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WHILE ONE DOOR CLOSES…

Words by Leah Phillips
Photography by Megg Evans

Bennetts Lane Jazz Club is an institution. The club’s announcement of its July 2015 closure sent shock waves through the jazz community in Australia and internationally. I spoke candidly with the venue’s manager of 22 years – Megg Evans – about what may happen to the musicians when – some may argue – the epicenter of the jazz community in Australia hosts its last performance?

Since opening its doors in 1992 the little space in the corner of a Melbourne laneway has become an institution in the jazz landscape of Australia. A real listening venue; where the art and the audiences who appreciate it fully are the atmosphere; not the space, the bar or the personalities behind it. Perhaps this is why it was labeled the world’s best jazz club according to Lonely Planet, or to David James, the author of recent book The World’s Best Jazz Club – The Story Of Bennetts Lane, the best jazz club to hear Australian music.

“Jazz is the most niche, underfunded art form we have and at the same time it’s the most innovative,” says Evans, an innovativeness that Jazz pianist and academic Tony Guild comments on in James’ book, saying Bennetts provided the venue that aided the change from the standards and bebop cannons of America heard in the 70s and 80s into the nearly purely original material on the stages of Australian jazz clubs.

Twenty two years worth of Australian voices in jazz were built up on those stages to the point of recognition in their own country and internationally. Jamie Oehlers comes to Evans’ mind — in 2003 he won the White Foundation World Saxophone Competition. “Australian artists are being recognized world wide because they’re being heard world wide”. The younger Australian jazz generations are listening, watching and performing alongside their contemporaries and idols of the scene. It’s a luscious melting pot of ideas, knowledge, passion and spontaneous creativity that’s fueling the strength of jazz in Australia.

Evans adds to the conversation that she thinks the Melbourne jazz scene is so strong that it’s inoculated itself. In a way it’s already healed itself; it’s moved on from the closure. But that being said, at a lecture Evans gave recently to the jazz students at the Victorian College of the Arts, the cohort shared a differing view. The club’s imminent closure has now made the hallowed stages where these students aspired to play now off the cards completely. She offered the following ideas to her students to ponder.

“Why does jazz have to have this highbrow sense of being on a stage, in a place that’s identified as a jazz club? Why can’t there be a backyard jazz festival in Brunswick, bedroom gigs, shows in parks and rotundas that were originally designed for bands? Change where you place the power of your psychology and principles.”

There’s a wonderful turn happening between generational norms of the jazz musician, at least in Australia. The youth are more willing to hire a photographer to take headshots and a writer to help them pen their bio. They spend the time building a profile online as well as on stage. This generation so adapted to change should be able to cotton onto the reality that there is so much freedom to perform and create your opportunities. Instead of being viewed as a disadvantage, Bennetts closure should be seen as a catalyst, encouraging musicians to get out of their comfort zone and think wide and crazier than ever before.

Yes it’s a daunting idea for some maybe, but there are organizations for support such as various arts grants, the Melbourne Jazz Co-operative and the Melbourne Improvisers Collective as well as Jazz Commons, a not-for-profit artist-run jazz organization that Evans helps operate. Jazz Commons provides help to musicians wanting to book unique gigs with the added bonus of a caterer’s liquor license if necessary. “I’m here to help you; to make your own Bennetts,” states Evans.

In coming to terms with the closure of a space that’s become her home, Evans likens the club to a Dandelion flower that’s burst its seed filled head to pollinate other spaces, find new companions and opportunities akin to the symbiosis of a new ecosystem.

The Melbourne International Jazz Festival goes down May 28 – June 7. Check out the full program here

Keep up to date with Bennetts Lane here

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