7 September this year Graeme Bell, renowned Australian jazz pianist,
band leader, composer and gifted painter as well, celebrated his 90th
birthday. What a feat! What a treat for the jazz community worldwide
to celebrate whole-heartedly, because Graeme Bell has been bringing joy
to jazz lovers everywhere for decades. He still is.
His life in jazz and the significance of his
contribution have been well-documented. In particular, Dr Bruce Johnson,
also an outstanding jazz musician and jazz historian, in his book The
Oxford Companion to Australian Jazz (1986) gives a meticulously
researched account of Graeme Bell's influence and stature, describing
him as “a giant in the history of Australian jazz”.
Graeme himself at 72 shared the joy and
adventure of his music-making in his very readable autobiography
modestly titled Graeme Bell: Australian Jazzman (1988).
Then, in October 1993 at the 2nd Doubly Gifted
Exhibition held in Waverley Library, Bruce Johnson delivered The
Inaugural Bell Jazz Lecture, Jazz & Society: Sound, Art, Music —
Living, introducing it as “an important tribute to an important part
of Australia’s music history, and to a particular individual without
whom that history would be much poorer: I mean of course, Graeme Bell
himself . . .”
Further on, Bruce succinctly describes the Bell
Graeme Bell’s tours of Europe in the late forties and
early fifties actually generated jazz movements in those regions. The
Bell Band radically altered the social function of jazz in the United
Kingdom, changing the direction of its subsequent history and setting
the stage for the “trad boom” of the early sixties. It established in
the minds of European musicians the sense of an Australian jazz style
which has inspired imitators, collectors and social historians.
That historic occasion was one of the very few times
in my years in the jazz community that I have met Graeme.
His birthday is a historic occasion, too, and as a
personal tribute to him I’d like to share a reminiscence of a very
special encounter with him.
My late husband John Briggs and I had joined the
Sydney jazz scene in the mid-1970s. In May 1978 on an autumn evening
soft with surprise, John, in delightful conspiracy with my sister
Carolyn and her husband Paul Creevey arranged a birthday party for me —
very surprising, indeed, as there’s no formal significance about being
47, unlike being 21 or 50 or 90! That night, 26 years ago, I was totally
and truly “surprised by joy” by the party itself, the friends present
and by the piano man who enlivened it all, the genial giant himself,
Graeme Bell. What a night it was: one of the happiest of my life! I have
several photographs which capture some of its magic moments.
Another precious photograph I have is one which
memorialises John dancing in Martin Place to the Graeme Bell All Stars
on a spring or summer day in 1980.
My encounters with Graeme — not many, in truth, over
the years — and my memories and the photographic reminders of them, I
treasure. The most recent encounter, though indirect, happened one
morning after his birthday. I heard Margaret Throsby on ABC FM talking
with him by phone: a brief but refreshing interview. I was struck with
delight by the youthfulness of his voice answering her questions so
enthusiastically, praising life and reflecting on his own and how much
more there is for him to discover.
The quality of joy, I thought, is the very nature of
time I’d been trying my hand at a particular
verse form, “giving it a go” to borrow Graeme’s words at the end of his
book. After some practice I thought, “I’ll try and write one for
Graeme”. The result — I’ll call it an improvisation in words — is a
non-jazzy, non-satirical effort supposed to be in the form mentioned in
For Graeme Bell
A Trio of Clerihews
Graeme Emerson Bell
plays beaut piano, paints as well:
our great Australian jazz man
now also’s a nonagenarian! olz
Gee whiz G.E.B.,
where would we jazz lovers be
without you? Becos
you’re the Grand Jazz Wizard of Aus!
Good on you, dear Graeme:
long may you deliver us from mayhem
with joyful artistry and sentiment
and go on gently being a doubly gifted gent.