Jazz won’t be the same once Ben­netts Lane closes its doors

Next month sees the closing of an Aus­tralian jazz in­sti­tu­tion that has played host to the genre’s good and great. Ash­leigh Wil­son goes on a nos­tal­gia trip

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

Wyn­ton Marsalis was in Mel­bourne, so nat­u­rally he was down at Ben­netts Lane. Why would he be any­where else? This was the place where jazz thrived. It was where mu­sic came first; the sort of club where se­ri­ous mu­si­cians felt at home be­cause au­di­ences were en­cour­aged to lis­ten. Marsalis, an Amer­i­can trum­peter who tends to divide opin­ion among mu­si­cians, though a man whose rep­u­ta­tion made him as close to a celebrity as you can be in the jazz world, was stand­ing just off stage with his band, about to walk on to play, when he fell into con­ver­sa­tion with Michael Tor­toni, the owner of the club. Tor­toni felt Marsalis must have per­formed in clubs such as this one all around the world, and told him so. Be­lieve me, Marsalis replied, there aren’t too many jazz clubs like this any­where.

“That meant a lot to me,” Tor­toni says, re­count­ing one of his favourite sto­ries from the venue, a small space that has ac­cu­mu­lated no short­age of mem­o­rable mu­si­cal mo­ments, good and bad. Like the time Harry Con­nick Jr turned up and asked to sit in with the band, only to be turned away, much to Tor­toni’s em­bar­rass­ment. Or the time Prince asked at short no­tice to play in the club, a warm-up ses­sion for his band that saw huge crowds lining the back­streets of Mel­bourne, then re­turned nine years later to do it again.

It’s nos­tal­gia time in Mel­bourne, with Ben­netts Lane soon to fall into the hands of prop­erty de­vel­op­ers af­ter more than two decades. The city’s most pres­ti­gious jazz club will present its fi­nal show on June 15, low­er­ing the cur­tain on a venue that has hosted some of the most ex­cit­ing tal­ent from Australia and abroad since the first per­for­mance on Novem­ber 27, 1992.

Tor­toni, a bass player turned stock­bro­ker turned jazz en­tre­pre­neur, has been guided by a sim­ple prin­ci­ple from the start: the mu­sic comes first. Across the two rooms in the club, the em­pha­sis is on the lis­ten­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, not un­like a con­cert hall as op­posed to a bar or restau­rant where the mu­sic is in­ci­den­tal. There are only limited snacks avail­able from the bar, the cof­fee ma­chine stays si­lent when peo­ple are play­ing, the au­di­ence is urged to con­cen­trate on what’s tak­ing place on stage — that is, not to talk dur­ing per­for­mances — and earn­ings from drinks are mod­est at best. You go there to lis­ten, as a note on the web­site makes clear: “As we are a jazz club, our fo­cus is on the mu­sic rather than food.” All of which has made Ben­netts Lane popular with mu­si­cians and mu­sic lovers but dif­fi­cult to sus­tain eco­nom­i­cally. Its lo­ca­tion, just off La Trobe Street in the cen­tre of Mel­bourne, also put it in the sights of prop­erty de­vel­op­ers, and Tor­toni was able to re­sist their ad­vances only for so long.

“The eco­nomics got too com­pelling in the end,” Tor­toni says. “By the time I’m out of here it will have been a 25-year jour­ney. That’s a whole ca­reer. It’s been full-on, lots of work. But I knew it was a very frag­ile sit­u­a­tion from the be­gin­ning.”

Ac­cord­ing to David James, whose book on the club was pub­lished last year, one of Tor­toni’s achieve­ments was to es­tab­lish a unique bond be­tween place and per­for­mance. There’s a long and im­pres­sive roll­call of mu­si­cians who have made them­selves at home in Ben­netts Lane. From pi­anist Joe Chin­damo to singer Gian Slater, singer/trum­peter Vince Jones to trum­peter Scott Tin­kler, singer Michelle Ni­cole to gui­tarist Stephen Mag­nus­son, it would be hard to find any lo­cal tal­ent who has not spent con­sid­er­able time there, while the list of over­seas per­form­ers in­clude Brad Mehldau, Chick Corea, and Wyn­ton and Bran­ford Marsalis.

Then there’s Mel­bourne drum­mer Al­lan Browne, a Ben­netts Lane in­sti­tu­tion: he has owned the Mon­day night slot since soon af­ter the club opened, which is why he will be given the hon­our of lead­ing events on stage on the fi­nal night at the club in June. (It’s no ac­ci­dent that fi­nal notes will be heard on a Mon­day.)

Now 70, Browne is con­fi­dent of find­ing work some­where else af­ter Ben­netts Lane is closed, but noth­ing will come close to the spirit of this venue. Per­form­ing on Mon­day nights, when not much else was hap­pen­ing around town, has been a valu­able op­por­tu­nity through the years, giv­ing him the chance to work­shop ideas live on stage. “It’s go­ing to be missed,” Browne says, echo­ing a sen­ti­ment shared by many of his col­leagues across Australia.

So as the end of an era for Mel­bourne draws near, Re­view reached out to the broader Ben­netts Lane com­mu­nity to hear some of the sto­ries that will re­main long af­ter the club is gone.

Paul Grabowsky, pi­ano

In terms of what I have been in­volved in over the past 20 years, in a jazz sense ev­ery­thing had some kind of ori­gin at Ben­netts Lane: from the Aus­tralian Art Orches­tra to sex­tets to quin­tets to solo pi­ano to var­i­ous vis­it­ing mu­si­cians from Amer­ica and other jazz artists. When I played there last year at the Mel­bourne Jazz Fes­ti­val with (sax­o­phon­ist) Jamie Oehlers, and two of the play­ers from (Amer­i­can mu­si­cian) Charles Lloyd’s band, it was the kind of at­mos­phere that only a jazz club like this can cre­ate — when you’re re­ally close to the au­di­ence and they’re hang­ing on ev­ery note.

The other in­stance I would point to hap­pened when I was mak­ing a live record­ing at Ben­netts Lane with Scott Tin­kler in about 2003. You can hear on that record­ing peo­ple play­ing with the kind of com­mit­ment and in­ten­sity that sounded like peo­ple play­ing in their nat­u­ral habi­tat. And I think of Ben­netts Lane as my nat­u­ral habi­tat.

I have al­ways loved Ben­netts Lane be­cause it’s Mel­bourne, and I’m a Mel­bourne boy. It’s one of the great jazz clubs in the world. It makes Mel­bourne to me a par­tic­u­larly spe­cial place and it’s a sign of so­phis­ti­ca­tion for a city to have a jazz club like this.

Al­lan Browne, drums

In Au­gust 2010, Marc Han­naford, Sam An­ning and my­self recorded our sec­ond al­bum, Shreve­port Stomp, live in the smaller room. The pun­ters were gen­er­ally warm and gen­er­ous and in­cluded lots of un­ruly fel­low mu­si­cians. In the break, our si­lent part­ner, manager Jeremy Jankie, showed us the fol­low­ing note left by three un­happy campers who left early: “Not to sugar-coat it, but other than a few 10 to 20 fleet­ing mo­ments of glory we didn’t pay to hear th­ese drunk blokes wear­ing flan­nel, who turned up late, to miss ev­ery third note.” We quoted this on the sleeve notes and the CD went on to win a Bell Aus­tralian jazz award and was short­listed for an ARIA.

An­other Mon­day I ar­rived to a usu­ally de­serted lane to find it jammed with a su­per-hip con­tin­gent. Our trio fi­nally got into the room and Michael Tor­toni or the manager, Megan Evans, said we were to play a set, then leave it to Prince and his awe­some band. We made a for­tune on the door, then watched as se­cu­rity cleared the room for a se­lected au­di­ence to hear some won­der­ful in­stru­men­tal mu­sic led by Prince on gui­tar. There had been some post on the in­ter­net that Prince was com­ing. It went vi­ral be­tween when I left home and I got there. My name was men­tioned there, so I was more fa­mous for that than any­thing I’ve done in my mu­si­cal life. Do­ing the warm-up for Prince, it was one of the great nights. I couldn’t be­lieve it.

Katie Noo­nan, vo­cals

I knew a lot of the poprock venues in Mel­bourne be­cause I played most of them with (the band) Ge­orge. It was when I started go­ing out with

my now hus­band that I learned about this place that was talked about in revered tones. I thought it was the coolest place be­cause I’m from Bris­bane and we don’t have cob­bled lanes like that — well, we didn’t then. It was like an ex­traor­di­nar­ily Mel­bourne thing.

I’m pretty sure the first thing I saw there was the Paul Grabowsky trio with Al­lan Browne and the late beau­ti­ful Gary Costello, and I think I got up and did a cou­ple of tunes. I’ve pre­sented var­i­ous projects there in dif­fer­ent styles, Elixir and my Black­bird sex­tet and with Paul and all sorts of things over the years.

One of my best mem­o­ries is when Prince did his not-very-se­cret show in the small room in 2003. We’d just fin­ished the fi­nal mix on the sec­ond Ge­orge al­bum at Sing Sing in Rich­mond, and Michael texted me say­ing I should come down be­cause Prince was go­ing to do a gig. Some­how the word had got­ten out and there was just this throng of peo­ple all the way down the street.

Prince had th­ese hard­core se­cu­rity dudes who ve­toed who came in and who didn’t. Paul Grabowsky got in but I didn’t, then he said: “Oh that’s my wife.” So I got in, and it was in­cred­i­ble. I re­mem­ber be­ing there with Kate Ce­ber­ano, and we were danc­ing and it was great fun. It was one of the first times we met and we’ve since be­come great mates.

That was one of my hap­pi­est mem­o­ries aside from lots of beau­ti­ful mo­ments on stage and in the au­di­ence watch­ing my he­roes, ev­ery­one from Re­nee Geyer and Michelle Ni­cole and Vince Jones, all my vo­cal he­roes.

Mal Stan­ley, pre­sen­ter of ABC ra­dio’s

Jaz­ztrack

The first record­ing I made at Ben­netts Lane was a Sun­day night in Novem­ber 1994. It was the Tony Gould Trio with sax­o­phon­ist Graeme Lyall. I was rea­son­ably new to the jazz scene then and had known Graeme Lyall more from his work on TV as a mu­si­cal direc­tor. He had been a mu­si­cal col­league of pi­anist Tony Gould’s for many years though and his play­ing and that of the trio was as­ton­ish­ing. They only per­formed five tunes, be­tween about 15 and 25 min­utes each, mostly stan­dards but with some great mu­si­cal em­pa­thy, and in­cred­i­ble flights of sax­o­phone from Graeme. I spoke with Tony re­cently and he still thinks it’s one of the high­lights of his very long ca­reer. It was recorded for broad­cast on Jaz­ztrack and it’s never been re­leased com­mer­cially. Maybe one day.

I recorded Amer­i­can vo­cal­ist Kurt Elling and his band there in Jan­uary 2002, also for Jazz-

track. The band had just come from Perth and were ex­hausted when they walked into the club for a sound­check. Once they hit the stage for the per­for­mance though they pulled some­thing out of the bag. As of­ten hap­pens with fa­tigue, some­thing slightly oth­er­worldly was hap­pen­ing and the up-tempo num­bers grooved and the feel­ing in the slower ones was in­tense, es­pe­cially when Kurt per­formed his pieces in­cor­po­rat­ing the words of Walt Whit­man and the poet Rilke.

Bar­ney McAll, pi­ano

Ben­netts to me is Al­lan Browne. What a pow­er­house — floor­ing ev­ery­one with his world class play­ing, his wit and his sur­real, sharp aware­ness. Scott Tin­kler jump­ing on Michael Tor­toni’s car in the lane, com­pletely naked, head shaved play­ing ex­treme trum­pet. Me cram­ming a 16-piece choir and six-piece band into the back room af­ter record­ing all day and pre­sent­ing the strangest mu­sic of my ca­reer and yet, af­ter some time away, feel­ing ac­cep­tance. All the many hangs in that band room, all the great mu­si­cians who came through, all the com­mu­nity and sup­port, all the project spring- boards that oc­curred there. All the gags that were cracked and egos chal­lenged. All the fee dis­putes, un­paid bar tabs and stolen rid­ers. But most im­por­tantly, all the heart­felt mu­sic that went down there and was re­ceived in earnest, as if in some mod­ern church. Ben­netts is and was a place of cru­cial rit­ual. I hope a new de­vel­oper will recog­nise the im­por­tance of such a place.

John McBeath, critic

Over its life­span there’s been a huge swath of high-qual­ity in­ter­na­tional and Aus­tralian per­form­ers at Ben­netts, a club that was the very essence of an in­ti­mate, latenight, jazz venue. Some ta­bles were so close to the band­stand that pa­trons could have reached out and touched the mu­si­cians. But in­ti­macy is in­versely pro­por­tional to ca­pac­ity and while there were many, many ex­hil­a­rat­ing nights when you could hear some of the best mu­sic avail­able any­where on the planet, the fea­ture that con­trib­uted to the at­mos­phere was also a lim­i­ta­tion: the venue was mi­nus­cule.

One vivid stand­out for me — among many — in­volved the for­mer Ade­laide vo­cal­ist Jo Lawry, now based in New York, who ap­peared in 2010 and gave stunning in­ter­pre­ta­tions of a few stan­dards and a cou­ple of her own orig­i­nals. A show-stop­per was her own lyrics set to John Coltrane’s fa­mous solo on Gi­ant Steps; it was fast and com­plex but not one note or tricky syl­la­ble was missed. Small won­der that Lawry went on to be a co-per­former with Sting.

An­drea Keller, pi­ano

From the mo­ment I moved to Mel­bourne as a 19-year-old, it was clear that Ben­netts was the place to go if you wanted to hear the best and most in­no­va­tive of Australia’s “jazz” mu­si­cians.

Over the years I’ve heard heaps of great gigs there and when I first be­gan play­ing there in the mid-1990s, it was too ex­cit­ing for words. I’ve played a lot there since then, with im­mensely dif­fer­ing groups and types of mu­sic, from one-off col­lab­o­ra­tions to de­vel­op­ing new projects and long­stand­ing mu­si­cal re­la­tion­ships, play­ing in the Ben­netts Lane Big Band for 12 years, be­ing a part of Al­lan Browne’s Mon­day nights, Mel­bourne Jazz Co-op gigs, the Mel­bourne Women’s In­ter­na­tional Jazz Fes­ti­val and so on. When I walk into the place it feels like putting on an old pair of sneak­ers. It’s hard to imag­ine it won’t be a part of Australia’s jazz life any more.

Ben­netts Lane will present its fi­nal show on

June 15.

IT’S ONE OF THE GREAT JAZZ CLUBS IN THE WORLD

PAUL GRABOWSKY

Ben­netts Lane owner Michael Tor­toni with drum­mer Al­lan Browne, far left; clock­wise from above left, Wyn­ton Marsalis, Kurt Elling, Vince Jones and Prince are among the mu­si­cal greats to have per­formed at the venue

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