Queensland Jazz Memories – Protecting histories of pre-1970s jazz scenes

Guest blogger: Dr Lauren Istvandity –  2017 John Oxley Library Fellow.

Queensland has long been known for producing quality musicians and supporting diverse music scenes, including those based in jazz. The significance of local jazz music history has been highlighted through the 2017 John Oxley Library Fellowship, which supports the project I’m currently undertaking titled Queensland Jazz Memories.

The project aims to collect oral histories and ephemera in order to make the stories of jazz in Queensland accessible to the public. The project relies not only on the support of the State Library, but on the involvement of the community. The Queensland Jazz Archive Collection in the John Oxley Library has a small collection of photographs and documents relating to the history of jazz in Queensland prior to 1970, with a much greater variety of items dating from 1970 to the present. These artefacts, along with evidence scattered in other national and state repositories in Australia provide clues suggesting the state of Queensland supported a prolific jazz scene that developed from ‘dance bands’ from as early as the 1920s. Unfortunately, there is little publicly available information that tells this story.

Billo Smith's Dance Band performing at the Trocadero dance hall, Brisbane, ca. 1943. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Neg 2648

Billo Smith’s Dance Band performing at the Trocadero dance hall, Brisbane, ca. 1943. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Neg 2648

Though the jazz scenes in Queensland, and its capital Brisbane, are often described as smaller than, and sometimes subordinate to, those of Sydney or Melbourne, there is still much to be said about the quality and variety of musicians, venues, and audiences once dominating the Sunshine State. For example, while many people have heard of the venue ‘Cloudland’ which functioned as a dance hall and concert venue from year-year, fewer would prick their ears at mention of The Coconut Grove, La Boehme, The Primitif Café, and the Dr Carver Club that played host to jazz bands in Brisbane in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Names of musicians and bandleaders such as Billo Smith, Harry Lebler, Merv Boyd, D’arcy Kelly, Vern and Jack Thomson, and Georgia Lee are peppered in newspapers and magazines of the era from around the country.

Advertisement for jazz music in the Cairns Post, Saturday 17 May 1941. National Library of Australia

Advertisement for jazz music in the Cairns Post, Saturday 17 May 1941. National Library of Australia

But Brisbane was of course not the only metropolitan centre to see jazz music prosper: Toowoomba, Gold Coast, Noosa, Cairns, and the Central Coast have, in vernacular knowledge, produced jazz musicians of local and national renown in cities rich in artistic networks.

To increase the quantity and quality of material protected by the archive, it is imperative that stories, memories, photograph collections, news clippings, and recordings of jazz in Queensland are gathered from people in the community, before they are lost forever.

Can you help? Don’t be shy! Please get in contact with me via the project website, and follow the Facebook page to watch the stories unfold.

Dr Lauren Istvandity