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’ve been at the club in various capacities since 1997. I started off building the website, then sitting at the door, then I got roped into bar work. From there I’ve moved on to managing the bar, doing sound, managing the club, and now I’m just that all-rounder guy that every venue needs.
2. How did you come to work there? Was there a job interview?
I was sitting at the bar and overheard Michael and Meg talking about needing a website, I stupidly said “I can do that”.
3. What was it like to work there?
Fun for most of it, stressful now and then, definitely an education on jazz.
4. Could you enjoy the music or were you often too busy?
A bit of both, you don’t really get to ‘listen’ much, but every now and then there’s that lull in activity when you get to hear something because the entire room just stops to listen as something magical is happening on stage.
5. Which was the most significant BL gig for you and who played?
The live recording for Chris Hale Ensemble (Chris, Steve Mags, Will Martina, and the late Will Poskitt), one of the few gigs where the entire thing was ‘magical’ as I mentioned above. It was an incredible gig which I still rate as one of the best I’ve ever seen, plus I got my moment on the recording when I accidentally dropped a plate. Sorry Chris 🙂
6. What was your best experience at BL in dealing with punters and/or musicians?
Harry Connick Jr. turned up with his band one night, a mate of mine was sitting in the audience and I wasn’t really working so I sat with him. Harry came and sat down on the other side of him, pulled a couple of Whoppers (the burgers) out of a bag and nonchalantly offered one to him. It was one of those completely surreal moments that showed musicians, no matter how high profile, were just normal people. We also had a couple paying their tab at the end of the night recently who told us that it was their wedding anniversary and that they had met on a blind date at Bennetts Lane. They’d been married for a few years and recently had a baby boy who they’d named Bennett. That was pretty cool.
7. What was your worst experience at BL in dealing with punters and/or musicians?
I’ve had punches thrown at me a couple of times by people that really were in the wrong place and in the wrong state of mind (both punters and musos), but honestly they’re usually pretty good.
8. Was the most obstreperous person you had to deal with at BL a musician, a punter, a photographer or a media person?
Musicians – they’re brothers too 🙂 I’m not going to name names, but it should be pretty obvious. They can be pains in the asses but great musicians, and we get along fine most of the time. I’ve had to drag a few punters out, including the one person who locked themselves in the toilet to try and see Prince. Media people are usually fine except for annoying photographers who take sneaky photos of you in bad poses and post them on the internet…
9. Were audiences on the weekend or during festivals very different? If so, how?
Weekend audiences tend to like their jazz a little easier to digest, so they’re not really into the ‘hardcore’ jazz stuff, but honestly jazz is so broad a genre now that it’s hard to pigeonhole punters. People are a lot more informed now due to the internet, so they mostly know what they’re paying to see. As for festivals, I’m always entertained/perplexed at the number of people willing to pay premium prices to see a band that plays here regularly simply because they’re playing as part of a festival, but don’t turn up the rest of the year. They’re definitely worth the premium price, but you could be paying half as much and seeing the same band.
10. How long was your longest continuous work shift at BL, and what was the occasion?
I’m going to take a stab and say one of the jazz fest gigs, probably 10am-4am
11. Were your best times at BL during the gigs or after the punters left for the night?
Both — the Prince gigs were incredible, but after some of the early Cat Empire gigs Harry and Ollie used to do impromptu Macy Gray impressions which were hilariously fun. It’s all about ‘The Hang’
12. Do you play an instrument?
I play terrible alto sax. I learned in high school, and I haven’t touched it since. I also had a couple of drum lessons with Danny Fischer who after the second one told me I was possibly the most uncoordinated person he’d ever met. Lucky he’s a mate 🙂
13. If you have performed at BL, what was it like to be on stage rather than on the door or behind the bar?
That’s n/a unless you count introducing the band — and that’s pretty terrifying. Or mixing sound for a band, and then they decide to have a special guest vocalist at the last minute named Sting — that’s a no-win situation where if he sounds good it’s because he’s Sting, if he sounds bad, I screwed up. I’d rather be behind the bar thanks.
14. What work or interests do you have outside BL, whether musical or not?
I did some work for an online game, a bit of website design, and I’ve just started booking bands part time at Cellar Bar in St Kilda.
15. What plans do you have after the closure of BL?
I’m off to be a band booker at Cellar Bar (cellarbar.com.au), maybe a bit of travel, possibly see the sun again.
16. What will you miss most about working there?
The people — we’ve had some great staff over the years, as well as some incredible musicians. I’m sure I’ll keep in touch with most of them though.
17. Will there ever be another BL in Melbourne?
No. There will be replacements, and similar things to it, but you can never recreate it, and I don’t think anyone will try to. It was a rare combination of time/place/people that clicked and worked. That’s not to say there won’t be some great venues though, they just won’t be BL.
18. What do you think made this jazz club so successful?
More seriously, as I said it was the combination of a good location, and dedicated people who sacrificed their own time because they either loved what they were working for or felt the need to make it a better place for musicians to be musicians. Limits weren’t placed on what music could be performed (other than fitting that massively broad category of ‘jazz’), and it was curated in a way that while some gigs might not have a lot of people attending, other gigs could help subsidise that. It also helped get the word out there that if you wanted to go hear jazz, you could turn up any night of the week and find it at BL.