Highett, Vic: Major Street Publishing Pty Ltd, 2014. 239pp.
ISBN 9780987542946 (hardback).
Reviewed by Joseph Cummins, October 1st, 2014
Is Bennetts Lane the world’s best jazz club? David James’s new book on the iconic Melbourne jazz venue makes a compelling argument that it is. Considering the recent news that Bennetts will close next year, with owner/founder Michael Tortoni admitting the “planning laws, the taxation arrangements, they don’t allow a niche business which is basically an artistic endeavour to survive,” the release of James’s history of the club is fitting, if slightly jumping the gun.
Generously spread with photos of the key players in the Bennetts pantheon, the book provides a fascinating portrait of the venue and its pivotal position in the Australian jazz landscape, the challenges of running a club, the staff that maintained it, and of course, the musicians that benefitted so much from its existence. The strength of James’s history is undoubtedly his interviews with Tortoni. A bass player who initially experienced success in the band Taste, for many years Tortoni led a double life: a “day job” as a stock broker enabled him to actually purchase Bennetts Lane. The secret behind the long success of the venue is Tortoni’s business acumen, which effectively bankrolled his commitment to maintaining a club dedicated to the music and listeners (the venue has no kitchen – Tortoni never wanted the noise of plates interrupting the music). Interviews with the other key staff of the club, most importantly Megg Evans, fill out the picture.
James’s book weaves the story of Bennetts into more general commentary on the ethos of jazz and the art of improvisation. His discussion of musical fashions and historical factors, such as “the Blue Note influence” (the emphasis on acoustic playing in a small room) and the many other clubs that came and went in Melbourne, each with their own favoured style and audience, is invaluable. The story of Bennetts is interspersed with interludes devoted to the players, grouped instrumentally: pianists, horn and reed players, singers, and the rhythm sections. These interviews reveal much about the personal philosophies of the most respected jazz performers that both created and, in a sense, were created by Bennetts.
James’s vision of jazz emphasises its mythical qualities, with several mediations on what jazz performers are thinking when they are improvising, sections that may be of particular interest to non-jazz players. Discussing the partnership forged between Bennetts and the local universities, James laments what he calls the institutionalistation of jazz. While young players are emerging from jazz degrees more technically accomplished, James regrets their lack of passion and stagecraft. “The greatest difficulty with formalised jazz teaching is that only some things can be taught. It is all but impossible to teach how to craft a memorable melody” (191).
While bemoaning the high number of young players produced by universities, James (and many of the established players he interviews) give the impression that they believe university training will somehow guarantee a fully rounded player by graduation day: the obvious fact is that university graduates DO have a lot to learn. University courses are only the first steps towards formulating an individual sound and compositional signature, but James seems to crave a return to the good old days when there was such a small number of musicians that they each had five gigs a week. Unless young jazz-trained musicians diversify (and all the best do) they are not going to make it – playing jazz does not pay. And more importantly, jazz music that only looks back, and not around, will not be relevant in the genre-mélange of the contemporary movement. James’s suggestion that the “freshness” of past greats like Miles Davis or John Coltrane is missing from contemporary jazz shows his lack of enthusiasm for the cross-pollination characteristic of now. This negative shadow is just one part of the story that James tells about Bennetts, and does not detract from the value of the snap shot he provides of both the current local jazz climate and of the difficulties of being a jazz musician and venue operator.
The book also comes with a CD containing music inspired by the book, composed by Tortoni.