The quality and variety of jazz in Australia has probably never been greater. Probably this has something to do with the inclusion of jazz into the curricula of the major conservatoria and music schools over recent decades. The aspiring jazz player no longer is thrown totally on his or her own resources as a student, but can get skilled guidance and a formal education. This might be the ruin of an art form living off the street, but jazz in Australia mostly has come indoors and is the sort of music that can benefit from the formal curriculum.

That its musicians achieve so highly is nevertheless remarkable because the circumstances are pretty dire. We can think of only a few players whom we know to make a good living. Everyone else lives hand to mouth unless they have an income from non-jazz sources such as taxi-driving or school-teaching. The overall level of subsidies is pathetic and unfortunately the audience is not large enough to support an adequate box office.


There are many other professional and semi-professional big bands in Australia, those listed are particularly active in contemporary jazz and play primarily or exclusively Australian compositions. Traditional big band repertoire is often performed by groups of musicians who are committed to keeping the tradition alive and seek an opportunity to play in a big band, but are generally poorly paid, low profile, and unable to tour and record. The situation is not significantly better for the ensembles listed above but most are able to receive funding to tour and sustain professional recordings.

Small ensembles and individual musicians

As to individual musicians or small groups, there is such an abundance of talented players that to name one is to risk not naming ten others.

One way around the problem would be to name the winners of the major competitions. They cannot be accepted as a “who’s who” of jazz in Australia, but do highlight some of the musicians who are well received by their respective judging panels. The Bell Awards and Freedman Fellowships point to bandleaders and well established musicians, as well as recognising strong emerging musicians and the Bells’ Hall Of Fame includes some of the recognised greats of Australian Jazz. The National Jazz Awards recognises excellence in performance, through the lens of conventional jazz performance and specific instruments.

Australia has few ‘high profile’ musicians. The most well known is James Morrison, who has maintained a public profile since the 1980s, and Don Burrows. In years gone by the Daly-Wilson Big Band, Ricky May and others were relatively well known, and Vince Jones has remained popular since coming to fame with the Come In Spinner soundtrack in 1990. Paul Grabowsky has had sufficient exposure through TV, writing for film and directing festivals to boost his profile well above the average jazz musician. Otherwise jazz musicians have generally only reached wider recognition through popular music, including Directions In Groove (D.I.G.) in the early 90s, Thirsty Merc and The Cat Empire in the 2000s, and Katie Noonan since the late 90s.

Venues and Entrepreneurs

Traditionally, some jazz venues are as famous as the most famous jazz musicians. Ronnie Scott’s in London, places such as the Village Gate in New York, are legendary. Back when in Sydney, El Rocco, and in Melbourne, the Embers, were where contemporary jazz found its legs. But by and large, the Australian venues, even the important ones, have been short term, transitory. The venue that is totally committed to jazz, that is synonymous with jazz, is a rarity. Overall, it’s more about a night here, a couple of nights there, usually in pubs or football and returned servicemen’s clubs.

Rather than fund venues, the funding bodies tend to fund presenters. The presenters then do a deal with a venue and offer performances once, twice, three times a week. The presenter keeps the door charge, the venue owner keeps the profit from food and drink. Often, the door take will be about enough to pay the musicians so unless there is subsidy, the presenter stands to make nothing – not a prescription for longevity. In other places, the musicians themselves will do a deal with the venue operator to keep the income from a door charge. The venue takes no risk, the musicians might possibly take home a decent fee. But probably not.

Until recently, the one real, committed, jazz-only venue in Australia is the privately owned Bennetts Lane in Melbourne. So far as we are aware, all other venues are part-time for jazz and may also present other types of music. Or no music for some or most nights of the week. In 2009 Perth-based pianist Graham Wood opened The Ellington, a full time jazz club with relatively significant investment in establishing a venue for the long-term. The venue presents a combination of contemporary and more mainstream jazz, and has a nightclub component which presumably helps fund the jazz gigs. Sydney’s 505, run by bassist Cameron Undy, opened as a full-time venue in 2010.

Until a few years ago, there was a parsimoniously funded system of ‘jazz coordinators’ in Australia – a coordinator for each of the six states, plus a national coordinator of coordinators. The coordinators played mainly a supportive rather than an entrepreneurial role, helping musicians secure grants, providing information, maybe occasionally presenting a performance somewhere. The very modest funding brought corresponding success. That system has now been virtually disbanded by the funding bodies although there are still jazz coordination and support bodies in South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland.

Some non-profit entrepreneurs are still supported, however, and give the funding agencies very good value for money. In Sydney, the Sydney Improvised Music Association (SIMA) presents two performance nights a week at the Sound Lounge, a club atmosphere in the Seymour Theatre Centre at Sydney University. The Jazzgroove Association, a collective of younger Sydney jazz players, presents one performance a week and runs a record label. In 2010 it moved to 505, an enterprise with strong links to this community and the Jazzgroove Association. The Melbourne Jazz Cooperative presents regular concerts at Bennett’s Lane. All of these receive national and state arts agency funding.

The small scale performance is probably most prevalent in Melbourne, where the liquor licensing laws have created a situation in which small restaurants and clubs are able to offer music.

Sydney performances tend more to be found in pubs or licensed clubs. In 2008-9 some changes to Liquor Licensing laws in NSW and abolition of Place of Public Entertainment (PoPE) licences took place, opening the way for more small venues which can present small-scale concerts, ie. an ideal environment for jazz. So far there is some hope in small venues which are presenting jazz. Sydney has seen many jazz nights open and close over the years, with many not able to sustain themselves for one reason or another. Besides SIMA, 505 and Jazzgroove, the series at Colbourne Avenue (previously 8 o’clock sharp / Cafe Church Space) is consistent and high calibre.

The Perth Jazz Society presents a regular Monday night gig at the Charles Hotel, and Jazz WA have for years been active in the Perth scene. In Adelaide, the best known venue is the Governor Hindmarsh, a hotel with a commitment to music but not to jazz alone. Creative Original Music Adelaide (COMA) is a not-for-profit presenting organisation which regularly presents creative music (significantly, but not exclusively, jazz). Its home has been the Wheatsheaf Hotel in Thebarton, and has some history of funding from the SA Government and an artist-run structure based originally on Sydney’s Jazzgroove Association.

Canberra has a variety of venues which semi-regularly or sporadically present jazz. The Hippo Bar was for a long time the venue of choice for local and touring contemporary jazz groups, and more recently Trinity Bar has become popular with students, who form a relatively substantial portion of the Canberra jazz community due to the ANU jazz program. Poet, author, jazz musician and enthusiast Geoff Page has also presented a concert series, primarily held at The Gods cafe. Also the Street Theatre presents concerts occasionally, and there are small residencies in bars, restaurants and clubs.

Brisbane has some active presenters amongst its small scene. The Brisbane Jazz Club, at the mainstream end of the spectrum, presents weekly concerts. Jazzworx! is a private music school which hosts concerts primarily due to the enthusiasm of the Quigley family who manage it, rather than commercial enterprise as such. Jazz QLD is involved in presenting publicly subsidised concerts and has had residencies at the Judith Wright Performing Arts Centre and The Powerhouse.

Regional Australia

The presentation of jazz outside the major cities is varied. In many places, of course, there is no jazz venue or series to speak of. NSW and Tasmania seem to have the most opportunities for regional jazz performances, with some in Queensland and Victoria but few in Western Australia, South Australia or the Northern Territory. Here are some examples of where live jazz can be heard:

In Cairns, the Tanks Arts Centre (a performing arts centre managed by a division of Cairns City Council) has a jazz series. It does not have a lot of concerts (perhaps 6 each year) but does have a significant audience and the concerts are better publicised than probably most jazz performances in the country.

In Wollongong, the Conservatorium of Music has a monthly jazz series. Most concerts are presented at the Conservatorium and some are held at the UniBar or elsewhere. It has come about as a by-product of the jazz education program, and is now well established as a concert series in its own right.

In Byron Bay there is a small jazz and creative music scene, which sporadically manages a series of concerts including the “Blue Birdy” series. Also in Lismore Jules Kelly does some excellent work in getting jazz into local venues.

In NSW, there are a number of places which present jazz sporadically. These are in almost all cases either through a Regional Conservatorium (Goulburn, Bathurst) or an individual enthusiast (Moruya, Armidale), although some jazz associations and venues (Albury-Wodonga, Dubbo, Orange) do present this music.

In Tasmania there seems to be as much happening outside the capital as there is within it. Hobart, Burnie, Launceston and other places have some regular jazz gigs although the scene is probably quite different to those in major mainland cities.

Festivals and major events

A few years ago, it was announced that of all the possible types of arts festivals in Australia, jazz festivals are the most numerous.

The most prestigious of them is the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz. This was set up in a country town in Victoria with no special connection to jazz. Jazz arrives, and leaves, once a year. The founder was Adrian Jackson, at the time but not any longer, the jazz critic for The Age newspaper in Melbourne. A major jazz award is a part of the festival each year, and each year is the outcome of a competition on a specific instrument, or voice.

A number of websites carry lists of Australian jazz festivals. The lists differ so it may be worth looking at more than one of them. The main ones are:

But there are many festivals not listed on those two sites. The majority are in small towns and probably feature traditional more than contemporary jazz.

Among the most important jazz festivals are these:

Jazz has a mixed and ever-changing relationship with major arts festivals. In Sydney, for example, the Sydney Festival for many years ran “Jazz In The Domain”, a large outdoor free concert. It would have an attendance of tens of thousands. This concert no longer exists. The Adelaide Festival and previously the Queensland Music Festival have been directed by Paul Grabowsky, a jazz pianist and composer among other things. Some festivals choose to include high profile international artists in their programs as a feature concert but few choose to engage with the local jazz community.

In recent years some very high profile American musicians have performed in Australia, often with the support of a major festival (Melbourne International Jazz Festival, Adelaide Festival, Wangaratta etc) and the Sydney Opera House, which has discovered that it can sustain several large jazz concerts each year. Among these artists are Wayne Shorter, Ornette Coleman, Ahmad Jamal, John Scofield and Joe Lovano, and Chick Corea, some of whom have rarely if ever performed in Australia previously.

Awards for musicians

Australian Jazz Awards (‘Bell’ Awards)

Process: Nomination by anyone willing to complete a nomination form, typically coming from organisations and leaders in the jazz sector. A committee chooses the three finalists in each category and the winner.


No Bell Awards in 2005; list below also omits years when particular award was not awarded:

Australian Jazz Artist of the Year: 2008 Julien Wilson, 2007 Jamie Oehlers, 2006 Paul Grabowsky, 2004 Phil Slater, 2003 Sandy Evans

Young Australian Jazz Artist of the Year: 2010 Linda Oh, 2009 Jeremy Rose, 2008 Sam Anning, 2007 Shannon Barnett, 2006 Aaron Choulai, 2004 Felix Bloxsom, 2003 Aron Ottignon

Best Australian Jazz Ensemble Of The Year: 2010 Jonathan Zwartz, 2009 Way Out West, 2008 Phil Slater Quartet, 2006 The Necks, 2004 The Necks, 2003 Australian Art Orchestra

Graeme Bell Hall Of Fame: 2010 Bob Barnard, 2009 Mike Nock, 2008 Bernie McGann, 2007 Don Burrows, 2006 John Pochée, 2004 Allan Browne, 2003 Ade Monsbourgh

Australian Entertainment “MO” Awards

Some years have had jazz categories; typically there would be instrumentalist, vocalist and ensemble, and some earlier years had gendered awards (Best Male Jazz Performer, Best Female Jazz Performer). There is an apparent (perhaps not intended) Sydney bias on these awards, as well as a more mainstream focus.

Process: Any individual performer, musical or vocal group, band or production show and other live performance entity is eligible to be nominated for a ‘MO’ Award and to win a ‘MO’ Award if they garner the winning number of votes from the Expert Panellists in their particular category.


2006 James Morrison

2005 Emma Pask; Andy Firth

2004 Joe Chindamo; Michelle Nicole; The Sydney All Star Big Band led by Ralph Pyl

2003 James Morrison; Michelle Nicole; The Sydney All Star Big Band led by Ralph Pyl

2002 Marie Wilson; Joe Chindamo; The Sydney All Star Big Band led by Ralph Pyl

2001 Michelle Nicolle; James Muller; James Muller Trio

2000 Shelly Scown; James Morrison; Ten Part Invention

1999 Marie Wilson; Kevin Hunt; Trevor Griffin Sextet

1998 Shelley Scown; James Morrison; Bernie McGann Trio

1997 Vince Jones; Bob Barnard; DIG

1996 Kerrie Biddell; Sandy Evans; Ten Part Invention

1995 Marie Wilson; Bernie McGann; The Catholics

1994 Kerrie Biddell; Dale Barlow; Bobby Gebert Trio

1993 Dale Barlow; Sandy Evans; Bernie McGann Trio; Bob Barnard; Don Burrows

1992 Judy Bailey; Dale Barlow; Free Spirits

1991 Kate Ceberano; James Morrison; Mike Nock Quartet

1990 Kerrie Biddell; James Morrison; Ten Part Invention

Prior to 1990 Kerrie Biddell; James Morrison, Ten Part Invention; Daly Wilson Big Band; Ricky May

Music Council of Australia Freedman Jazz Fellows

Age: 35 years and younger

Process: Nomination by a group of musicians selected from each state. From all the nominations, each musician is invited to submit an entry and four finalists perform in the Freedman Jazz concert at the Sydney Opera House. Judged by a panel.

Recipients (No Freedman Fellowship 2008 and 2009): 2007 Kristin Berardi 2006 Julien Wilson 2005 Matt McMahon 2004 James Muller 2003 Andrew Robson 2002 Phil Slater 2001 Andrea Keller

National Jazz Awards (Wangaratta)

One award per year since 1990, by designated instrument.

Age: 35 years or younger

Process: A recorded application by the musician, with a judging panel typically chaired by Mike Nock and including two specialists from the instrument of the year. 10 finalists perform at the Wangaratta Jazz Festival and First, Second and Third places are given based on those performances.


2009 Zac Hurren (Saxophone)

2008 Phil Stack (Bass)

2007 Aaron Flower (Guitar)

2006 Jackson Harrison (Piano)

2005 Elana Stone (Vocals)

2004 Felix Bloxsom (Drums)

2003 Phil Slater (Brass)

2002 Roger Manins (Saxophone)

2001 Brendan Clarke (Bass)

2000 Stephen Magnusson / James Muller (tied) (Guitar)

1999 Matt McMahon (Piano)

1998 Michelle Nicolle (Vocals)

1997 Will Guthrie (Drums)

1996 Scott Tinkler (Brass)

1995 Elliott Dalgleish (Saxophone)

1994 Julien Wilson (Saxophone)

1993 Tim Hopkins (Saxophone)

1992 Jann Rutherford (Piano)

1991 Mark Fitzgibbon (Piano)

1990 Barney McAll (Piano)

Awards for Young Musicians

Age: 19 years or under

A competition held at the annual Generations In Jazz festival in Mount Gambier. This often highlights young performers (under 19) who go on to make their mark in the scene.


2010 Harry Sutherland

2009 Dan Clohesy

2008 Konrad Paszkudski

2007 Alex Boneham

2006 Tilly Anderson


2004 David Duncan

2003 Andrew Fisenden

2002 Dane Alderson

2001 Troy Roberts

2000 and earlier: Evan Mannell, Matt Jodrell and others

Jann Rutherford Memorial Award

This is awarded to young female jazz musicians at the beginning of their professional careers. Process: Decision by a panel of educators and jazz musicians in NSW.


2010 Hannah James

2009 Sirens Big Band

2008 N/A

2007 Ali Foster

2006 Jess Green

2005 Alex Silver

Bell Awards

Age: 25 years or younger

Process: Nomination by anyone willing to complete a nomination form, typically coming from organisations and leaders in the jazz sector. A committee chooses the three finalists in each category and the winner.

Awards for recordings

Australian Jazz “Bell” Awards

Awards: Best Contemporary, Classic and Vocal Jazz albums.

Process: Nomination by anyone willing to complete a nomination form, typically coming from organisations and leaders in the jazz sector. A committee chooses the three finalists in each category and the winner.


Best Australian Contemporary Jazz Album

2010: Stu Hunter, The Gathering

2009: Oehlers, Grabowsky, Beck, Lost and Found

2008: Andrea Keller Quartet, Little Claps

2007: Jamie Oehlers Double Drummer Group, You R Here Session 2

2006: Jamie Oehlers, The Assemblers

(Gap in 2005)

2004, Mike Nock, Big Small Band Live

2003, Andrea Keller, Mikrokosmos

Best Australian Classic Jazz Album

2010: Sam Anning, Allan Browne & Marc Hannaford, Homage

2009: The Syncopators, Live at the Famous Spiegeltent

2008: Sweet Lowdowns, Cuttin’ Capers

2007: Allan Browne’s Australian Jazz Band, Five Bells and Other Inspirations

2006: Joe Chindamo, Live at Umbria Jazz ‘05

(Gap in 2005)

2004: Bob Barnard, Bob Barnard’s Jazz Party

2003: Allan Browne, Collected Works

Best Australian Jazz Vocal Album

2010: Kristin Berardi, If You Were There

2009: Tina Harrod, Work Songs

2008: Megan Washington, Night Light

2007: Lisa Young, Grace

2006: Janet Seidel, Moon of Manakoora

(Gap in 2005)

2004: Alison Wedding, The Secret

2003: Judy Jacques, Making Wings

ARIA Award

Award: Best Jazz Album


Association of Independent Record Labels (AIR) Awards

Award: Best Jazz Album

Process: A total score has been calculated with regards to a title’s spread across all 20 AIR independent chart positions over the past year and a shortlist of 10 albums has been collated. The judging pool is made up from approximately 350 members of the retail and media sectors of the music industry.


Support and Information Resources


Tertiary institutions offering instructions in jazz include:

In the past 20 years the level of specific jazz education at a tertiary level has increased significantly. Sydney Conservatorium of Music, one of the oldest of these programs, had an Associate Diploma in the late 80s and through the 90s, when the Bachelor of Music became standard. It, and many other institutions, now offer Bachelor of Music, Masters and sometimes doctoral programs with a jazz focus.

At the school level, some schools have jazz bands alongside their concert bands. This is not a systematic offering but probably depends upon the skills and predilections of the available music teacher(s).

West Australia has a big, high level youth jazz band, the WA Youth Jazz Orchestra (WAYJO), based in Perth. This is an independent organisation and not a part of the education system. It may be part of the reason that so many fine jazz players are coming out of Perth.

An interesting jazz program, also outside the school system but aimed at secondary students, has emerged at the Wollongong Conservatorium of Music.

There has in the past been an Australian branch of the International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE). In 2008 the IAJE collapsed financially and rebuilt itself with a domestic (American) focus. The Australian state-based IAJE associations were independent and therefore did not meet the same fate as their American parent body, some still exist but are no longer linked to an international association. Co-ordination of jazz education perhaps needs a renewed focus here.

A jazz education program worthy of mention is the Women’s Jazz Workshops in Sydney. Initiated by Sandy Evans and SIMA in 2001, the program has made a noticeable impact on the number of young women playing jazz in Sydney. The program is unique short course (8 weeks) aimed at young women (aged 14 – 28) who are interested in pursuing a professional career in jazz and improvised music.

Record companies that are totally or partly committed to jazz include:

In addition to these, many jazz musicians release their music independently and therefore a large amount of the recorded output is difficult to find. There are very few boutique jazz record stores in Australia, but Birdland in Sydney is significant.

No commercial stations known to us broadcast jazz.

The public station, ABC Classic FM, has regular jazz programs, Jazztrack and Jazz Up Late amounting to 6 hours per week of dedicated coverage on the national broadcaster. Radio National has some music programming which includes good meaningful coverage of jazz, including The Daily Planet, Weekend Planet and The Music Show. The schedule can be found in its published program guide.

DIG Jazz is a digital broadcaster, launched in 2009 and with national coverage where there is digital signal. ABC Radio has long played an important role in recording Australian jazz in its studios, at festivals and through some live broadcasts.

Occasionally TV has delved into the jazz community. The most recent example was The Pulse, an ABC series which filmed Australian jazz bands in Australian jazz venues.

There is no ongoing exposure of the music in television and no chance of a commercial incentive to present jazz on TV, but the music does occur occasionally on the public or community broadcasting stations.


Funding for jazz activities is available from the Australia Council Music Board and from all state and territory arts ministries. As noted above, it is usually the presenting organisations which receive ongoing funding while ensembles and artists can receive project funding for recordings, tours, study and occasionally commissions.

Philanthropy is rare with the notable exception of the Freedman Fellowship.

Corporate backing is accessible to some high profile events, and has supported the Melbourne International Jazz Festival and the Bell Awards, but otherwise there is very limited corporate funding of jazz activities.


In the late 1990s, the Music Council of Australia, in cooperation with the then National Jazz Coordination Office (now defunct), prepared a strategic plan for jazz development. It can be read at the MCA website.

We have to say that the Australian jazz community did not cope well with this plan. By the time everyone had defended their turfs from imagined take-overs or found some molehill to turn into a mountain, the outcome was paralysis.

During 2007-09, another movement towards national co-ordination was made by the National Jazz Alliance, a group of seven major organisations whose defining characteristic was having Australia Council funding (SIMA, Jazzgroove, Melbourne Jazz Co-op, Wangaratta Festival of Jazz, Jazz WA, Jazz QLD, Jazz SA). The instigator was Peter Rechniewski, founder and Artistic Director of SIMA, with his Currency House paper “The Permanent Underground”. The intention of the alliance, basically, was to address some of the problems in the Australian jazz scene and develop a formal alliance and a national body which would further the cause of this music. The National Jazz Plan was completed in 2009 by Ceres Solutions. It received Australia Council funding and went online in 2010 as a peak body for Australian jazz named Jazz Australia.

After two significant plans have been written and much discussion has taken place, many of the problems facing jazz have either been unresolved or aided by external factors, so there is still room for co-ordinated action on the part of the jazz sector to support this music.

See the 2001 plan, or the 2009 strategic plan (and Appendices) for jazz in Australia.


Richard Letts, September 2006, Alex Masso, July 2010

Dr Richard Letts AM is the founder and Director of The Music Trust, founder and former Executive Director of the Music Council of Australia (now Music Australia) and Past President of the International Music Council. He has held senior positions in music and culture in Australia and the United States, advocated for music and music education, conducted research, written policy documents, edited four periodicals, published four books and hundreds of articles.

Alex Masso manages MCA's Music in Communities Network. He is a Sydney-based drummer, educator, advocate and managed the events program at Wollongong Conservatorium of Music before joining MCA in 2012. Alex plays with The Vampires, Slide Albatross, Kinetic Jazz Orchestra, The Splinter Orchestra, and others.

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