Wangaratta Jazz Festival: 25 Years On

Jasmine Crittenden
| March 17, 2014

Undoubtedly, the nation’s most important jazz event

If the Wangaratta Jazz Festival had been a horse in the 1990 Melbourne Cup, it wouldn’t have been a favourite. A country town of some thousands in population, 250 kilometres from Melbourne, didn’t appear to have the makings of a national champion.

Paul Grabowsky Wangaratta Jazz FestivalA quarter of a century on, however, the long odds have proven deceptive. Wangaratta is, undoubtedly, the nation’s most important jazz event. Every year, improvisation enthusiasts flock to see interstate collaborations in their very first incarnation, international touring artists who otherwise mightn’t have made the distance and who’s making waves in the next generation. So, what’s given such an unlikely event such sticking power?

Rewind to the late 1980s. As country people know, the acceleration of urbanisation means that, if small towns want to survive, they need to do something – either develop a booming industry, or come up with good reasons for tourists to visit and, preferably, spend up big. More recently, boosting population growth through $1 rentals has become an option, but that’s another story.

In 1989, a bunch of Wangaratta business owners and locals got together to brainstorm ways to put their town on the map. The now popular Milawa Gourmet region had yet to be named and, although Wangaratta served as the gateway to the Victorian ski fields and some of the more spectacular aspects of bush ranger history, it didn’t have its ‘own thing’, so to speak. What to do? A music event seemed logical, given the proximity to Melbourne’s arts-loving population. After all, country music had certainly insured Tamworth against obscurity. But cowboy ballads and hillbilly rock didn’t feel quite right for Wangaratta, and the national calendar was already peppered with regional jazz festivals.

However, when a couple of locals headed to Sydney to chat to then National Jazz Development Officer Eric Myers and then SIMA Artistic Director Peter Rechniewski, they were made aware of a gaping hole in the cultural landscape. Yes, there were plenty of jazz festivals around the place, but most of them showcased trad and dixieland. What Australia sorely needed was a contemporary improvised music festival.

Chief Executive Officer of the Rural City of Wangaratta, Greg Maddock, loved the idea. So did Festival Patron (as of 2012), pianist and composer, Paul Grabowsky. ‘I remember an early meeting with some of the town notables, talking up the idea of the festival,’ he recalls. ‘I can remember talking to them about how, in Europe, there were certain key festivals which happened in smaller towns. I used Montreux as an example that you didn’t have to be a big city to be a successful festival town – that the festival would become associated with the town, and that, over time, it would become a significant addition to the local calendar, attracting people and doing something for the economy and so on.’

At the time, Adrian Jackson was freelancing as a jazz critic for The Age. He knew the scene like the back of his hand and seemed an obvious candidate for Artistic Director. ‘His involvement from the start has been a crucial part of Wangaratta’s success,’ says pianist and 1999 National Jazz Awards winner, Matt McMahon. ‘It’s meant that it’s had the same kind of vision, all along the way. He’s someone who has ideas of what he likes in music, but also knows that the festival has to survive. He knows how to balance it. To last for twenty-five years is incredible for anything, and especially for a jazz event.

‘Adrian Jackson is such a knowledgeable jazz lover,’ bassist Jonathan Zwartz adds. ‘He has a fine sense of what is going on nationally – he’s always keeping his eyes and ears open. So, he’s not only bringing stuff in from overseas, but he’s actively promoting and encouraging Australian music culture, and that’s make a difference. It’s truly a national festival and it’s incredibly important. It can’t be underestimated, actually’.

The inaugural festival, held in 1990, hosted an audience of just 2,500. In fact, for the first few years, Wangaratta ran at a loss. Without the Council’s willingness to underwrite it while viewing the cost as an investment, survival may have proved impossible. Greg Maddock’s unwavering commitment and euphoric reviews were key. In the Sydney Moning Herald, Sydney jazz critic John Clare described Wangaratta as ‘the best festival of its kind ever held in Australia’.

‘Then, in 1995,’ Jackon recalls, ‘the state government put local government amalgamations through. This meant that local government came to be run by administrators, rather than elected members. So the Wangaratta Council no longer underwrote us, and the festival had to become independent. Luckily, in 1996, the TAC came on as a major sponsor and stayed on for about twelve years.’

These days, crowds attend Wangaratta in tens of thousands. Over 350 national and international artists perform each year across more than ninety events, and the programme includes shows, master classes, the National Jazz Awards and workshops for young musicians. ‘The programming is adventurous,’ McMahon says. ‘There are new projects and avant garde music, as well as blues and more traditional components. So, if people have preconceptions about different kinds of music, they can be exposed to it. The festival reflects the vast range of music that jazz covers.’

For three days, musicians relish in the opportunity to present their music in the conditions often reserved for classical music – in vast auditoriums and concert halls, where audiences hang on every note and sound production is crystal clear. It’s an utterly immersive experience.

‘To have the music presented so strongly – in a way that other art forms are routinely presented – is to acknowledge its importance,’ says McMahon. ‘[Wangaratta] is out of any major centre, so people come to it from around the country – both musicians and their fans – and they’re in this environment that takes over the whole town. Not only can you see performances, you can be around musicians and discussions for a few days at a time, without much else to distract you at all. That’s really important.’

Festival Patron (as of 2012) Paul Grabowsky agrees. ‘The musicians have an opportunity to really spend time with each other. If it was in Melbourne or Sydney, half the musicians would go home after their gigs, and there wouldn’t be that opportunity for real interaction. Wangaratta provides a wonderful chance to catch up with people who you might only see once a year – to see and hear what everybody else is up to, and gain a sense of what’s going on with the music in different places.’

Barney McAll and Non Compliance Trio Wangaratta Jazz FestivalIndeed, given Australia’s geographical challenges, interstate and international projects are, undoubtedly, one of the festival’s biggest drawcards. Highlights of last year’s collaborations included New York pianist Gerard Clayton performing alongside a group of Monash University students, and the official (Victorian) launch of Zwartz’s CD, The Remembering and Forgetting of the Air. This was an oh-so-rare opportunity to see Zwartz on stage with pianist, long-time collaborator and New York transplant, Barney McAll; Melbourne musicians Julien Wilson (tenor sax) and Steven Magnusson (guitar); and Sydneysiders Phil Slater (trumpet), Hamish Stuart (drums), Fabian Hevia (percussion), James Greening (trombone) and Richard Maegraith (saxophone/bass clarinet). Over the course of the weekend, McAll, Zwartz and Stuart also made several appearances in trio form.

Then, of course, there are the National Jazz Awards. Putting music – any kind of music – into a competitive context is often considered controversial, but there’s no doubt that the Awards present significant opportunities for outstanding young musicians. 2013 winner, pianist Joe O’Connor, has two recordings in the works that he might otherwise have struggled to finance. ‘It was exciting’, he remembers. ‘But, at the same time, it was strange. I was talking to some classical musicians about it. They said that they’re constantly having to compete against their peers for orchestral positions and scholarships and prizes. As a jazz musician, though, you find yourself suddenly competing against your friends. I wanted everyone to win, but it doesn’t work out like that. At the same time, it was a great opportunity to play with some beautiful musicians, and get some exposure. I went in with the attitude that I’d try to have a good time while I was playing, and I did. I had a great time.’

As we head towards the twenty-fifth incarnation of the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues, scheduled for 31 October-3 November 2014, it’s worth considering the event’s influence beyond the cathedral city that it calls home. One direct consequence was the 1998 establishment of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival, which came about after Adrian Jackson and seven others formed a committee to provide ‘jazz advice’ to then Lord Mayor of Melbourne, Ian Deveson.

As far as the bigger picture goes, Wangaratta’s influence is perhaps more difficult to measure in quantitative terms. ‘It’s hard to say whether it’s Wangaratta or changing demographics,’ Jackson muses. (He’s not one to blow his own trumpet). ‘But I’d like to think that the festival has influenced other events, like the Perth Jazz Festival, by encouraging them to think beyond traditional jazz and to include contemporary jazz in their programmes.’

Title Photo Credit: Jonathan Zwartz at Wangaratta Jazz Festival. Photo Credit Warren Tait
Article Image: Barney McAll & Non Compliance Trio Wangaratta Jazz Festival. Photo Credit Warren Tait.

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