The first time I saw Allan Browne was at a gig that changed my life, and one about which I’ve written before: he played with Gary Costello and Paul Grabowsky in the Lounge at Mietta’s, in Alfred Place in the city, during the first half of 1990. I was in my first year at the Victorian College of the Arts, and I went with Sall (in the very early days of our relationship), and the whole experience was astonishing. I saw Allan out the front of the venue before the trio played, and I think I didn’t even know that he was in the band at that stage. (Remembering a time before I owned a copy of Six by three is difficult, but that was one such time.) I remember watching him play; I see him focused, bobbing slightly, obviously listening, his movements economical but very precise.
I heard Onaje several times at the Limerick Arms on Monday nights while I was an undergraduate, and found much to admire and enjoy – not least the enormous number of original compositions that the band played. One of my favourites was ‘Letter from Spain’ (which Geoff Kluke called ‘Letter from France’, ha ha) but when I asked for it once it became apparent that it wasn’t one of Al’s favourites (and they didn’t play it that time). I think I asked Bob Sedergreen about it, although I didn’t know him either, and although he told me to ‘ask Al!’ I was too timid, and I stood back while the request worked its way through the band. It’s possible that I didn’t even realise that Allan was the bandleader. This is a very long time ago.
The first time I met Al in person was in 1992. I had begun to collect the recordings I could find of Paul Grabowsky, and The moon and you had been played, and played, and played in my bedroom for the two years since it had been released. The ensemble of Paul, Al, Gary, Ian Chaplin and Shelley Scown, and tunes like ‘The moon and you’, ‘Divided self’, and particularly ‘You’re back (I’m hip)’ were thrilling and intriguing me. (I remember Philip Rex saying to me at about this time that he felt the Australian tracks on this album were actually superior to the ones with internationals, Dewey Redman, Paul Motian, Ed Schuller and Marty Cook. This seemed a bit heretical – dare you say anything against Americans?! – but in time I found myself easily able to see what he meant. Bands that have worked together for as long as that one are going to have made something of their own, and there was something truly original and organic in that rhythm section.)
I saw the quintet on the ABC’s Jazz Az Now, which I videoed and watched over and over, and I got it into my 20-year old head that I wanted Shelley to sing on my final recital at College. Youth’s arrogance! But I decided I’d try to make it happen. Shell had a gig in Toorak, in a room at the back of Tok H called, as far as I can remember, Jac’s Bar. There was a grand piano there and the ensemble consisted of herself, Al, Richard Montgomery on piano and Stuart Speed on bass. The gig was on Wednesday evenings, each week there was a guest – I remember Alyce Platt, Lisa Roberts, and Stephen Grant (playing tenor saxophone), but there were others – and each week (she told me later) Shelley expected the band was going to be fired because the turnout was so spectacularly unimpressive.
I was there each week though, sitting alone and listening, and wondering how and if I might be able to make my move. Going along to a gig like this, repeatedly, is a way to get yourself noticed, and in the end I was. It looked of course like I must be a musician because only one of those would probably pay the kind of attention I did. I was amused by the way the songs were called – ‘I’m in the nude for love’ and all that kind of thing – and when each week Shell sang ‘Never let me go’ alone with Richard I thought it was probably the best thing I was ever going to hear.
But Al was the first member of the band I actually met. One night I was sitting at a table and during the break he simply walked up and sat down, and we began to talk. There was an early Ellington piece playing, and I think it was ‘East St Louis Toodle-oo’. He found I was studying piano, and subsequently I sat in with the band, and I met Shell, and Stuart, and Richard, and at the end of the year Shell did sing on my recital: my setting of Judith Wright’s ‘Five senses’, and ‘Body and soul’. Len Ramoskis played drums, and because Phil Rex was elsewhere recording, the bass was played by Gary Costello. I was a very lucky boy.
This was the year that Bennetts Lane Jazz Club opened. Initially it was not week-round, but once the Limerick Arms had finished with jazz and a brief Monday residency at the nearby Cricket Club Hotel had wound up, Allan came to Bennetts on Mondays and stayed there for twenty years. And it was my good fortune to be on site one evening when the proprietor of the establishment was looking to assemble a band to perform with vocalist, Lisa Roberts, and asked Al. This may have been a Monday – I’m not absolutely sure. Probably the first time I played with Al was shortly before this, because I had taken a trio including him and Ben Robertson to perform at Trinity Grammar School, where I was teaching during my Diploma of Education (1993-94). Al saw I was in the room and suggested we get together to fulfill this role, and he thought to add Nick Haywood on the double bass.
Lisa later became Leza and got into a pop thing produced by someone from Big Pig (the words ‘as I recall’ can effectively be appended to any sentence you’ve read so far) but at this point the four of us did weekend gigs at Bennetts where she sang standards. Tall and blonde and slim she one night announced, ‘this is called “I’ve never been in love before”’ and the groan that came from a gentleman somewhere in the audience really had to be heard to be believed. It was a good thing to be part of, but her interests moved along to other musical areas and Al and Nick and I decided we enjoyed playing together so much we should keep it going even in her absence. So was born Browne – Haywood – Stevens.
From the beginning it was conceived as co-operative, democratic, leader-less – but Al did the talking and I wrote the tunes. Since hearing Paul and Gary and Al at Mietta’s I had felt that original composition was something I was going to prioritise in my music-making. I wanted to be someone who could compose the music for the band, and I was inspired by pieces like ‘Happy go lucky country’ and ‘Colonial sketch no. 1’ and ‘Ballad in search of a title’. Matter of fact, I still am. At the VCA I began to write tunes, the first of which were thoroughly ghastly, and took them to my ensembles and we played them. Gradually I gained more confidence, did things like making an A section seven bars long rather than eight (gosh wow, yeah, but it was huge for me then) or finishing in a different key from the one in which I’d started, and by and by I had a very modest book. By the time we began rehearsing as Browne – Haywood – Stevens I was composing regularly and this ensemble was the workshop for whatever it was I managed to produce.
The thing for which I shall always be grateful to Al and Nick above all others is the time they spent learning my music and the enormously supportive and encouraging attitude they took to the reception and later the performance of it. Even as the most junior member of the band I was treated with a respect that allowed me to keep producing original tunes and I felt always appreciated, always sustained. The pieces I wrote for BHS are still things I’m happy to play and I know that the tunes I write now are the result of the training I got playing with Al and Nick.
The importance of Ade Monsbourgh for the young Red Onion Jazz Band was something I discussed as I traced the band’s history in my PhD thesis, and if I may quote:
The effect of Monsbourgh…was to consolidate, to encourage, and to fire [the young musicians] with a new seriousness. Furthermore, the impact of his instruction was decisive because it was so direct. Whereas such a great deal of the band’s early inspiration had come from recordings, Monsbourgh used none. Nor did he work from printed music – lead sheets or arrangements – but demonstrated and accompanied, contextualizing and complementing immediately what his students played and perhaps most importantly, allowing it to sound good.*
At this time Monsbourgh was already a giant in the Australian jazz scene although representative of a style with which the Onions themselves were not absolutely in sympathy. His lessons with the boys helped them become situated in jazz music, to develop trust in their own ideas and to create the original personality for the ensemble that they did. It’s clear he took their efforts seriously, and deemed them to be worthy of his attention, even though they were self-taught, and very young indeed. When the Onions played their last gigs at the Wangaratta Festival in 1996 (in which I played piano, believe it or not) Ade was there, playing with them. This was a long and contributing, defining, friendship.
It’s my feeling that Al took from this the spirit of generosity that allowed him to function as a mentor to a vast number of younger musicians, myself included. When I performed recently in the Salon at the Melbourne Recital Centre in a two-piano concert with Andrea Keller, this is what we were trying to acknowledge: the incredible importance of Al’s care for us as developing musicians, allowing us to draw on his knowledge and experience in the process of becoming ourselves. The roster of musicians for whom Al was an enabling influence and a guiding spirit is a very long one indeed. Everyone has a story of Al raving about a recording they didn’t know, then following up by giving them a copy of the recording a week later – he was thrilled to be able to put the word around about the music he treasured. A byproduct of my studying the Onions’ history was my increased awareness of the hitherto unexplored world of traditional jazz; like many a ‘modern’ I had been unaware of just how exciting so much of it is. Al was delighted to hear me telling him how impressed I was with the Luis Russell band or with King Oliver, how amused by the Temperance Seven. He listened as though it were news to hear how great this music was. That, too, was a gift.
Al’s Mondays over the years featured a vast number and a great variety of ensembles, with him as the consistent element, the linchpin, the identifying marker. BHS played between about 1994 and 2000, and its two recordings were made in 1995 (for Jim McLeod’s Jazztrack on ABC Classic FM, later released as King, Dude and Dunce) and 1998 (Sudden in a shaft of sunlight). The trio played at the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz, the Melbourne International Jazz Festival, the Pinnacles Festival of Improvised Music in Brisbane, and for the Sydney Improvised Music Association, and its albums were launched respectively at the Continental and Chapel off Chapel, but the bulk of its performance hours were spent at Bennetts. Our book was mostly my originals, but we played standard songs, and a few bebop pieces like ‘Cheryl’ or ‘Minority’ or ‘Quasimodo’ or ‘Hackensack’. Habitually we would open with a standard, let’s say ‘Miss Brown to you’ or ‘I’m old fashioned’ or something like that, and often the first set would conclude with something quick, the second with something slow. Though not always.
I have twenty-five recordings of gigs we did there, including the final two, on 5 and 6 March 2000, in which we played a program entirely comprising original compositions. There are pieces that were presented almost every time we played, and there are pieces such as ‘The rainbow connection’ that we played only once. We continued to bastardize the names of songs – ‘Last night when we were sprung’ has stayed with me – and we balanced a keen sense of fun with the hope to create a distinctive ensemble identity. It is a truism that regular performance opportunities permit and encourage the creation of musical personality, but they’re not always available, are they? At Bennetts we were fortunate: even when playing for the jazz doctors, my parents, and maybe two or three others, we were able to grow our sound and our style. Our thing.
As I said in the obituary that I wrote for The Age, ‘To play with Al was to be in touch with an individual who thought always of the community, whose commitment to the group’s effort was unquestioning and consistent, and who seemed never happier than when a soloist presented him with an idea he enjoyed.’** These are strong memories: the feeling (hearing his ‘yeaaaahh!’) that one had produced a fine idea that coalesced with what he was experiencing at the drums, and yet surprised him, or the sense that even though one had presented something that called for exploration, such as he contributed to my ‘Change and smile’ or ‘Beachside’, Al was there for the collaboration. One of the most unusual and remarkable (I think) things we did was the performance at Elm Street Hall for the Astra Chamber Music Society in 1997 of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. This broke up the four-hands arrangement of the score (which I performed with Sandra Aleksejeva (now Birze)) with free improvisation from BHS, and free was something we had never done before then. We visited areas that afternoon that we had never seen before, and the spirit of adventure was unmoderated. Although I know Al didn’t consider himself a gifted free player he came up with things that blended direction with co-operation; he led and he listened. The strangeness of the assignment was exciting for all of us, and Al never once sought to impose. He was an extraordinarily generous musician and one whose regard for his colleagues marked every interaction with them.
The raves, as they were known, that Al delivered in between the pieces we performed were legendary, and became I think for many people as distinctive an element in his gigs as his playing. Al would go from simply back-announcing a tune into a verbal improvisation of great expansiveness and erudition, blending effortlessly his own wide reading with events of the day or matters pertaining to the jazz scene. He would drop hints to in-jokes that perhaps appealed only to a single member of the audience, or he would pretend to perplexity or even bewilderment in a manner that went so far as to unsettle the audience to some degree – should they laugh at him? Is that what they were about to do? It was clear on occasion that listeners who were visiting for the first time experienced surprise and even shock that this kind of thing was going on at a jazz club. The raves were frequently ridiculous but behind them there was a serious intelligence and they were always very funny.
I have here three examples, all taken from a performance at Bennetts Lane Jazz Club on 5 March 2000:
I hope you’re having a good time, I hope everything’s going to work out for you; don’t forget tonight, we can guarantee that the room has been completely de-bugged by Chubb Security, they’ve been through here and made sure there’s nothing here, no hidden cameras, no microphones – other than the ones we’re using – so there’ll be no connection between you and me as far as ASIO is concerned. Of course a lot of people who come to hear me play are worried about that because of my checkered career and my long-running battle with the forces of Imperialism and Western Democracy. But everything is okay here. The only thing I suggest is when you go home, if you could just grab one of the flyers – good to take it home anyway – from the door, as you go out, and hold it over your eyes. Because sometimes they use a long lens and take pictures of people leaving. And it could cause a problem with a visa for America. Or Cuba. Thank you.
This [‘Change and smile’] is a very popular one of ours. Last week I did it – my drum part – I did by connecting up with a member of the audience, David Rex, the well-known saxophonist, and he was my medium, and he sent me my parts from somewhere else. And it was an exciting concept. So tonight I’m actually going to be dealing at this very moment with Pattie, who owns the old building over the road, and she is sitting there at the moment with wires connected to a radio transmitter which is sending me the information, giving me the information as to the sort of drumming I should be doing in this piece. It’ll be interesting because Tim and Nick have both given their permission; sometimes it could be a problem, because if I got someone, perhaps some sort of engineer or something who builds sheds or something sending me messages I could be channeled the wrong way, you know? But tonight – Pattie has years of experience – she studied with the great Spivakovsky, the famous singing teacher here in Australia, and she has connections throughout the cultural world. So I’m sure what I do will be connected in some way with taste. Perhaps. But there’s one thing I know: it won’t be connected with Hildegard of Bingen. I’m sorry.
Now the next song has a very sentimental title – to me, you know; I don’t know about Tim, he writes these titles and I have to interpret them the way I do, mainly because I’m a drummer and that’s about all I can do is interpret the titles – but anyway, this one evokes the period of time during the war years when we used to go to balls and stuff, you know? There used to be balls, like the Insurance Workers’ Ball, and the, stuff like that; in fact, I read something the other day – no, I was reminded the other day – that I actually organized a ball that wasn’t allowed to be held, when I was in my teens, called the Toilet Fanciers’ Ball. This is true! I saw the ticket, and it’s been documented in an official place, which is a bit scary; but anyway this is a beautiful song of Tim’s and it’s again from our current record – it’s called the ‘Lunch cutters’ ball’. And you know, if you think of all the people – and the people [least] organized to have a ball would be lunch cutters, wouldn’t they? Because they’re all these people who are sort of working, and they’ve got to the dole, and stuff, and they can’t get a bit of cash, cutting lunches, you know? So they’d be impossible to trace even by the government, let alone the people organizing balls. But I hope we can organize one, and we’re hoping people will let us know on the internet, write to Tim’s internet, his email, and leave your name if you’re a lunch cutter. And then we’ll get them all together and he’s going to organize a ball, and we’ll come and play this song and then you can go home! It’s a great song anyway, it’s in three-four.
This reading was entirely fanciful; ‘Lunch cutters’ ball’ had to do in fact with a sort of lunch-cutting with which I think Al was not familiar. During 1997 I became close friends with a member of the Bennetts staff. As I was in the first year of my doctoral study, having worked through the day I’d head down to Bennetts to see what was happening in the evenings and my friend tended to be behind the bar. A friend of Sall’s took a liking to my friend, and wondered one evening, seeing how we were getting along, if I was cutting his lunch. Needless to say I was not (and nor was it, as things turned out, his lunch). But between this and the ancient tune ‘Darktown Strutters’ Ball’ (to which I’d been introduced as a new listener to traditional styles) I found one of those handy plays on words that now and then give me a title. (Titles need have absolutely nothing to do with the music itself, of course.) On other occasions Al introduced this particular tune by reciting the lyrics to ‘Darktown Strutters’ Ball’, but on the one hand this was when there was someone in the audience who knew it particularly, and on the other he would substitute for the title the words ‘Collingwood Town Hall’ as a hat-tip to the Frank Johnson band – look, it was curly but it all worked out if you knew long division. He made great fun with my titles, which were often cheerfully obscure and reveled in their obscurity. And the fun he made was only further reward.
I know that Al found the end of Browne – Haywood – Stevens painful. I remember making the announcement that I was planning to move to Sydney, and his reaction to it. He tried to be all, ‘oh, okay. There it is then,’ but his heart wasn’t in it. I know he felt discarded to a degree, and I’ve always regretted that he did. (I was going to Sydney because Sall was doing specialist training there and I had finished the PhD; I wanted to be with her.) Later, in 2005, when we performed at Transport in Fed Square – not a great gig but the three of us on a rare outing – he suggested we make another album but by then I had made two recordings with my own trio and my head was simply elsewhere. I had to be honest about this although I know, again, Al was very disappointed. We played only weeks later at Trades Hall in a performance with Eugene Ball for the Half-Bent Festival and it might be heard now (it was recorded by the ABC) to have suggested avenues as yet unexplored. It was certainly great fun.
Those of us who gathered at Bennetts on its last night, 15 June 2015, two days after Al’s death, at what would have been the club’s final performance and so his last therein, agreed that his spirit continues in our will to play, and to teach, and to remember, and to imagine. We who were fortunate enough to spend time with Al will never forget his commitment to the music, and to community, and the manner in which his playing was always a matter of sharing – with us, and with everyone else. He was a giant, and I am not overstating the matter when I say: we will miss him forever.
*Timothy Stevens, The origins, development and significance of the Red Onion Jazz Band, 1960-1996 (PhD thesis: University of Melbourne, 2000): 88.
**If this differs from what The Age printed, and it might, that’s because my obituary was wilfully loused up by the obits editor. I have gone back to what I submitted, and I’m not going to check it against the published version myself, because I actually don’t wish to see it again. That this ugly chain of events was associated with the already painful time following Al’s death is something for which I feel an ongoing sorrow. (It has been said that Al would have made mincemeat of the obits editor on the mic the following Monday, and in a peculiar way that is a comforting thought.)