Fan trum­pets the his­tory of jazz

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - John McBeath

Afi­cionado: A Jazz Mem­oir By Ge­off Page Pi­caro Press, 132pp, $20 AT some time most of us have de­vel­oped a con­sum­ing teenage pas­sion, one un­fa­mil­iar to our puz­zled par­ents, and so can iden­tify with th­ese open­ing lines: ‘‘It’s only a phase, my mother said. He’ll grow out of it.’’ What the 16-year old had dis­cov­ered was jazz and that ‘‘phase’’ for Can­berra aca­demic, au­thor and poet Ge­off Page has lasted more than a half cen­tury.

Afi­cionado traces Page’s evo­lu­tion of his love for the mu­sic, be­gin­ning with two school friends at an Ar­mi­dale, NSW, board­ing school. He re­calls their ‘‘ar­cane knowl­edge’’ of jazz was no use with the lo­cal girls, who were en­thu­si­as­tic about Bill Ha­ley and Elvis Pres­ley.

Why jazz and not rock? Page says it was be­cause they re­alised that ‘‘com­pared to the sub­tleties of Gerry Mul­li­gan or Dave Brubeck, Elvis and Bill Ha­ley were rel­a­tively one-di­men­sional’’. At the same time he re­alises ‘‘ we were, and … still are, mu­si­cal snobs’’.

In­spired by drum­mers, Page grav­i­tated to play­ing a snare drum in the cadet corps band. He re­mem­bers that the 4/4 swing of Benny Good­man’s big band record­ings, with drum­mer Gene Krupa, was able to off­set the bleak­ness of school time after classes. Read­ing LP liner notes, the trio sensed that im­pro­vi­sa­tion was im­por­tant: ‘‘To play the same mu­sic over and over again … would never cut the mus­tard with us. We wanted in­di­vid­ual ex­pres­sion.’’

By his last year of high school Page’s mother had aban­doned her ‘‘phase’’ di­ag­no­sis and gave him a Bud Shank Quar­tet LP for Christ­mas, an al­bum he has lis­tened to for more than 50 years.

The 1960s brought a rich pe­riod in jazz his­tory and dur­ing this time Page, study­ing at the Univer­sity of New Eng­land, ex­panded his knowl­edge of the mu­sic and its prac­ti­tion­ers, es­pe­cially the mod­ern jazz drum­mers. He ac­quired a set of drums and worked his way through in­struc­tion books. Although his tech­nique was ‘‘de­press­ingly min­i­mal’’, he played for stu­dent dances in a trio and joined a trad band for gigs at a ‘‘rough ho­tel’’.

Re­lo­cat­ing to Syd­ney in 1963 for his first year as a high school teacher, Page had ac­cess to many now leg­endary Aus­tralian jazz mu­si­cians, of­ten at the fa­bled El Rocco where he first heard pi­anist Mike Nock, who, four decades later, has sup­plied a cover blurb for this book. There were also op­por­tu­ni­ties to hear fa­mous over­seas artists: Th­elo­nious Monk, Dizzy Gille­spie, Art Blakey, Duke Elling­ton.

He moved to a teach­ing po­si­tion in Can­berra in 1964 and de­spite mod­estly dis­miss­ing his drum­ming abil­i­ties, he was in­vited to play in a trio at The Pen­du­lum, Can­berra’s jazz cel­lar. Mar­ried by now, he also played with young blues mu­si­cians, one of whom even­tu­ally ran off with his first wife and her share of their record col­lec­tion, leav­ing gaps that lin­gered on in her ex-hus­band’s mind ‘‘for long af­ter­wards’’.

His sec­ond wife was not a jazz fan — ‘‘a pair of head­phones was in­dis­pens­able’’ — as Page set­tled into fam­ily life, teach­ing and writ­ing, pub­lish­ing two po­etry col­lec­tions by 1975. The ad­vent of jazz-fu­sion fol­low­ing Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew left him unim­pressed; he was more in­ter­ested in Blakey and es­pe­cially Charles Min­gus, whose record­ings out­num­ber all oth­ers in his col­lec­tion.

By 1980 Page coun­tered a midlife cri­sis by buy­ing a vi­bra­phone that he played in groups with stu­dents and friends. Over­seas it was the decade of trum­peter Wyn­ton Marsalis busily re­viv­ing ear­lier jazz tra­di­tions. In Aus­tralia a new gen­er­a­tion ap­peared, many as grad­u­ates of the Syd­ney Con­ser­va­to­rium’s jazz pro­gram.

Page put most of his spare time into writ­ing, pub­lish­ing nine books, and in 1985 par­tic­i­pated in an Aus­tralian Po­ets’ recital tour of the US in­clud­ing a week in New York to hear sev­eral fa­mous jazz names. The book notes the ad­vances of Aus­tralian jazz in the 1990s, and lists some of its venues and fore­most per­form­ers. Hav­ing re­tired from full-time teach­ing, Page be­gan stag­ing jazz con­certs in Can­berra in 2003, and still con­tin­ues, with par­tic­i­pants read­ing like a who’s who of Aus­tralian jazz.

There is much in­formed mu­si­cal anal­y­sis in this slim vol­ume, in ad­di­tion lists of ref­er­ence books and record­ings, as well as opin­ions and anec­dotes. As Page charts his jour­ney of dis- cov­ery, he’s also com­piled a his­tory of the genre, glob­ally and lo­cally, mak­ing this an in­ter­est­ing ref­er­ence for other afi­ciona­dos and an in­tro­duc­tion for new­com­ers. The mem­oir con­cludes with a list­ing of great his­tor­i­cal jazz fig­ures: ‘‘And the list goes on — as does the mu­sic.’’

Part two of the book fea­tures eight of Page’s many jazz po­ems. He is au­thor of 22 col­lec­tions of po­etry and five verse nov­els. Afi­cionado is ded­i­cated to leg­endary Syd­ney sax­o­phon­ist Bernie McGann (1937–2013), whose biog­ra­phy Page pub­lished in 1997.

Leg­endary US jazz mu­si­cian, band­leader and com­poser Dizzy Gille­spie on a visit to Syd­ney

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