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Australian jazz

Portrait of Don Burrows, 1986.

Terry Milligan, Portrait of Don Burrows, 1986, photograph: silver gelatin. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia:an24522110-v.


Australia has had a strong and vibrant jazz scene since the 1920s, commencing with visiting performers and reciprocated by Australian jazz performers touring regularly in America and Europe.

Mainstream jazz centres on 'swing', although most jazz styles combine elements of improvisation and the 'jazz swing feeling'. A swing feeling is a rhythm with a constant tempo. In jazz terms this requires a lot of syncopation (accenting notes before or after the beat) and a continuous rise and fall of tension.

Swing dominated the popular dance styles of the 1930s after the swing feel became more popular in the late 1920s. The dominant movement of the 1950s was 'mainstream' which centred on 'Swing', although it overlapped with 'Be-bop' and 'Latin', new modern styles which had emerged in the 1940s.

Australians have contributed to this modern and mainstream sound, as well as creating original sounds by mixing jazz styles and helping to define 'Nu' jazz. Innovative Australian jazz is contributing a defining edge to Australian music.

Jazz - a brief history

Jazz emerged around the late 1800s, in the post-slavery period, in New Orleans, a city which was intensely musically orientated. Brass bands were present at almost every social activity. Ragtime bands, singers, and pianists proliferated. Small town and settlement bands created music which combined ragtime and brass with other influences such as slave songs, African rhythms, spirituals, folk songs, the blues, church music, and dance music.

All of these elements contributed to a new style of music that was unique to the African-American population of southern USA. Jazz is often called 'the American classical music' and is seen as one of the most important contributions to music to emerge in the 20th century. Jazz groups typically include a rhythm, bass and percussion section. Groups can range in size from trios (usually piano, double bass and drums) through to big bands of up to 16 instruments (including trumpet, saxophone and other brass instruments) and everything in between.

Early jazz recordings and modern jazz styles

Bruce Hart photograph of Bernie McGann - a jazz life.

Bruce Hart, Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Bernie McGann - a jazz life. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an21914787.

The earliest jazz was not recorded. In 1917, the white Original Dixieland Jazz Band made the first jazz recording. This led to an explosion in the popularity of jazz throughout America. Chicago was the jazz centre of the world in the 1920s with the move there of New Orleans bands. By 1920, New York had well and truly caught the jazz bug. From New York, jazz then spread throughout the world.

As it spread, it evolved into different forms. Jazz began to swing more in the late 1920s and into the 1940s. Much of it was played by big bands, and it is often called the big band era. Swing was the most popular style in jazz history and it attracted millions of dancers.

Be-bop is the name for the first modern jazz style and it is regarded as the most technically challenging. 'Cool' jazz developed as a reaction to bop. Latin jazz was a term used to describe the Cuban and Brazilian rhythms which started to be heard by audiences in the 1950s.

Bernie McGann, one of Australia's foremost jazz saxophonists, has been playing in Sydney since the 1950s and his forty year career parallels the important developments in modern jazz. Bernie McGann reflects the Cool Jazz style in his album Bundeena.

Jazz is considered a type of popular music to the extent that it is used as party, film or dance music. However, it is not popular in terms of its audience or its roots – rather it is often considered art music.

Jazz in Australia - popular and unconventional

When jazz first reached Australia in the 1920s it became popular as dance music, although it was not until the end of World War II that jazz became truly popular in Australia. In December 1946, the first Australian Jazz Convention was held in Melbourne and became an important gathering place for mainstream Australian jazz musicians. The convention has been held annually ever since. During this post-war period, jazz appeared in clubs, concert halls and hotels. Soon jazz societies, festivals and dances were springing up all over the country.

In Australia, jazz was also viewed as a radical, unconventional form of music and has often been associated with politics and radical ideas. Harry Stein, one of the founders of the Australian Jazz Convention, was also the founder of a left-wing political movement in Melbourne. Many people, particularly younger people, were attracted to jazz as an alternative to the popular music of the time. Jazz also gained a reputation for being the music of artists, painters and poets – the radicals of the time – and as such, found fans attracted to this bohemian element.

In the 1960s and 1970s there was a decline in the popularity of jazz in Australia due to the new pop and rock music styles that emerged. Since the 1980s however, jazz has experienced a revival in popularity.

Today, musicians like Vince Jones use lyrics to express political beliefs. Vince also has the ability to move his audiences in an emotional way, that they describe as insightful, subtle and discreet. This trait, more often associated with classical musicians, demonstrates the maturity of jazz in being able to reach audiences on many levels.

Australian jazz legends

Frank Coughlan

Frank Coughlan is recognised as the 'Father of Australian Jazz'. Frank played with the first jazz group to come to Australia in 1924 – the Californians. From 1928-30, Frank Coughlan played in England with the leading dance bands of the day – playing at the Savoy Hotel, Claridges, the Kit Kat Club and many others. He recorded with Jack Hilton's Band, Fred Elizalde, Arthur Rosebery and the New Mayfair Orchestra. When the Sydney Trocadero Club opened in 1936, Frank Coughlan and his Dance Band became world famous over night. He successfully combined a career as dance band leader in the commercial world of dance, with that of a dedicated jazzman.

Graeme Bell

Album cover photograph of the Regal Bells - Graeme Bell and his Dixieland Jazz Band, 1944.

The Regal Bells Graeme Bell and his Dixieland Jazz Band, album cover, 1944. Image courtesy of Nugrape Records.

One of the pinnacles of success in Australian jazz is to win a Bell Award, named after the acknowledged leader in the development of Australian jazz, Graeme Bell. Bell first played for Harry Stein, a jazz drummer, one of the founders of the Australian Jazz Convention.

Graeme Bell was born in Melbourne to a professional singer mother and comedian father. Graeme started learning the piano at eleven. In his early twenties, he heard jazz for the first time and started playing jazz with his younger brother, Roger, with whom he formed his first band in the late 1930s.

In 1947, Graeme and his Australian Jazz Band sailed to Europe to take part in an international youth festival in Prague. By the time they reached London, everyone was talking about the Bells, as the band came to be known, and their unique Australian style. A chance meeting between their manager and the manager of comedian Tommy Trinder in a London pub led to the band to be broadcast on the BBC, followed by sell-out performances throughout Europe.

By the time the band returned to Australia, jazz had flourished and they were offered a concert tour for the ABC. Since then, Graeme's name has become familiar to jazz fans throughout the world and he has rarely stopped performing.

Don Burrows

Don Burrows began playing in clubs as a professional musician in his mid-teens. By the time he was 16 in 1944, he was the clarinet soloist with Jim Gussey's ABC Dance Band. In 1950, he made the first of many overseas trips and was even offered a job with Count Basie (a legendary American band leader of the 1930s).

In 1973, Burrows was awarded an MBE – the first such honour for an Australian jazz musician. He continues to play flute, clarinet and saxophone with jazz ensembles, both in Australia and around the world, and has even performed with such diverse groups as the Sydney String Quartet and Galapagos Duck.

Len Barnard

Len Barnard (1929–2005) was a highly versatile jazz musician who explored a variety of jazz genres, from traditional through to swing and innovative jazz. An accomplished drummer, Len Barnard's Dixieland Jazz Band recorded the first Australian long-play album in 1951. This album resulted in a recording contract in Sydney with the major international label Parlophone.

During his career, Len Barnard performed with prominent jazz musicians including Ade Monsbourgh, Roger Bell, Dave Dallwitz, Errol Buddle, John Sangster, his brother Bob Barnard and Don Burrows, as well as established ensembles such as Galapagos Duck and in big bands at the Palais de Danse. In 2006, Leonard Arthur Barnard was posthumously awarded Member of the Order of Australia, for service to jazz music, to improving the professionalism of Australian jazz music, and to the encouragement of young musicians.

Bob Barnard

Bob Barnard has achieved national and international acclaim for his lyrical cornet playing. In 1974, Bob Barnard formed his own ensemble that toured Australia, Asia, Europe and the United States from 1976 to 1982. Bob Barnard performs regularly at festivals and concerts in the United States, Britain and Europe and has recorded with notable jazz performers such as Wild Bill Davison, Milt Hinton, Peanuts Hucko and Dan Barrett.

Throughout his career, Bob Barnard has won numerous awards, including the Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee Medal (1977), Member of the Order of Australia (1990), Australian Legends of Jazz Award (1991), Advance Australia (1991), Australian Jazz Critics Award (1990-92) and the Mo Awards Jazz Performer of the Year (1993, 1997).

Kerrie Biddell

Portrait of Kerrie Biddell, 1990.

David Franklin, Portrait of Kerrie Biddell, 1990, photograph: gelatin silver. Photograph courtesy of Renate Franklin.

Music has always been in Kerrie Biddell's genes – both her parents are pianists and her grandmother used to play piano for silent movies. Kerrie started playing the piano at age five but took up singing after a bout of arthritis. She auditioned for a rock band called the Affair and introduced the band to jazz elements. Eighteen months later, they played with Don Burrows and soon won a trip to London in a battle of the bands competition.

These days, Kerrie is a dedicated jazz singer who is exploring the boundaries of using her voice as an instrument, rather than just singing the words to a song. She has also won numerous awards, including a Mo award. She is widely regarded as the diva of Australian jazz.

James Morrison

Kerrie Lester, Portrait of James Morrison with flugelhorn, 1994, oil on canvas. Licensed by VISCOPY, Australia, 2007.

James Morrison was given his first instrument at the age of seven, at nine he formed his first band and at thirteen he was playing professionally in nightclubs. James Morrison debuted in the USA at age 16 with a concert at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Following this were performances at the big festivals in Europe, playing with many of the legends of jazz such as Dizzy Gillespie, George Benson, Ray Charles, B.B. King and Ray Brown.

James has performed for royalty and presidents and in 1997, he was recognised for his service to the arts in Australia and awarded a medal of The Order of Australia. While most know him as a trumpeter, he also plays trombone, euphonium, flugel horn, tuba, saxophones and piano. James is also a patron of several youth orchestras and a celebrated composer.

The strength of mainstream music in Australia is reflected in the wide range of Australian jazz festivals and the fact that the Australian Jazz Convention is still going after more than sixty years. Almost every week, a jazz event is held somewhere in Australia – there are hundreds of jazz festivals held around the country every year.

Useful links

Jazz musicians

Jazz information

Jazz in Australia

Australian jazz festivals - modern and mainstream

Jazz societies and associations

Last updated: 17 November 2015
Creators: Kathryn Wells