Graeme Bell's Czechoslovak Journey
Directed and Edited by Joel Checkley and Produced by Belinda Ensor for Museums Australia (Victoria)Contributors
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Museums Australia (Victoria)
Graeme Bell's Czechoslovak Journey
Academic and musician Timothy Stevens introduces the 'father of Australian Jazz' Graeme Bell and his band's tour of Czechoslovakia in 1947.
Czechoslovak Journey written by Graeme Bell, copyright Southern Music, recorded live by Browne - Haywood – Stevens at Bennetts Lane, 14 February, 2000.
My Cutie's Due at Two-to-Two Today, lyrics by Leo Robin, music by Albert Von Tilzer, in public domain.
Australian Jazz Museum
Graeme Bell Interview
296092 Graeme Bell interviewed by Laurie & Alwyn Lewis, 29th July 1996, National Film and Sound Archive.
Thank you to Dorothy Bell, Timothy Stevens, Nick Haywood, Allan Browne, Nigel Buesst of Sunrise Picture Co., Mel Blachford from the Australian Jazz Museum and the National Film and Sound Archive.
My name is Timothy Stevens I’m an improvising piano player and composer. I did research on traditional Jazz in Melbourne in the form of the Red Onions jazz band a few years ago, which led me to learning about other Melbourne bands including Graeme Bell’s band.
Graeme longevity was quite extraordinary and his continuing capacity to get up and perform was quite breathtaking and I think he remains probably the most recognisable traditional Jazz musician in Australia. I can’t think of anybody in that, that particular scene whose more widely know or appreciated.
Graeme was born in 1914 and grew up in Richmond. His piano lessons started when he was about eleven, obviously in classical music, but his brother introduced him to jazz when he brought some records home.
They started playing in the mid to late thirties and the very important early gigs they did in Melbourne were at the Uptown Club, which began in the mid-1946 and Harry Stein’s Eureka Youth League had began during the war I think in around 1942.
The full story is that the Eureka Youth League was the Young Communist League and things were very tough in those days. Almost wearing a red tie was suspect. Or red socks, you know.
And then eventually we started playing for gigs for them. Until finally we hired the place, their premises on Queensbury Street, North Melbourne, and we called it the Uptown Club.
We got a young audience. University students. All young people. All sorts of people.
I mean in terms of establishing a scene, in terms of you know clubs like Uptown were really, really important in getting small group traditional Jazz on the map in Melbourne.
The biggest thing to come out of this was the trip they made in 1947 to the World Youth Festival in Czechoslovakia. That’s where an Australian band appeared internationally, at least in the period of jazz that we’re talking about for the first time. And it marks, I think, the beginning of the Jazz scene in Australia as we sort of know it now.
So it was one day when I was teaching that the phone went. It was Harry Stein. And he said, ‘how would you like to take the band to Czechoslovakia?’. Well, I nearly fell over. And I hardly knew where it was. He said, ‘well the Czechoslovakian government are running a World Youth Festival and we’ve been asked to send some delegates’. And he said ‘people are sending sporting bodies, student bodies, why not a jazz band?’ He said, ‘no one seems to be sending a jazz band’. I said, ‘gee, that’d be great’. I said, ‘I’ll go anywhere’. He said, ‘right, well, we’ll probably have to raise our own fares to get there’. One fella sold his car, Pixie sold his tenor sax, Jack Varney sold his vibraphones. And we went over on a shoestring without any money for our fare back.
I don’t really know how much Jazz there was in Czechoslovakia at this time, and perhaps the Bell band brought something that was exciting and unfamiliar and a bit new, but it certainly resonated. They recorded also in Czechoslovakia for Supraphon which was a really big thing and his original compositions and they were really pursuing a thing of their own. So the records were coming back here and people were really excited by that so was a big thing for the jazz community here.
And while we were there, the Czech Youth Club and another club called the Grammar Club, which was really a jazz club, offered to take us on tour and we finished up by touring all the leading towns of both Bohemia and Moravia. They hadn’t had an import band in Czechoslovakia since before the war. But they were all just starving for something. Every performance packed. And six hundred people seated at tables having coffee or soft drinks. And we were booked for a whole month, travelling by train or bus. And Jack Varney married a Czech girl and he met her there, you know. We met these young people and they were trying out their English on us. Very little English spoken in those days as compared to these days in Europe. But we got by. We all had to learn a bit of, a smattering of survival Czech to get by.
I think Graeme was very good at facilitating opportunities for other musicians. He was a very encouraging man and was a very important and influential early musician in the Australian post-war Jazz scene –led several bands throughout his lengthy career and was important early on in the development of what people have termed an Australian Jazz style.