Bennett's Lane Jazz Club
“I’m really sorry,” laughs Megg Evans in her sweet, husky voice, “but I was the one who started the door charge. I didn’t even have a tin to put it in, I put it in my pockets. Totally insane.” Evans is referring to her appointment as door person at Bennets Lane Jazz Club in March of 1993, two months after she’d met the owner when she was just 17. Having moved from Perth to Melbourne, the melodious young woman who has now been at the club for almost its life was managing it by her next birthday. In November, Bennetts Lane will be 20 years old and Evans’s path during those years has twisted along in tandem with the venue. Fourteen weeks ago she gave birth to her first child and it’s a beautiful symbiosis, with her describing meeting Bennetts’ owner Michael Tortini and moving into her apartment above the lane in the early '90s as “like finding a new family.”
Despite becoming a world-class club and hosting musical iconoclasts and legends such as Wynton Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, Allan Browne, Harry Connick Jr., Chick Corea, Brad Mehldau and one infamous Prince gig, Evans says it’s astonishing the club has managed to make it this far whilst maintaining its integrity and true purpose. In the wider den of Melbourne, her take on the future of musicianship in our city is direct. “I think there’s this weird conflict going on, because we have probably the largest percentage of Australia’s great musicians living here, and yet not really enough infrastructure to support them financially. So they all have to get teaching jobs, which means next year [we’ll] have even more really good musicians and even less places for them to play.” The outcome has got to be noise restriction re-evaluations, better-designed venues, or more “guerrilla” kinds of venues, she believes.
Bennetts has always done a brilliant job of getting our star players on the stage. “It is about putting the really cool musos on,” she admits, but also about “care and respect. Melbourne, or Australia, has this idea that the world is better than them. And I’ve listened to the world’s best. And nine times out of ten I’ll pick an Aussie to play, because their music is incredible.” In 20 years the average charge at Bennetts’ door has gone from nothing, to the $3 Evans instigated in ’93, to $15 today. “You’ve got [American pianist] Brad Mehldau who charges $75 a ticket. Then we’ve got [Australian pianist] Joe Chindamo, who, when he’s overseas or on an international tour, is playing shoulder-to-shoulder with [the best], and he’s just as good. And he’s charging $15 to get in. I mean if you have a look at what cinemas cost,” she points out. She names Jex Saarelaht (her “first musical crush”) as a case in point: “He’s one of Australia’s most amazingly incredible pianists, and yet has no profile. He’s such a perfectionist that he doesn’t perform that often. But on the other side he has no Facebook; he doesn’t get into social media. PR people have a really hard time with him because there’s really only one story to tell and that’s just being a great musical professional.” Evans’s son cries a little in the background of our call and it’s interesting to wonder who the next Aussies to navigate this path and have these conversations will be.
Having sung with my high school jazz band one heady evening several years ago at Bennetts, it’s clear that Evans and Tortini are serious about supporting young musicians from an early age. “I have approached Monash and VCA about getting their students involved in more Bennetts projects, and I’ve started what’s called Jazz Commons, which is a not-for-profit program so I can get young people more involved with creating their own scene, in a sense,” she explains. Having taken on guest lecturer positions at these institutions, she talks to students about “what life’s like on the outside, and how [to] go about getting a gig, what the scene is like out there, considering the death of the record label and seeing the advent of this digital era.” She also aids students with their grant applications, something older musicians could probably benefit from as a number seem to lament their inability to produce something the Arts Council finds compelling. “It’s really interesting to see how kids think about what they find valuable in their own work, and how they position that on a page,” she says warmly.
As for the purple dynast’s secret show in 2003, Evans breathes through the details even though she’s likely been asked about it a hundred times. “He chose the small room. He only let in about 45 people. There was like 5,000 people in the lane: we had to pull down all the roller doors to stop them from breaking in. There were people on the roof next door trying to break into our roof: it was pretty incredible. [Prince and his band] came down the stairs playing Take The ‘A’ Train.” In another tribute to the club’s sterling reputation, Evans recalls the night Chick Corea played. “He has a stage manager, a tour manager and a personal manager, so he’s got three guys on the ball for him, so you know you don’t talk to him. And he’s a Scientologist so we had [a very specific rider]. He hasn’t been playing club gigs for years. And he came up to me, grabbed my arm and said ‘Look, I just want to tell you something: You give me faith in clubs again.’ He wanted to stay in touch because this is the only club he wants to play in now.”
Later this year, Bennetts will be celebrating its birthday with a party Evans describes as “a week of great gigs, with great local musos, to celebrate what we do and the way we do it.” At the suggestion of a giant cake, ideally with someone jumping out of it, Evans gives a trademark sultry chuckle and suggests Allan Browne for the spot. Considering her status as loyal lifeblood of the club, perhaps it should be herself.
BY ZOË RADAS
BENNETTS LANE JAZZ CLUB marks its 20th anniversary in the last week of November this year. Check the venue’s site closer to the date for more details: bennettslane.com. The club is located at 25 Bennetts Lane, Melbourne.