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Melbourne's improvised jazz revival begins in the laneways

Melbourne has the best live music scene in Australia – fact. 

There may be other cities that do a specific style better, like the country music capital Tamworth or Tasmania’s successful foray into the avant-garde over the past decade. But no one could plausibly mount a case to say that there is somewhere other than the 3000 postcodes that has as many live performances which encompass such a vast array of styles.

That’s why it should come as no surprise there is currently an improvised jazz revival occurring in the bespoke laneway venues that form the capillaries of the throbbing throng of Melbourne music venues. 

One venue that has embraced this genre is Brunswick’s Red Betty with their ‘Speakeasy Jazz Jam’. The venue’s David Lynch-inspired aesthetic of jagged black is broken up by the dim glow of lamps, resulting in the bar and live performance space which is suitably accessible via Houdini Lane.

“I play piano that is accompanied by a rhythm section to create a little jazz trio. Anybody can come down and sit in with us or if they play an instrument that one of us plays, they can swap out with us,” Speakeasy Jazz Jam band leader, Adam Rudegeair, says. 

“I picked up playing as a teenager and I was only interested in two things: New Orleans music and Prince. It was a weird juxtaposition because they are very opposite in terms of musical styles, so on one hand I really got into Harry Connick Jr. And Dr. John as well as jazz pianist Thelonious Monk and then there was the cold Minneapolis funk of Prince.” 

Whilst wanting to remain staunch to each genre, Rudegeair’s solution to managing his conflicting stylistic muses is another reason why he is the perfect musician to host Speakeasy Jazz Jam. “I developed various bands over the years that focus on the different flavours: Lake Minnetonka focuses on the Minneapolis funk, then there is Bayou Tapestry that focusses on voodoo swamp funk and I also have a David Bowie jazz project called Bowie Project. 

Jazz musicians getting together and jamming improvised pieces is one of the most important traditions of the genre that emerged in New Orleans as the 19th century turned into the 20th. Rudegeair explains why jam sessions are so important to the jazz community, “Jazz is a very inclusive musical language that absorbs influences from every new musical innovation. In the ‘70s it incorporated rock and then there was Erykah Badu and Janelle Monae who were singing in a classic jazz style.  Nowadays, you have bands like Hiatus Kaiyote that are recontextualizing jazz with an almost global sound.”

Parallel to these musicians recontextualizing the genre, in 2014 jazz music was brought into mainstream focus when it was the subject of the film Whiplash – which took its name from a piece of music by renowned jazz composer Hank Levy. The Oscar winning film explores what it takes to be a jazz musician via the protagonist, talented drummer Andrew Neiman, who is admitted to the Shaffer Conservatory in New York City – a thinly veiled analogy to the actual Juilliard School of performing arts – but struggles under perfection driven band leader Terence Fletcher (J.K Simmons).

A tired yet astute poise enters Rudegeair’s voice as he discusses the poignance of  this film to jazz music, “Whiplash is a psychological thriller more than it is anything about jazz.”

Returning to his point on why jam sessions are so critical to jazz music, Rudegeair says, “Jazz is just like learning a second language in that you have to practice it with other people, preferably strangers, to truly learn to speak it. 

“If a jazz musician was to forgo jams and just sit at home and practice all day, you might have great chops, you might be able to play Whiplash note for note, but you will not be a good listener and not able to respond to the mood and direction of other players; therefore missing out on the whole reason jazz developed.”

Speakeasy Jazz Jam is on at Red Betty on Sunday March 17 from 6pm until 8pm. Find Red Betty at 589 Sydney Road, Brunswick.