Graeme Bell AO MBE b.1914- 2012

Graeme Bell

Graeme Emerson Bell, ‘The Father of Australian Jazz,’ was born in Melbourne on 7 September 1914.

Graeme was 11 when he began studying classical piano, but he was converted to jazz by his younger brother, trumpeter Roger.

The Youth League sponsored Bell’s participation in the 1947 World Youth Festival in Prague.

 

Achiever and survivor

‘‘I heard little jazz, either live or recorded, during World War 2,’ recalled jazz guru Eric Child, ‘but when I began broadcasting jazz radio programs from Brisbane as a staff member of the ABC in the early fifties, I began to listen to the Bell records and talk about them with the local aficionados. It soon became obvious what a very special kind of jazz this was, and for many years afterwards I tended to base my assessment of the local product on the Bells’ example. This bunch of hardy annuals from Melbourne can have had no intimation of the impact their music would have on the jazz world. Graeme Emerson Bell MBE, achiever and survivor, is Australia’s foremost jazz musician. We all agree on that, so let’s stop all this fiddling about and get on with it.’

Graeme Emerson Bell, ‘The Father of Australian Jazz,’ was born in Melbourne on 7 September 1914. He had inspiring parents: his mother sang opera with Dame Nellie Melba and his father acted with Gregan McMahon. Graeme was eleven when he began studying classical piano, but he was converted to jazz by his younger brother, trumpeter Roger. Graeme played piano in his brother’s band for the first time in 1935, while he was still working as an insurance clerk.

Establishing his own band, Graeme set up a Saturday night residency at Leonard’s Cabaret in the sea baths in St Kilda. His interest in radical art and politics led to bookings to play at the Contemporary Arts Society’s annual exhibitions, and a permanent booking with the communist Eureka Youth League’s Hot Jazz Society. In 1946 he made his first recordings, opened the Uptown Club, a cabaret in the Youth League’s premises, and helped establish the first Australian Jazz Convention. The following year he played in for the first time Sydney and started recording for EMI. His record sales soon launched him as a major figure in Australian music.

The Youth League sponsored Bell’s participation in the 1947 World Youth Festival in Prague. This, and the ‘jazz for dancing’ concert tour of Great Britain that followed, brought jazz unprecedented popularity. The American music journal Downbeat told its readers that Bell’s was ‘unquestionably the greatest jazz band outside America’.

Back in Australia, Bell founded the jazz-oriented ‘Swaggie’ record label and toured for the ABC. In 1951 he made a 500-gig tour of Europe and the UK, during which he accompanied US blues singer Big Bill Broonzy and headlined a National Federation of Jazz Organisations gala at London’s recently completed Festival Hall. Afterwards Bell was presented to HRH Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen.

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Biographical references

Graeme Bell: Graeme Bell, Australian Jazzman – His Autobiography, Child and Associates, 1988
Bruce Johnson: ‘Graeme Emerson Bell’, in The Oxford Companion to Australian Music, Oxford University Press, 1997