Some time this year, 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 worked behind the bar and on the door from 2005 for six years.
2. How did you come to work there? Was there a job interview?
After pouring me a pinot, Megg asked me out of the blue if I would like to work at Bennetts. I asked her years later why she hired me after exchanging only a few words. She said she liked my body language with my date at the time. Hard to believe that was the very first time I walked into the club. I love that an Al Browne gig will be the first & last gig I see at Bennetts.
3. What was it like to work there?
Bennetts was my playground & muse. So many eccentric people, challenging conversations and interactions plus exceptional music. Bennetts was never a hospitality job. As staff we came first (perhaps a close second to the music) and Megg & Jeremy always had our backs. The staff became my family and I lost many hours working and hanging out at the club. When late night shifts began taking a toll on my full-time work I had to have a difficult conversation with Megg. Resigning from bar work took me over a year, but since then I’ve been welcomed back with hugs every time I drop by. Once a member of the Bennetts family, always a member.
4. Could you enjoy the music or were you often too busy?
On busy nights, we would dart and weave behind the bar along with the music. After a number of shifts working with the same crew we were able to deftly dance from bar to register to bar to sink without colliding. Quiet nights were precious and I would polish glasses to a mirror shine while transfixed by the stage.
5. Which was the most significant BL gig for you and who played?
Picture yourself in the Jazz lab with every light off except for a blue light behind the bar. You and 80 people are dancing on tables in front of a 5ft tall man, who appears as a giant. Prince.
6. What was your best experience at BL in dealing with punters and/or musicians?
It’s been such a privilege to have had the opportunity to not only listen to so many talented musicians, but get to know them too.
7. What was your worst experience at BL in dealing with punters and/or musicians?
In my first year of working at Bennetts I was asked for a Coke by a woman elegantly dressed in a red, high-collared jacket with a gravelly voice. I poured a glass and naively asked her for $3.50. Rene Geyer swished her hair in my face and demanded that Megg to sort me out. Jazz faux pas.
8. Was the most obstreperous person you had to deal with at BL a musician, a punter, a photographer or a media person?
9. Were audiences on the weekend or during festivals very different? If so, how?
I rarely had to shhh the audiences during the week. They were dedicated, jazz nerds who knew Bennetts etiquette. Weekends attracted a diverse crowd. We could sometimes predict the crowd’s favourite drink by who was scheduled to play. The bourbon nights were not my favourite.
10. How long was your longest continuous work shift at BL, and what was the occasion?
Jazz fest nights + the hang. I remember riding home and hearing the morning birds waking.
11. Were your best times at BL during the gigs or after the punters left for the night?
The gigs that continued long after the doors had closed for the night were by far my favourite. An intimate and often alcohol-fuelled performance just for the staff.
12. What instrument(s) do you play?
The only instrument I play with is a microscope.
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 held the mic for an uncomfortable 30 seconds while introducing the band.
14. What work or interests do you have outside BL, whether musical or not?
I’m a neuroscientist. I wrote the final pages of my PhD in Megg’s studio above the club and the Bennetts Lane crew feature in my acknowledgements.
15. What plans do you have after the closure of BL?
I’ve been working as a scientist since 2011 & will continue on with my research.
16. What will you miss most about working there?
I will miss Bennetts like a bulldozed first family home.
17. Will there ever be another BL in Melbourne?
There may be another venue with similar name, but there will never be another Bennetts Lane. The commitment of the staff & musicians to make Bennetts the experience it is has been unique to this combination of people, dim lights and outdated, red vinyl chairs.
18. What do you think made this jazz club so successful?
A great deal of loyalty, sacrifice and vision.