Some time this year, after the Melbourne International Jazz Festival is over and after what is sure to be one hell of a party, Melbourne will lose the venue which has been at the heart of improvised music in the city for many years. Who knows what will spring up in the way of alternatives to the iconic Bennetts Lane, but as jazz in this city moves on, Ausjazz has asked the people who worked there to reflect on their involvement with this most welcoming of live music venues.
1. Over what period have you been associated with BL and in what role(s)?
I started working at Bennetts Lane from August the 26, 2011. I remember this perfectly because once it struck midnight it was my birthday. For the first few months I was very much a door girl, which was so hard for me to get my head around as I could not believe I was being paid to sit there and enjoy the music whilst the other staff members were running around on the bar. As for the last few years I am pretty much always on the bar.
2. How did you come to work there? Was there a job interview?
One Sunday night I walked into Bennetts and personally handed Jeremy my resume then I sent a few harassing emails and was called and asked to come in for a trial, no job interview took place.
3. What was it like to work there?
Since day one it has been the best thing that has ever happened to me, I can’t even explain my love for that place.
4. Could you enjoy the music or were you often too busy?
You can absorb the music in whichever way you choose to. Sometimes I would try and analyse every note and other times I would have so much on my mind that I would just want to enjoy the performances as background music whilst serving the patrons at the bar.
5. Which was the most significant BL gig for you and who played?
For me it would have to have been one of the Monday night gigs which featured Paul Williamson, Marc Hannaford, Sam Pankhurst and Al (Browne). I was pretty obsessed with all of them at the time and was at nearly every one of their gigs. They played Four In One and I just thought “Hmmm that’s the best thing I have ever, ever heard” and I am pretty sure it was only a few weeks before Marc left for the states so it was a pretty significant gig as a listener.
6. What was your best experience at BL in dealing with punters and/or musicians?
I have no idea, there are way too many to count. I felt strange even answering the previous question because there are too many great experiences at Bennetts. However, there are two bands in particular that come to mind and they would be the Ray Charles tribute band and the Furbelows, because they are always crazy party nights in which the atmosphere goes off.
7. What was your worst experience at BL in dealing with punters and/or musicians?
Without sounding negative and maybe it is just because I spend plenty of time working in the hospitality environment, I would have to say that at least every shift a customer drives me crazy and it is usually whoever stands at the entrance of the bar. These are just little things though. One shift someone verbally abused me and Sally and threatened to get me fired for not making his martini dirty enough and for charging him eighteen dollars. Also, I dealt with a weirdo a few weeks ago who kept wanting to take photos of the rusty door tin and painting gaps on the wall, and who squeezed my hand a little too hard, but that’s it really. The musicians are beautiful people who are now family to me and everyone is incredibly generous with their time, talent and advice. There was a funny incident that happened in last year’s jazz festival, a regular musician was pretty drunk and ordered a Little Creatures pint and expected it for free from one of the bar girls he had never met; then she said ‘That is ten dollars please’ and he pretty much paid her entirely with silver coins. I still laugh about it now.
8. Was the most obstreperous person you had to deal with at BL a musician, a punter, a photographer or a media person?
All the musicians heckle and I think that makes a great atmosphere, as long as the hecklers know the musicians on a personal level. It annoys me when people chat loudly during a performance, especially in the small room where it is very noticeable.
9. Were audiences on the weekend or during festivals very different? If so, how?
Yes, I find that during the week the audience is mainly students or deep listeners and on weekends it’s a totally different vibe. In the first few years of working at Bennetts I found that the weekend crowds consist more of walk ins and couples wanting to sit back and listen to some jazz over a bottle of wine. They didn’t necessarily mind who they were listening to, but it was more about an experience, but now, since we are closing down, it seems people have purposely come to catch a gig before the end.
10. How long was your longest continuous work shift at BL, and what was the occasion?
My longest shift would have to be a shift during the jazz festival, but I cannot think of a specific example as they are all long. Recently I worked from 8 pm until 5:30 am for the Furbelows gig and then the Parliament Funkadelic side show and that was extremely long!
11. Were your best times at BL during the gigs or after the punters left for the night?
My best times can be during the set and after the set because if the gig is sensational and everyone is enjoying it, we either make excited looks at each other or whisper comments appreciating the music during the show or we do the same thing after the show over knock-off drinks or a pack up chat.
12. What instrument do you play, what music studies have you completed and in what bands have you played?
I completed an Advanced Diploma of Music Performance at Boxhill TAFE and a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Contemporary Music) at VCA majoring in jazz piano. For the minute I have stopped playing for a few reasons, but who knows what the future will bring. I never really gigged with a band, I think that was part of the problem, I was too focused on practising and improving that I let my own criticism get to me and in the end did not want to do it any more.
13. If you have performed at BL, what was it like to be on stage rather than on the door or behind the bar?
I have only ever performed at Bennetts for VCA events and it felt very comfortable being on stage for a change.
14. What work or interests do you have outside BL, whether musical or not?
I work in a restaurant/bar and teach piano and I am trying to get more into the music business side of things. I would like to own my own venue one day, but for now I’m trying to gain experience in the industry overseas as an artist manager, tour manager or booking agent or all of the above.
15. What plans do you have after the closure of BL?
Lots of travel! I am moving to New York for a year from July 1 and to be honest 80 per cent of the reason is because of the closure of Bennetts. After the year is up I have been allowed a month of travel time to see other parts of America and then I will return home via Canada.
16. What will you miss most about working there?
I can’t even explain what I will miss about Bennetts other than everything and thinking about it no longer being around makes me tear up. This club has been the most influential and incredible thing that has ever happened to me and our jazz community and that is not to insult any other venues, because I absolutely love hanging at Uptown for example, but I think everyone can agree with me when I say that Bennetts is an atmosphere and will be deeply missed, it really is the end of an era. It does not matter how long you have been hanging there for you can learn so much about our culture and the music by simply just watching Al Browne on a Monday night. For me, Melbourne just won’t be the same. Others may disagree and that is fine by me, I will just miss having a home to go to for a drink, chat and listen after a long day.
17. Will there ever be another BL in Melbourne?
Some great things will happen after the closure of Bennetts Lane and the people who will make this work know exactly what they are doing. I have faith that exciting things will happen, but obviously being overseas will stop me from being a huge part of anything.
18. What do you think made this jazz club so successful?
The passion and love for the music from the musicians, staff and audiences. A special mention to Michael, Meg, Jeremy, Sarah and Sally who have truly dedicated their whole lives to this place.