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Loretta Barnard comes from a proud jazz family, and while visiting the Australian Jazz Museum she was awed and proud of what the museum has achieved.
I’m one of those people who happily prowl about in just about any kind of museum, and I found myself doing just that, around the Australian Jazz Museum in Wantirna, located in Melbourne’s outer suburbs. A remarkable place on a number of fronts.
First, in just under 20 years, it has amassed an impressive and comprehensive collection of Australian and international jazz materials and is frequented by musicians, academics, researchers, students and jazz lovers.
Second, it receives absolutely no government support, and survives on the smell of that legendary oily rag, plus membership fees and donations. Every single item in the museum has been donated. Among the more than 40,000 catalogued items in the collection is a plastic saxophone played by the great pioneering jazzman Ade Monsbourgh; a beautiful silver cornet donated by my dad; the master tapes from the iconic Swaggie record label; the archive of the Australian Jazz Convention, the world’s longest running music festival of its kind; and original paintings from pianist-bandleader Graeme Bell, who gave his name to the Australian Jazz “Bell” Awards.
Speaking of Graeme Bell, when his band toured Czechoslovakia in 1947, under the banner of the Eureka Youth League, the Communist league based in Melbourne, it caused a sensation. Well, a few sensations actually.
Sensation 1: The Bell band members were the first Australian entertainers to travel to a fledgling Communist country.
Sensation 2: They were an enormous hit in Czechoslovakia and arguably put Australia on the cultural map.
Sensation 3: One their return home, they were suspected of having communist (read “terrorist”) sympathies. Geez, talk about government paranoia. Bell had a stellar career in the entertainment industry and his influence has percolated through the generations. If you want to find out stuff about him, the AJM is the place to go. He has over 1,800 entries!
Last of all, the AJM is entirely run by volunteers, some 50 or 60 of them, clocking up well over 14,000 volunteer hours a year. Many are retirees, but there are younger generations helping out too, and they are not necessarily jazz lovers. Some just decided to volunteer for something and found a niche at the AJM. It’s like a little family in there – well, okay, a big family – with everyone doing their bit to preserve, maintain and grow the collection of Australian jazz materials.
To say I was blown away by the work being done there is an understatement. In fact, as well as documenting Australian jazz history, the collection also provides a wide-ranging look at the social history. The Museum houses records, CDs, DVDs, cassettes, posters, programs, newspaper clippings, books, magazines, photographs, oral history interviews, sheet music, ticket stubs, instruments, memorabilia. You name it, they probably have it, Jazz, after all, was a movement which was HUGE back in the 1940s and 1950s. It remains popular to the present, but has, as everyone knows, been dwarfed by rock and roll.
Such is the evolution of music and society.
The AJM holds regular exhibitions, the most recent entitled “The Barnard Legacy”. I felt pretty proud seeing my family represented so well – my father, trumpeter Bob Barnard; my uncle, drummer Len Barnard; my cousin, singer Rebecca Barnard, as well as my brothers and my sons.
During my visit, I met a young PhD student from Moscow who was researching the Museum’s collection for her dissertation on early Australian jazz. The fact that she came all the way from Russia to Wantirna speaks volumes for the work that is being done by this trusty band of volunteers.
In Museum’s the sound room, three or four sound engineers transfer rarely heard and often never-before-released music from fragile reel-to-reel tapes and acetate records to state-of-the-art digital technology, preserving the music for posterity. Jazz – it’s not just old blokes in checked waistcoats and straw boaters playing “When the Saints Go Marching In”. Jazz is a varied genre. Younger jazz musicians today play vastly different music from their predecessors, and perhaps that’s as it should.
The AJM is keen to collect this music and ephemera too, in the knowledge that this will be part of jazz history of the future. There are perhaps only eight or nine dedicated jazz museums across the globe, although I’ve never been to any of the others, I’m going out on a limb here and stating that the Australian Jazz Museum is the finest.
If you like a bit of history, a bit of fun and you’re out that way, pay them a visit.