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