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INSIDE THE MUSICIAN: Stuart Vandegraaff: Living on the Harmonics

Between the Covid lockdowns of 2020, I took the opportunity to release an album of original jazz compositions, Saving Daylight, which was launched to a full house including many online attendees at the now closed 505 Theatre. It was a recording made at a busy time in late 2018 with friends for no particular reason other than to capture some ideas and a moment in time, not necessarily intended for release. Listening back more than two years later, after trying to survive through the greatest period of hardship most (particularly freelance) musicians will ever have to endure, the recording felt like a time-capsule of better days that may yet never be reclaimed, before the devastation hit.

At the time things were busy with recording, gigging and touring various ensembles: Masha’s Legacy, the Zela Margossian Quintet, the Andalus Arabic Choir, picking up international tours, as well as numerous local acts. The Brazilian choro groups I love to hang out and play with were meeting weekly or more frequently, and casual and corporate gigging work was plentiful. While working with the NSW Police Band, I was finishing my Master of Music at the Conservatorium and gaining a foothold as a music academic. I even got the call to tour the country with the 50-year reunion of the musical Hair. Well, I told myself, if I’m ever going to do a professional musical, it should be Hair: free thinking, liberal values, great music, the social (and other) experimentation of the late 60’s, anti-war sentiment, hippies: sounds like my crowd! I must say, it did rather feel like both a moment of actualisation and the end of an era when in October 2019 I was able to ride my pushbike over Anzac Bridge to work at the Opera House and soundcheck by pasting the brown note (low A) of my baritone sax all over the hallowed walls of the main concert hall.

Zela Margossian Quintet performance, Sydney Festival 2021. Photo: Peter Woodbury

While doing a radio interview ahead of the Saving Daylight launch, I was asked why it had taken me so long to release my first jazz album – I was in my mid-40’s at the time. It was hard to articulate: there is so much great music out there already, how to presume in these times to put something out there to take a spot alongside so many greats? Moreover, I’ve always enjoyed playing in the band, not being the hero: it’s not my personality to crave the limelight. Of course, I’ll step up when called upon, but my pursuit of esoteric ego-less-ness seems frequently at odds with the way music needs to be marketed and the self-aggrandisement that is so prevalent and arguably necessary as a “front man”. Also, jazz being such an interpretive term, I’m aware that many would regard what I do as not jazz, and my self-perception is not wed to the label of jazz. The way I see it, there’s only one sort of music: good stuff. The rest is noise.


I was born on Gunai-Kurnai country, Victoria’s remote Gippsland. Dad was a government vet, and epidemiologist who dutifully climbed the ladder and chased the next qualification, so we moved around a lot: I think I lived in more than 20 houses before I was 18, all through regional Victoria and South Australia, and attended five different primary schools. Regional kids can be tough, and we were a self-contained family. While my elder brother developed a sparkling sense of humour to win friends and popularity wherever we went, as the introspective second child I delved into myself, developing independent ideologies while surrounding myself with acerbic wit as protection.

It was only later in life that I started appreciating the exposure we had to parts of the country most Australians will never see: the red sand in the outback, the oddities of the hobbit-like holes in Coober Pedy, the magnificence of Wilpena Pound and the legendary clear night skies full of Dark Emu and Milky Way, catching King George whiting off Port Lincoln and Ceduna, hiking the coastline of the Flinders Chase National Park on Kangaroo Island, roustabouting at Dad’s friends’ farms, playing the Quorn footy team, a mainly indigenous team who played barefoot on the 3-cornered jack festooned dirt oval – that mob were Tough! Casual and directed racism was endemic in the late 70’s and early 80’s, and in a strange way I’m grateful I was exposed to it while having an independent enough mind, even as a child, to reject it completely.

I had two great sax teachers as a kid: Helen Menzel and Cheryl Barclay, and a passionate school bandleader in Dave Longden as well as devoted mentorship from Colin Curtis. It was Dave who gave me a mixtape bearing the words “Charlie Parker” with advice to listen, and I did: at age 13 I transcribed every note on this tape even before I knew what transcription was. It was only years later that I worked out that the recording was not Charlie Parker at all, but a wonderful album called Musique du Bois by Phil Woods, a hard copy of which I only tracked down in 1998 while chasing music in New Orleans. This became the soundtrack of my youth, combined with a lasting love of the music of Ella Fitzgerald developed with my friend Rolf. His dad was a leading Adelaide architect with a purpose designed parabolic-wall listening room and a pair of matched Bose speakers (the absolute duck’s nuts at the time) and we played Ella in Rome: the Birthday Concert until the stylus wore out. I can still sing the whole album.

Adelaide in the ‘80’s was a good place, full of music. I got to sit next to Don Burrows when he and James Morrison came for workshops and concerts with the school big band, even smoky old Nobby Clarke or Bob Jeffrey would sit in with Robbie Chenoweth to bend the air into magic on their blistering solos. How I wanted to do that! That school band had some great players who also went on to become prominent professionals, including Ben Gurton, Sam Dixon and Jamie Jones. We’d go to the Tonsley Hotel with Dad’s mate Robbie Robinson, a horse vet who loved trad, and see that crowd do their thing with sousaphones, traps, cornets and clarinets, and Robbie would sometimes slip me a butcher of light shandy (“just be discreet”). I won the 6th grade AMEB state prize that year for saxophone but saw it as a mindless hoop-jumping exercise that gave me no insight into the music I was really into. Having said that, though, I was the first ever saxophonist in the school symphonic orchestra, sight transposing any part that needed filling on alto or tenor sax: bassoon, horn, bass clarinet and a variety of other parts.

After dabbling with an Electrical and Electronic Engineering degree until I came up hard against my ethical boundaries, I won a spot at the Adelaide Con to study jazz on alto sax. There I also had good teachers: Bob Jeffrey, Tony Hobbs, Andy Sugg and Schmoe Elhay. By that stage I’d worked my way through many transcriptions, and Bird, Cannonball, Art Pepper, Phil Woods, Paul Desmond, Paquito D’Riviera, Kenny Garrett, Steve Coleman and Dave Sanborn all felt like family by then. It was the mid-90’s: James Morrison, Wilbur Wilde and Dale Barlow were all over the telly, and we’d get bands like Swoop, Skunkhour and DIG come down from Sydney and do incredible shows. Then one day, tenorist Matt Macdonald brought in a recording that changed my life. It was Jan Garbarek, a beautiful ECM recording with Anouar Brahem and Shaukat Hussain called Madar. Minimal, reverential, melismatic, spiritual and expressive, it became everything to me. Shortly after, a friend invited me to be an artist minder at a relatively new festival, Womadelaide: the job was to meet artists at the airport, get them to accommodation, rehearsals and the gig, and attend to their any and every request. The two ensembles I was assigned were legendary Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin and his band, and Trilok Gurtu and the Glimpse, who needed to rehearse with picked-up Perth bassist Paul Pooley, having recently parted company with Kai Eckhardt. I also ended up looking after Yair Dalal and the El Al Ensemble, having passably good Hebrew thanks to my girlfriend (now wife) Sarit.

Soundcheck for Andalus Arabic Choir, Sydney Opera House 2017. Photo: unknown

Backstage at Womadelaide in the late 90’s was for me the most exotic place in the world. Mega-musicians, artists, griots and spirit-beings from far flung places like Mali, Pakistan, Turkey, the Middle-East, Europe, South American countries, Arnhem Land and Pitjinjara country got massages, shared jokes, talked politics and nourished their bodies. I had found my true family of kinship. Jazz had been the vehicle, but only in this pocket of the world had the Australian cultural narrative departed from its binary classification of “jazz or classical” to allow space for a more generously encompassing definition of reality.

A pivotal experience for my musical journey and world-view was that I was able to travel the world in the late-90’s after completing my music performance degree at Adelaide Conservatorium. A bike accident left me with a badly broken finger and 6 months of rehabilitation ahead, and as my partner finished her studies in Bandung, Indonesia we decided to explore afterwards, eventually traversing South-East Asia, the Middle-East, and crossing both Europe and the USA. All up we were on the road for around 15 months, chasing connection, adventure, music, history and fun. It was during a 3-month section towards the start of this trip that we based ourselves near Jerusalem when I began my infatuation with Arabic music which continues until today. The world is changed now, and looking through the eyes of my teenage daughters there is no way they could travel so freely (or cheaply) in today’s world that feels so much more segmented and fearful, and still very much suffering in the wake of this pandemic.

When we returned, I was offered a full-time gig with the Royal Australian Navy Band, which is how we came to be in Sydney. I took up the job in 2000, and resigned in 2004, again coming up hard against my ethics: Australia had recently invaded Iraq, and I wanted no part of being PR for that travesty. It was around the end of this period that I started hanging out and jamming with the likes of Jackie Orszaczky at the Rose of Australia, and Deva Permana’s weekly themed jams at the Hollywood Hotel. It’s hard to overestimate the value of these grass-roots gatherings, so much more than beer sales, attendance or profitability. Through these sessions, I made many of the closest musical contacts and connection with scenes I still maintain today, and I know the same was true for all musicians who swung their axes there. It was here that I established connections with Brazilian musicians and devotees, a passion I pursue to today and one that led me to travel to Brazil to study, perform and record in 2012.

Stuart Vandegraaff (foreground) with the Andalus Arabic Choir at Sydney Opera House in 2018. (Photo with permission.)

On another trip to the Middle-East in 2008, we were in the ancient Crusader fort built on a Palestinian town called Acre (Akko). A boy was taking an afternoon break from his greasy work in a shawarma store, taking time to have a coffee and play his flutes. The melodies from his kaval echoing from the ancient stonework were utterly mesmeric, and I approached discreetly. We talked after he had finished, and he sold me two cane flutes: a kevala and nay Husayni. Made from the same material as my saxophone reeds, these ancient Arundo donax flutes opened a world of musical mysticism I’d always perceived but for which in my limited Australian cultural environment had never had formal or casual conversations or language to describe (beyond the “musical orgasms” Jamie Jones and I used to joke about). Since then, I have revisited many times to learn nay, Arabic maqam and experience tarab culture, and this led to my 2018 Masters study developing an evenly-tempered 24-tone chromatic conception for saxophone, based around the context of microtonality in maqamat.

Ethics, music, the ascetic path, and the morphic resonance we who are born on this ancient land have with this place have all combined with time and learnings to define my path. Before the greedy colonials, who would concentrate the wealth and bounty of this place in a materialistic race towards oblivion, there was lore, law, culture and ceremony. Music is central to this here as it is all over the world in pockets not yet smashed by consumerism and fiercely protected by adherents. Unfortunately, in this current age music has also fallen victim to the same rapacious values, being commoditised and formulated as a form of mass hypnosis for unwary cashed-up consumers. Being so separated from its intrinsic values, it now takes people effort to understand enough to participate beyond the superficial. Perhaps this is why the jazz niche is still such a significant part of my activity: there are people who care deeply about this craft and calling, not just players but educated audiences who understand the difference between the superficial and the substantial. It is an enduring shame (and a reality that requires an urgent overhaul) that in this important cultural space much of the work is only made possible by an ephemeral, unreliable, often demeaning, time-consuming and otherwise flawed pastiche of grants.

Stuart Vandegraaff, eyes closed, in Masha’s Legacy

I’m certainly happy to know who my tribe is, and to be an accepted and valued member of this community who value such an esoteric pursuit. Of course I’m speaking about my Masha’s Legacy, Zela Margossian Quintet, Mara! band, EJT, chorinho and extended musical families, but to all the participants and practitioners who participate at whatever level, especially at the community level. It is this continuum from first time player to fully fledged professional that deserves nourishment, to remove conservative self-effaciveness and encourage participation. By definition, the arts operate on the highest harmonics of a successful society, but somehow this value has been largely lost to the current generation and its hostile, poorly educated, amoral “leadership”. The hope I continue to bear is that of a resilient self-contained-ness, both individually and for our wonderful community, its devotees and supporters.

March-April 2022



Phoenix Central Park with ZMQ

ZMQ video single – Forecast

Masha’s Legacy collage

Sur Sagar – cross-cultural collaboration India x Australia

Stuart’s website

Stuart Vandegraaff is a performer, bandleader, educator and community music facilitator with a special presence in intercultural music. Based in Sydney since 2000, Stuart has performed locally, nationally, and internationally in a diverse range of musical settings. Classically trained, with an undergraduate degree in jazz performance and a Master’s in Arabic maqam study, Stuart is a saxophone specialist (SATB) with additional proficiencies on Arabic nays (cane flutes), clarinets, and a variety of other woodwinds. Aside from his ARIA-nominated work with the Zela Margossian quintet, Stuart is bandleader of Masha’s Legacy and SEV, and also a regular member of Elsen Price’s The EJT, Mara’s Musica Viva in Schools show, principal reeds for the orchestra of the Andalus Arabic Choir, and co-founder of the Clube Nacional do Chorinho na Australia. He is active in numerous jazz, Brazilian music and Arabic music ensembles and is an in-demand commercial and orchestral session artist.

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