Graeme Bell AO MBE 1914 – 2012
- Graeme Bell AO MBE 1914 – 2012
Graeme Bell AO MBE 1914 – 2012
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.
Bell’s original band broke up in 1953. He formed a new group for tours to entertain the troops in Korea and Japan. After a spell in Brisbane, he moved to Sydney in 1957, opening an art gallery and playing casual engagements. That year he and his skiffle group toured Australia with Johnny Ray for entrepreneur Lee Gordon.
In 1962 he formed another band, the Graeme Bell All Stars. They played at the smart Chevron Hotel in Kings Cross, and Bell presented popular floorshows at Sydney’s other major venues. He recorded, broadcast and hosted his own national television show, Trad Pad on Channel 7. Again a household name, he toured nationally and internationally, including an Arts Council sponsored study tour of the United States.
In 1964 he toured New Zealand with Frank Ifield. He next made ground-breaking tours of Papua New Guinea, before again setting off for appearances throughout Europe and the United Kingdom.
In 1978 Bell was made a Member of the British Empire. During the 1980s he played at the Kobe Jazz Festival in Japan and made several appearances at the Breda Jazz Festival in the Netherlands.
In 1990 Bell was the first Western band leader to take a jazz band into China. With singer Little Pattie, the Graeme Bell All Stars completed a highly successful and extensive concert tour of China and South-East Asia, followed by appearances at Expo 90 in Osaka, Japan. The same year Graeme was made an Officer of the Order of Australia for his services to music. In 1995 he celebrated his 85th birthday by narrating a tribute concert at the Dallas Brooks Hall in Melbourne.
Bell continued to tour worldwide. In 1997 he was inducted into the Aria Awards Hall of Fame. In 2003 members of the All Stars reformed under the name Graeme Bell Reunion Band, undertaking a series of limited engagements and recording an album of Australian jazz compositions.
The Australian jazz awards, which commenced in 2003, are named ‘The Bell Awards’ in his honour. In 2004 the Victorian Jazz Archive mounted a special exhibition to celebrate Bell’s ninetieth birthday. The Archive holds a significant collection of Bell memorabilia, including photographs, instruments, clothing, posters, paintings and sound recordings.
In 2006 Live Performance Australia recognised Graeme Bell’s life-long devotion to performing excellence with its James Cassius Williamson Award.
Graeme Emerson Bell died in Melbourne on 13 June 2012.
Frank Van Straten, 2007, 2013.