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Late January in Melbourne at the Australian Open Tennis is hot. Usually very hot. Sweltering. In the early noughties I remember playing outside in close to 50 degree celsius; with reflected heat from the concrete jungle interspersed with dust blowing up from the Lilydale toppings expanse of the Rod Laver Arena forecourt. Possibly the most unlikely place to be considering the notion of whether there is a unique and identifiable Australian Jazz.

But, with trusty battery amp (on wheels) in tow, this is how it was for many years. Doing thrown together duo and trio gigs outside in the height of summer at the Australian Open, entertaining the punters looking for their fix of high drama on the court. It’s fair to say that the minimum time possible was spent outside by these punters: the minimum time possible between car/train, ticket office and shrine to ball-thwackers. There often wasn’t a lot of listening going on. It was too hot for most punters to consider the artistry of how we were carving up the II-V-I’s, or how funky my basslines and comping were. I did manage to spot Hank Marvin (from The Shadows) as he was walking up the stairs to a finals match one year; he seemed to appreciate me busting out a bit of Apache (the first real song I learnt on guitar). But it was only he and I who shared that moment; the significance of the exchange was completely oblivious of everyone else around. These gigs were an important proving ground however. It actually had the ingredients needed to foster a reasonably good idea, one which would take a number of years to realise.

As nobody was really listening1, we were free to make stuff up on the spot. We were free to try new sketches of tunes. There were no rehearsals; people would call tunes. Or make up a riff. Or call out the changes:

“Ok this is a Rag in the People’s Key , first chord D minor; AABA form; B section goes III-1 VI-II-V around the cycle; here we go, 1 *click* 2 *click* 1 2 3 4…………”

That was the extent of the rehearsal. No charts. Often flying by the seat of your pants. Always listening. Constantly adjusting. Always working hard. For my job on guitar, it was juggling comping some harmony, being heavy on the basslines, and adding some right-hand backbeat slap percussion to fill out the sound and cover all the bases (or basses?).

The currency of your skills as a musician was knowing tunes and knowing the tunes that other players would know. This has always been the domain of the jazz musician. Internal retention of the roadmaps of tunes: memorising structures, shapes, changes, and numbers. Real Books have facilitated this “common 2 knowledge” amongst musicians around the world. You could do a gig without being able to speak the same language. Having this shared knowledge enabled the gig to be done without wasting time on rehearsing. Using this logic, older musicians are worth more: more gigs = more tunes learnt = more experience = more gig currency. I was on the path.

Copyright © accessed from Hal Leonard and Sher Music Company.

Doing these gigs I started to realise there were tunes going around and aurally communicated within this scene of musicians. These tunes were great: they were fun to play, catchy, and in my own opinion there were as good as anything else found in any Real Book. Why weren’t these tunes more widely known? How would these tunes break out of the limitations of their geography, how would these tunes be communicated beyond this circle of musicians?

How do tunes become part of the vernacular, and part of the “common knowledge”? I started to collect my favourite ones, and made some little books with my trusty comb binding machine. Seeing it in print seemed to legitimise the tunes contained.

I started to wonder: Why is there not an Australian Jazz Real Book? Is there such a thing as Australian jazz? A discussion with my then boss at a prestigious private school in inner Melbourne enraged me: “There’s no such thing as Australian jazz. You just try to imitate what goes on in America”. I named several prestigious artists with a unique compositional voice and tried to articulate my argument to no avail. I was determined to prove them wrong, so I was provoked into action. But the niggling questions still remained: Are we a cultural backwater at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, far away from everything else important going on in the world, or do we have our own culture going on? Does it matter? Why don’t we celebrate our own?

As it turns out, an AJRB was actually attempted in the 1980s but was unsuccessful. After many years of writing successful grant applications, someone actually suggested that I could use this project to do a Masters or even a PhD. So, I thought I’d give it a go. “Fake it until you make it” is a useful mantra for many creatives, and definitely one employed here. I pulled up my socks, pulled my finger out, sharpened my pencil and burned the midnight oil. The Masters I enrolled in quickly turned into a PhD by Project: “The Development of the Australian Jazz Real Book”. I worked hard and did my best to make something useful, using the tried and true template of “The New Real Book” published by Sher. I jumped through the hoops, over the hoops, around the hoops, and tunnelled under them too.

I quickly realised the physical limitations of the largest spiral binding available in the world was not going to be democratic or inclusive enough, even if I annoyed my printer by packing another 50-odd pages into its already overstretched binding technology. The AJRB physical book contains 417 tunes over 650 pages. But it wasn’t enough.

Bruce Johnson: “I congratulate you. Having been closely involved in an attempt to compile one of these a couple of decades ago, I have a particularly acute appreciation of the magnitude of the task, and, worse, its politics. No two people will ever agree as to what should be included in a book like this. The only way to achieve equity is to put it all online.

And so the digital curation of the AJRB started. It would enable me as the editor to regularly add tunes from new releases; to feature new and rediscovered artists, correct mistakes, and more importantly communicate with a community of practitioners about who is doing what. It also has been a platform to add backing tracks, bios, photos, links to artist websites, links to Bandcamp, YouTube, iTunes and other places where people can buy the music and support the artist. It also contains compositional analysis to scaffold learning for education. Every month the newsletter goes out featuring new tunes. As of current writing, we’re at 1263 tunes from 350 composers.

 Copyright © Australian Jazz Real Book website. Image supplied from

So what does it all mean?

Simply put, the availability of the AJRB in physical and digital forms has enabled a body of work to exist and be represented. It is available for the next generation of musicians to access, so they can learn from what has come before and build upon what has already been created to take the artform in a new and original direction. The support from educational institutions around Australia that subscribe to the resource has enabled the project to continue. It has also fulfilled a vital role in curricular development: Music Performance courses now write Australian content into curricula and make it mandatory for students to perform a quota of Australian content in recitals. Anecdotally, this has contributed to the development of the Australian jazz sound, as well as empowering a generation of young musicians to engage in the process of developing a unique compositional voice. To do what others are not doing. To say what hasn’t been said yet, in a way that hasn’t been conceived yet.

 Andrea Keller & Tim Wilson. Image supplied

To answer the critics as to whether there is such a thing as “Australian jazz”: I think this has been answered beyond a shadow of doubt. Australian creative musicians continue to produce fantastic, original, innovative, interesting and unique music that draw upon a wide variety of inspirations, influences, and backgrounds. There is incredible diversity in what we make. There also exists a fortitude to continue to create what does not exist yet, in spite of all the challenges and lack of support.

 The Vampires. Image supplied

Sure, there are challenges in the Australian jazz community that we need to face with open hearts and open minds. Worth noting that these issues are not unique to Australian culture, nor jazz communities. Issues currently identified that need to be tackled are gender diversity, visibility/invisibility, and meaningful engagement with First Peoples communities. These issues are difficult to confront but it is imperative that we work towards solving them. There exists a lack of organisational support and infrastructure, lack of mainstream media support, lack of accessibility and engagement in lower socio-economic communities and a lack of cooperation/coordination across the jazz community. These structural problems can largely be addressed through meaningful federal government support of the arts and cultural industries in Australia, and not by cutting funding, strategically undermining cultural institutions, or removing them from ministerial portfolios. There are advantages we do have however: our creatives are unencumbered by the burden of tradition – we are free to find innovative musical solutions to express unique voices. There need to be viable pathways available to tell these stories. Much work needs to be done.

 Copyright © Tim Nikolsky holding a copy of the Australian Jazz Real Book. Image supplied.

If the AJRB can contribute to the idea that Australian creative musicians are worthy of being listened to, then its aim has been achieved. There’s also an ever-expanding resource that is available. I look forward to the next decade of interesting creative music that this community makes. I will continue to work on the AJRB as long as people think it is an important thing that it exists. And to answer the question of whether any of those tunes played at the Australian Open made their way into the book? Yes, I’m proud to say that many are in there. They now have the opportunity to be found by people looking for tunes to play at sporting events (whilst wearing silly costumes) the world over.


(1) The People’s Key is F major; which is a comfortable key to play in and good for everyone: Horn players with transposing instruments only have one or two sharps.

(2) A ‘Real Book’ is a book of compositions presented in a condensed lead sheet format (comprising melody, chords and lyrics) used by musicians, educators and music students as a songbook to practice and perform. According to Witmer (2007) a Real Book is: An informal collection of scores used by performing musicians and as a tool for learning. A Real Book is a legalised version of a fake book. A fake book presents (either in loose-leaf or bound form) simplified music (chords, melody, lyrics) to standards and popular tunes, enabling the player with enough information to ‘fake’ the tune. Contents may range in number from a few dozen pieces to well over a thousand. Many books include transcriptions of items still protected by copyright, and are therefore illegal; as a result fake books are ephemeral and often difficult to obtain, and many are sold by dealers who depend largely on word of mouth for their trade. Bandleaders sometimes create their own fake books, which are used by their members alone. Legal collections, where copyright has been cleared with the original publishers of the tunes, are also in existence (p. 753). Musicians use Real Books as a source of repertoire to play on gigs. Many of the most played tunes are often referred to as ‘standards’ as they are played often and form part of the generally accepted knowledge of jazz musicians around the world.

Jazz musicians usually own several Real Books. These books enable musicians who do not know each other to do a gig without rehearsing as the Real Book tunes serve as common knowledge.

A Real Book can refer to any of a number of popular jazz fake books, but is generally used to refer to Volume 1 of a semi-underground series transcribed and collated by students at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, during the 1970s. Quite unlike its predecessors, the original The Real Book was not just a practical product for fans of music, or for musicians themselves, but rather it was a publication of ‘immense creativity’ (Kernfeld, 2006, p. 140). The Real Book became the most extensively used fake book ever published.

Dr. Tim Nikolsky is a Melbourne based musician, educator, tech guy, PhD graduate, cyclist, enthusiastic homebrewer and most of the time a pretty good guy. His PhD on the development of the Australian Jazz Real Book is the first of its kind in Australia has received several accolades and awards. He can be contacted at

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