The Blues Bell

The Blues Bell
February 23, 2010
by Steve Walden

AUSTRALIA'S jazz awards are called The Bells after him — an honour you might regard as entirely appropriate, given his legendary status.

Graeme Bell is 92, and he rarely submits to interviews now. In a music career spanning more than 70 years, it's pretty much all been said, he reckons, and what hasn't been is probably in his 1988 autobiography, Australian Jazzman.

But when we mentioned his gigs with American blues giant Big Bill Broonzy, Bell's interest was piqued. Yes, he said, talking about that part of his career would be a refreshing change.

For students of Australian music, the history is important to our understanding of our musical evolution. They love debating whether Johnny O'Keefe's 1957 Wild One — generally regarded as Australia's first rock and roll record — was not pipped for that honour in 1955 by Victor Sabrino's version of Rock Around The Clock.

The lively discussions have resumed, this time around the possibility that one of Australia's leading jazz figures might have unwittingly become the first Australian musician to record blues songs.

No one is more intrigued than Bell, whose band backed Broonzy in Germany in 1951.

He was "gobsmacked" when nearly three decades later, a recording of the Dusseldorf concert surfaced on vinyl in Europe. No one involved knew the performance had been recorded.

According to a keen explorer of popular music in Australia, Paul Murphy, the Melbourne blues community has felt that the earliest blues recordings by Australians are probably those of Lobby Lloyde and the Purple Hearts in Brisbane in 1963.

But a 1979 album called Big Bill Broonzy In Concert, using tapes from the 1951 show, appears to have forced a rethink.

There are two problems with concluding that the four songs on which Bell and the Australian Jazz Band backed Broonzy constitute the "first" blues recordings by Australians.

One arises when examining Bell's recording career. As early as August 1944, he recorded, in Melbourne, Big Bass Blues with Ade Monsbourgh. A month later they recorded Unrealistic Blues, also in Melbourne.

On tour in Europe in 1947, concerts by Bell and his Dixieland Jazz Band were recorded, and track listings include Riverside Blues and Dallas Blues.

In 1948, concerts in Paris and London included Canal Street Blues, Wolverine Blues, Jackass Blues and Yama Yama Blues.Describing "blues" comes down to interpretation and, inevitably, semantics.

In his Sydney home this week, Bell said the word "blues" was often thrown on to the end of many titles, and that it might jar with purists who regard only the Chicago and delta blues of the 1930s and '40s as authentic.

"Back then, our understanding of the blues was not the mood, but the structure. We regarded blues as just part of the jazz spectrum — ragtime, stride, blues, jive, jump, big band."

Also, of the four Broonzy songs, only one — I Feel So Good — is what most would regard as a blues number.

Music enthusiast Nick Weare, the audio services manager of the National Screen and Sound Archive in Canberra, which last year accepted Bell's collection for safekeeping, classifies the pre-1951 songs as jazz.

"It's more jazz-blues, reminiscent of the stuff coming out of New Orleans, and that's why we describe artists like Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong as jazz musicians," he says.

"But then you have Graeme and his band, in 1951, backing a genuine blues performer, Big Bill Broonzy, and one of the tracks is a classic blues."

Bell said his band's time with Broonzy was "wonderful".

"He'd been marginalised by a bebop trio in France. (They were) absolutely unsuitable. It would be like a soccer player all of a sudden being asked to play rugby league," he said.

"The chords and harmonies … were completely foreign to Bill, and his stuff would be completely foreign to them."

He recalled Broonzy with great affection, saying the blues legend saw his music without complications. At their first rehearsal Bell asked Broonzy what key a song was in. This one, Broonzy replied, strumming his guitar.

"I found it on the piano. It was F," he said. And that was the extent of the arrangement — a title and the key. "We ran through one more song, then Bill said 'Yo' boys do' need no more this rehearsin', you know all this stuff real good'."

Bell is one of only three members of the 1951 tour band still alive. Trombonist Deryck "Kanga" Bentley this week also remembered Broonzy, who died in 1958, as "a laid-back chap with a great, gutsy laugh" — though the Australians sensed the sting of racial segregation in Broonzy's behaviour.

"One evening as we were getting ready for a gig, Bill and I rocked up at the bathroom together," Bentley said.

"I said 'you go in first, Bill'. He was taken aback because a black man was never treated that way. He was almost in tears."

And what of the mysterious emergence in 1979 of recordings Bell had no idea had even been made? The liner notes simply confirm the tapes had been lost for a long time.

Veteran record collector Eric Brown, the registrar of the Victorian jazz archive, said he found the album listed that year on the Raretone label, ordered several copies from Belgium, and gave one to Bentley.

That is probably how Bell became aware of it. Now, a British label, Jasmine Records, has issued the 1951 concert on CD.

Bell said no permission had been sought, and there was no mention of royalties. He could write a song called Show Me the Money Blues, but he does not seem sufficiently put out.

What struck him most when he first heard the 1979 record was the musicianship of the eight-piece band; they were in cracking form.

However you see it, one conclusion is inevitable: in 1951, an Australian group was recorded playing a blues song, I Feel So Good, with a genuine blues exponent, Big Bill Broonzy.

After that, nothing could stay the same.
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