald (8 July 2008)

Big Walkabout in London, 1948-1951 liner notes by MIKE DURHAM (Lake Records LACD 166, released 2002)

The Historical Prague & Paris Recordings, 1947-1948 liner notes by PAUL ADAMS (Lake Records LACD 262, released 2008)

Wikipedia entry 'Graeme Bell' (unnamed author)


You can click HERE to read the Wikipedia entry for Australian jazz pianist and composer GRAEME BELL and HERE to listen to more great music by him and his many great bands.  

Special thanks to those who take the time to upload music to YouTube.  Your efforts are appreciated by music lovers everywhere.

You might also enjoy:
JAZZ ICONS #10: Bernie McGann
JAZZ ICONS #4: Jack Teagarden
JAZZ ICONS #2: Django Reinhardt

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