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)?
This is my fourth year working in the bar at Bennetts. I’m not new, but not even close to a veteran.
2. How did you come to work there? Was there a job interview?
Ha! Job interview… In 2011 I was working in a job that was considerably impersonal and soul-depleting. I would finish at about 10pm and go into Bennetts alone to retrieve some of my soul. I remember the first night I went in; a welcoming smile from Megg at the door, the little dark room was filled with jazz, Arlene poured me a large glass of red, and I thought I had found the Promised Land. I kept going back, and one night it hit me that I should ditch
my job and work there instead! By that time Megg recognised my face from being a regular punter, I asked for a job and the rest is history.
3. What was it like to work there?
It always felt less like work, and more like hanging out with a bunch of friends, witnessing great music and learning from Sarah and Sally how to make (and drink) a banging martini.
4. Could you enjoy the music or were you often too busy?
It depends how thirsty the audience was! But even in busy times there was usually a moment or two where we could stop and appreciate what was coming from the stage.
5. Which was the most significant BL gig for you and who played?
I can’t go past Prince in 2012. The atmosphere that night was something I had never experienced before or since, and would be surprised if I get to experience it again. Plus it’s the only time Jeremy’s let me dance on the bar.
6. What was your best experience at BL in dealing with punters and/or musicians?
One punter in a very expensive looking suit decided to roll up his coat to use as a pillow and lay down to sleep at the back of the room. He was absolutely unwakeable, so we left him and when he finally got up he politely thanked us and walked out without a fuss.
7. What was your worst experience at BL in dealing with punters and/or musicians?
The worst is when punters arrive after a boozy dinner. You can tell they’re trouble from the moment they walk in! There was one guy who was hassling some nice lady punters and generally being noisy and offensive, but the upside is that I got to say to the ladies “Is this guy bothering you?”. Then we kicked him out.
8. Was the most obstreperous person you had to deal with at BL a musician, a punter, a photographer or a media person?
A punter got up on stage before a gig one night and said into the mic “Did anyone bring an instrument tonight? Like a trumpet or whatever? Can anyone out there just get up and improvise?! You call this a jazz club? When is the music gonna start, this is so boring!” Jeremy saved the day by practically wrestling him off the stage.
9. Were audiences on the weekend or during festivals very different? If so, how?
The midweek audiences are more hardcore. You know they’ve chosen to be there instead of watching Game of Thrones at home in their socks.
10. How long was your longest continuous work shift at BL, and what was the occasion?
Jazz festival shifts are the longest … Do knockoffs count?
11. Were your best times at BL during the gigs or after the punters left for the night?
It was pretty nice when Thundercat decided to play a bit of bass at the end of one jazz festival night. He sat down on the carpet and played some soothing tunes, and the remaining staff/musos all sat on the floor around him like kindergarteners having a story read to them.
12. What instrument do you play and in what bands have you played?
I sing for fun, but don’t perform! I have certainly learnt a great deal from observing the various singers at Bennetts.
14. What work or interests do you have outside BL, whether musical or not?
I work as a receptionist in a Chinese Herbal Medicine clinic, so it’s somewhat of a double life. At the clinic I pretend to be a beacon of health and talk about all the exercise I don’t do and the healthy muffins I don’t bake, then at Bennetts it’s late nights, cigarettes, Irish coffees and many, many gins. I also teach English as a Second Language.
15. What plans do you have after the closure of BL?
Moving to China to learn Mandarin and teach English for a while (I’ve heard Beijing has some good jazz venues.)
16. What will you miss most about working there?
17. Will there ever be another BL in Melbourne?
I can’t imagine there will. But I know the local musicians will keep doing what they do, and ultimately that’s what’s important.
18. What do you think made this jazz club so successful?
All of it. What made Bennetts so fantastic was the combination of all the elements, like Jeremy said. It seemed to all come together and was greater than the sum of its parts.