Some time this year, after what is sure to be one hell of a party, Melbourne will lose the venue that 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)?
From 2004 — as barperson, manager, and underqualified soundperson.
2. How did you come to work there? Was there a job interview?
No interview – I had pretty solid barskills, but Megg wouldn’t give me a job — I don’t’ think she thought I was proper ‘jazz club’ material. Which was kind of true, Jeremy used to laugh at me because coming from a pub/nightclub background I’d call the punters ‘mate’. So I waited ‘till Megg went on one of her OS trips and got in Michael’s ear… All it took was a busy Saturday night when Jeremy needed a decent bartender, or at least someone who wasn’t, in his words, ‘completely useless’. I took advantage of my moment to shine.
3. What was it like to work there?
Very soon after I started working there I knew I would never work in any other hospitality venue – although the pay and the hours are still rubbish, BL is the only place I have ever worked in the industry where the music is the absolute priority, and the ‘customer is always right’ mentality is replaced with ‘the staff usually have a better idea of what’s going on’. Knowing that your bosses will back you no matter what creates a really unique environment, where you know you’re all in it together, and no one would ever ask anyone to do anything they’re not prepared to do themselves. At the end of a busy night when we’re all totally wrecked, it’s a beautiful thing to stlll be fighting over who will clean the toilets. The way that the staff legitimately care about each other, the music, and the integrity of the venue, makes it a particularly special place to work.
4. Could you enjoy the music or were you often too busy?
Often it’s too busy to really listen. Even when it’s a relatively quiet night, all it takes is someone wanting a glass of water or asking where the toilet is and your concentration is broken, so it’s definitely not the same as going to see a gig and giving the musicians your undivided attention… having said that, the music is still definitely enjoyable, and there have been such a huge number of incredible gigs that I never would have seen if it wasn’t from behind the bar.
Even if we don’t get to listen to the whole set, one of the best things has been witnessing the same band do multiple performances in one night or over a couple of nights — The Necks, The Bad Plus, and Eric Harland and Brad Mehldau have theoretically repeated the same show multiple times, but of course add an element of improv and every tune can be so variable.
5. Which was the most significant BL gig for you and who played?
Absolutely impossible to say, there have been so, so many. To list Prince would be a cliché… some of my favourites of all time include The Necks, Julio and the Stevies, Bernie McGann, Tim Berne – Nels Cline – Jim Black Trio, The Bad Plus, Brad Mehldau Trio, Chris Dave and The Drumhedz, Ben Vanderwal’s rantings with The Grid, Al with Sam Pankhurst and Marc Hannaford… in fact every Allan Browne gig was utterly enjoyable. But perhaps the most significant was the first time I heard the late alto saxophonist Dave Ades play – I was totally blown away by the magnitude and depth of his sound, it was like nothing I’d ever heard before. And he was such a lovely guy, too. I remember him sitting at the bar musing over the similarities between the health benefits of lemon myrtle tea and his lovely Aunt Myrtle.
6. What was your best experience at BL in dealing with punters and/or musicians?
There have been heaps of ‘feel good’ moments– it’s the smaller things that seem to really count. Being in a position of ‘playing host’ continually gives you the opportunity to show a little extra care or compassion and make a difference to people’s nights, and sometimes their lives… it’s nice when this effects people and they appreciate it. One of the appreciation highlights would have to be Jex including Sarah and I in his “thank-you’s” on his latest cd, Liminal.
7. What was your worst experience at BL in dealing with punters and/or musicians?
Maybe the time The Bad Plus played – one of my favourite bands — the audience was captivated so it was a good chance for us to listen too…. Except for the guy sitting right in front of the stage, repeatedly spewing on the floor!!! I felt so bad for David King having to play drums, over seriously heavy tunes, with this guy throwing up in front of him! After cleaning it up once you’d think the offender would leave, but no – he stayed to spew again and again, and his friends just kind of pretended not to know him…. In his flimsy defense, he did return the following night, having sobered up, apologizing profusely and offering cash for the cleaning bill – which we put in the tip jar.
There’s also those few times that some big burly looking bloke decided he didn’t want to play by the rules – when people are looking at me to throw him out but he doesn’t want to go. Although few and far between, there have been the odd occasions over the last 11 years or so that I just wanted to be able to “call security”. (Usually, if it came to that, ‘calling security’ involved Megg coming down in her nighty and very cleverly verbally manipulating the perpetrator into feeling exceptionally guilty and a sometimes little confused, then leaving of their own accord!).
8. Was the most obstreperous person you had to deal with at BL a musician, a punter, a photographer or a media person?
Hahaha – definitely not photographers, in my experience they are always quiet and well mannered! But I can think of a few musicians who fit this description, mostly just because they have a predisposition towards making a bunch of noise and often just get a bit excited seeing their friends up on stage ☺
9. Were audiences on the weekend or during festivals very different? If so, how?
The festival always brings a much broader demographic – there’s a really wide variety of gigs and marketing reaches further and deeper corners of Melbourne, so it brings all types to all gigs. The main difference between a weekend crowd and the weekday jazz heads is that on weekends, you sometimes might hear the phrase ‘play something we know’. During the week, there’s a strong demand to ‘play something we don’t know’.
10. How long was your longest continuous work shift at BL, and what was the occasion?
Would have to be a jazz festival shift… probably the closing night last year, -that was pretty epic. I wouldn’t call every minute of it ‘work’ exactly, but we started about 1pm in the afternoon and by the time we got home I’m pretty sure the sun was coming up the next day….
11. Were your best times at BL during the gigs or after the punters left for the night? Tell us about that.
Tough call… some of the gigs have been so incredibly inspiring and musically life changing… but at the end of the night when the last of the punters have left and it’s just us again — staff, musos, and maybe a few close friends, and you finally get to sit down with your own drink (when I’m lucky it’s a gin martini made by Sarah or Hannah) — well, that’s a pretty special moment.
12. What instrument(s) do you play, what music studies have you completed and in what bands have you played?
Bachelor of Music (Performance) at Monash on alto sax – I play with the Entropy Quartet, and with Anna Smyrk and the Appetites, and I play keys and accordion in The Bon Scotts.
13. If you have performed at BL, what was it like to be on stage rather than on the door or behind the bar?
You hear people say it all the time, and we spend a lot of energy getting people to shut up, but being on stage really exemplifies the fact that there really is no other venue where people actually listen to what you have to say, musically. Having people’s total attention gives you the opportunity to bring them with you on your journey. Most of the time at bars and clubs very few people are actually listening, so often we’re playing more to each other rather than to the audience. But probably the hardest thing about performing at the club is stopping myself automatically picking up glasses and serving people drinks!
14. What work or interests do you have outside BL, whether musical or not?
I teach instrumental music a day and a half a week, and also teach Pilates at a couple of studios in Melbourne.
15. What plans do you have after the closure of BL?
Same plans as before the closure — get more sleep. Play more music. Do more Pilates. I, like most of the other staff, could never actually bring myself leave. So it’s secretly kind of a relief to have that decision made for me so I can stop living a double life of late night jazz and early morning Pilates – it’s killing me!
16. What will you miss most about working there?
Easily the people – the feeling of going to work, and knowing that even if you’re totally exhausted, the people you work with (including musos and staff and the occasional super special punter) will more often than not turn your night around and make it totally worth your while!
17. Will there ever be another BL in Melbourne?
Hmm…If someone were to open a club and call it Bennetts I reckon it would be a bit like walking down the street and seeing the person who received a face transplant from your dead brother or sister. The facial features would be the same but it would look weird over different bone structure and totally freaky attached to a different body….
18. What do you think made this jazz club so successful?
Having everyone, from punters to musicians to staff, really believe in what it was…
I stepped out of Bennett’s Lane earlier in the week after a night of jazz (and a few too many pinots) already feeling nostalgic in the knowledge it would most likely be the last time I stepped through those doors. What a great venue, it will definitely be missed.