Wang and all that jazz

Mike Nock
Mike Nock plays Wangaratta. Picture courtesy CHERYL BROWNE

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Christmas for jazz fans comes just before the Melbourne Cup, reports ROGER MITCHELL, and in 2009 the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz celebrates its 20th year
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(Article published in the Sunday Herald Sun on October 18, 2009)

THE signs were not auspicious.
Drummer Allan Browne was thinking, “This will never work”.
Artistic director Adrian Jackson was thinking the same. He had never run a music gig, let alone a festival.
And, as the audience drifted into town 20 years ago for the first Wangaratta Festival of Jazz, a shopkeeper greeted Jackson with the words: “In town for the jazz festival? What a load of f—ing bull—- that is.”
The signs are not always correct.
In 1990 there were 28 concerts over three days in the town hall, Playhouse Theatre and a couple of pubs. Box office receipts were $25,000.
Last year, takings for Australia’s main jazz festival were $320,000. Music venues and accommodation in the area were being stretched.
In the 20th anniversary year, a new, multi-million-dollar Performing Arts Centre has replaced the larger, fondly remembered town hall as the main venue. A festival pass, at $160, covers most of the 80 gigs at 16 venues, involving more than 200 professional musicians.
An institution on the music calendar, “Wang” has always taken risks, resisting the temptation to choose popular artists or big names.
As Jackson says, “We’ve always put the emphasis on a musically strong program, hoping people will go away with a really positive experience.
“We’ve brought out artists like Horace Tapscott, Barry Harris and Arthur Blythe, about whom dyed-in-the-wool jazz fans would jump up and down, but they’re hardly household names. That’s worked in our favour.”
There have been big names — John Scofield, Joe Zawinul, Betty Carter, Dave Holland among them — but the idea has always been to let patrons sample music that’s new to them.
“The beauty of one pass getting you into multiple venues is that it encourages people to go to something they may not have gone out of their way to hear,” Jackson says.
“Sure, you’ll get people walking out saying, `This isn’t jazz’ or `That was horrible’, but you’ll also get people surprising themselves with what they can enjoy listening to.”
Everyone who has been to Wang will recall standout performances, and musicians are equally moved.
Expatriate New York pianist Barney McAll, who won the inaugural National Jazz Awards at Wangaratta in 1990, recalls one lasting highlight: “I remember hearing Adrian Sheriff playing with Andrea Keller.
“He played a trombone solo so emotionally powerful I had to leave the town hall for a walk.
“I didn’t listen to much more that day, that solo was enough.”
Jackson, who had been writing about jazz for 10 years before taking on the Wangaratta gig, welcomed blues musicians into a separate program from 1992, but resisted efforts to curb the rise of modern jazz.
“That was one of the early debating points: Should we have more traditional jazz? My argument was it’s an important part of the jazz scene, but it’s not really the future of where jazz is going 20 years from now.
“Sadly that’s because people like Len Barnard, Tom Baker and Roger Bell are no longer with us.”
Saxophonist Julien Wilson, who first played the festival in 1994, loves the fact that “all camps come together for one beautiful long weekend — the traditionalists, the conceptualists, the scientists and the heretics, the prophets and the preachers, the protagonists and the provocateurs”.
“This is where you can hear the best improvisers Australia has to offer, playing beyond their abilities, and then share a pizza with them,” he says.
“Wangaratta is to us what Christmas is to small kids — you spend the whole year looking forward to it and then don’t want it to end.”
Musicians love to be there. Some names — Browne, Paul Grabowsky, Mike Nock — crop up every year, but Jackson says there are good reasons.
“I don’t bring Al up there to perform with the same band every year,” he says. “He can perform with Aaron Choulai or Marc Hannaford or Andrea Keller or in all sorts of small groups, plus he’s capable of playing in more traditional settings, either with his band or with Brett Iggulden.”
Larrikin Alan Browne may be also on the program to act the goat.
He recalls looking out of the town hall band room window to check on his beloved second-hand car and seeing “a man with a rope, like a cowboy, trying to lasso a goat”.
“Finally he got the goat and it went mad, swinging around in a big arc into my car and doing about 900 bucks worth of damage.
“My main witness was (violinist) George Washingmachine. I remember George spent the rest of the night saying `I don’t stand a goat of a chance’ and `Our next song is Slow Goat to China’.
Luckily, Wang still has its characters 20 years on.

Wangaratta Festival of Jazz,
Oct 30 to Nov 2

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One response to “Wang and all that jazz

  1. Roger, just chanced upon this article which really sums up the Wang experience. A jazz festival in a relatively remote country town should not work. Simple. But it does every year. I come every year without fail and never leave less than surprised and deeply satisfied and inspired by what I’ve experienced. It is a very wonderful event and one which so deeply enriches my life which sounds overly dramatic but which is true.

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