I always knew I would spend my life being a musician. As a child I wasn’t concerned with the finer details such as how, what or why. Music, listening and creating, since the time of my earliest memories, has given me a profound feeling of peace, purpose and fulfilment.
My musical journey began learning piano, theory, and other instruments. The tuition I received was based on reading and interpreting music composed by the classical masters. I have no doubt that the theoretical, technical, and musical knowledge I gained from this foundation set me up in good stead for the rest of my musical life. I immersed myself in music, unaffected by popular culture, I lived in a world that often found me in our family living room standing on a foot stool, chop stick in hand, The Best of Tchaikovsky blaring from the cassette deck, ordering the French horn section to quieten down.
When I was 13, I attended my first jazz concert. It was a rare two piano performance by Judy Bailey and Roger Frampton. I was intrigued and consequently sought more experiences of hearing live jazz performances in Sydney. The music resonated very deeply with me. I was most taken by the spontaneity, the sense of sharing and communication between the musicians on stage, and the groove.
Aside from a small handful of experiences at the piano where I had blunderingly attempted improvisation as a method to create compositions, my musical education and experience had, until then, not included or encouraged improvisation on any level. Perhaps I was initially drawn to it because I saw the art form as a neglected minority, but with its mystery and charm having so affected me, the desire to explore it further was utterly compelling.
My transition from interpreting pre-determined music to spontaneous music making was long, confronting, and full of doubt. The act of improvising created feelings of both fear and excitement in me – shifting the balance to weigh more heavily on excitement rather than on fear became a major stumbling block in my developmental process. I felt as though improvisation was akin to airing one’s innermost secrets to the public. Additionally, the aesthetic of learning to accept, appreciate, and indeed value imperfections was completely foreign to me. It appeared the antithesis of the musical ethos that had been bestowed upon me.
Although my father was never encouraging of me to follow my dream of becoming a musician (he believed I would be a great typist given my facility at the keyboard), I am grateful to him for his constant declaration, even from my earliest attempts at the piano, that he preferred it when I played things my own way. It has taken me many years beyond his lifetime to realise what a significant and vital message this was for me to hear, and the likely impact it has had on my chosen path.
My mother had a wonderful enthusiasm for exposing my brother and me to a wide array of live concert experiences. She was the nurturer of our interests. It was my mother who took me to my first jazz concert. I recall at one point she leant over to tell me that not only was Judy Bailey one of the most accomplished jazz pianists in the country, a lone female working alongside the men at the top, she was also a single mum with two kids. The importance of this for me cannot be underestimated. Judy showed us all that it is possible.
Throughout the several decades of my life, I have been surrounded, nurtured and influenced by a long list of generous, brilliant and inspiring teachers, musicians, artistic directors, club managers, writers, radio presenters, mentors and more. Far too numerous to name, there are a few who have come to hold particular significance.
Brian Brown, former head of the Victorian College of the Arts Improvisation Department in Melbourne, encompassed a philosophy and set of musical beliefs that had an enormous impact on the formation of my own. Namely, that jazz is a music of personal expression, and as such must draw from and bring together every aspect of an individual’s life, heritage, musical interests etc. The fact that we are all unique should be celebrated and reflected in the music, through the development of one’s own voice. The individuals and their personalities are therefore the vital ingredient, and for this reason the music defies boxes and inhibiting descriptors. It is in a perpetual state of flux. In a conservative country, with a small scene like Australia, this is a difficult commodity to sell to the music industry, let alone to the public.
It is disheartening that jazz and improvised music does not receive the support, acknowledgement and opportunities of its counterparts, that the skill, discipline and toil required to realise the music are not recognised. This is constantly reflected in the extremely poor remuneration. However, this reality makes the actions of our jazz elders, through their lifelong dedication to the pursuit of the music and their passion to share this great art form, all the more awe inspiring.
Allan Browne was certainly one such awe inspiring elder. During my formative years, jazz was already well established in tertiary institutions, which brought many benefits, but also saw the decline of the traditional method of learning through the mentor system. I was incredibly fortunate however, to have been mentored by Allan for the 15 years that I played in trios with him, having begun when I was relatively young and inexperienced, full of unarticulated questions and concerns. Through his work and manner, Al demonstrated the importance of the individual’s perspective in jazz. Through his enthusiasm and encouragement, he validated my contribution, illustrating that the possibilities within the music are boundless. His wisdom and generosity both on and off the stage taught me lessons that I continue to carry with me daily.
As a colleague said to me on the day of Allan’s death, “Now it’s up to us”.
My deepest thanks to all the nurturers.
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Andrea Keller was born of Czech parents. A pianist and composer, Andrea grew up in Sydney, attending the Conservatorium of Music High School. Since moving to Melbourne in 1993 where she attended the Victorian College of the Arts studying improvisation, she has been dedicated to the performance and creation of contemporary, original jazz and improvised music. Her work has been recognised through three ARIA Awards, four Australian Jazz Bell Awards, an Art Music Award, and fellowships from the Freedman Foundation and the Australia Council. She is the mother of three children and a sessional staff member at the University of Melbourne’s faculty of VCA and MCM, Melbourne Polytechnic and Monash University.