I was reminded of this paper, and I mentioned it, so I’ve dug it out and here it is. I’ve read but not revised it, and it’s as it was delivered at the Victorian Chapter Conference of the Musicological Society of Australia, on 29 October 1999. It’s not overly footnoted because it was presented verbally; everything said here would be more likely sourced in the thesis from which it is drawn. I thought I remembered dashing to Sydney after presenting, but looking at that date it seems far more likely I actually went to Wangaratta for the Festival. 29 October was a Friday that year. There was some immediacy about it – that rare (for me) sense of having to rush from one thing to another. My PhD was in its final months but wasn’t submitted until the New Year – February I think.
There is another Onions paper, concerning the band’s appearance at the 1963 Australian Jazz Convention, in the MSA’s journal Musicology Australia XXIV (2001). I can’t reproduce that here but if you’re curious, it’s around.
The Red Onion Jazz Band as Practitioners of Australian Jazz
The Red Onion Jazz Band, formed by high school friends around 1960 as the Gin Bottle Jazz Band and concluded at the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues in 1996, was a Melbourne traditional jazz band, which is to say that it featured the instrumentation of the early small groups—clarinet, trumpet and trombone in the front line, and a rhythm section which included a banjo or guitar, tuba or string bass, possibly a piano, and drums—and built its repertoire initially on the classic recordings of Louis Armstrong, Clarence Williams, King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Bix Beiderbecke and Johnny Dodds. Its career, which was unusually long for a band of its type, saw it move from a kind of cult status in the casual dances of the early 1960s, through periods in which the popularity of traditional jazz (or jazz of any kind) waned considerably, to a position of seniority and enormous respect at the time of its dissolution. The band released eight LP and four EP recordings during the 1960s and early 1970s, and during the 1990s recorded two CDs, one of which was released only after the band had ceased performing. The Onions created their persona as a band early and were a distinctive presence for as long as they existed as a group.
This paper looks at how the Onions can be seen as emblematic of an Australian jazz. This Australian jazz is not necessarily a style, so much as a response to circumstances; it is not a sound so much as an approach to playing which admits a wide range of possibilities. It seems to me that the concentration on isolating aspects of musical sound which tally with national stereotypes—larrikins, gum trees, deserts, sheep, or whatever—is only going to satisfy a short term requirement of the investigation of musical life. So far, the limitation of Australian style or sound to a few bands around 1950 has hampered an understanding of the peculiar conditions under which jazz has been understood and learned by musicians in Australia. An awareness of these conditions is central to an explanation of the many tangential, obscure, or perhaps ‘inappropriate’ additions to the basic jazz vocabulary made by musicians in Australia. Such additions and adaptations are the life of the local musical community, for so many reasons.
To date, Bruce Johnson has been the most energetic exponent of theories of Australian style in jazz. In a body of work stretching over the last 15 or 20 years, Johnson has repeatedly asked the question “is there an Australian jazz?” The answers he provides—affirmative ones—usually concern a number of musicians active at the middle of the century, foremost among whom are pianist Graeme Bell and valve trombone and reed player Ade Monsbourgh. Put very simply, his argument maintains that distinctive local characteristics, which evolved at a time when recorded jazz was still relatively scarce in Australia, were obfuscated as recordings became more plentiful throughout the 1950s. This stresses the necessity of finding personal solutions to musical problems without the aid of reference to teachers or a particularly wide range of recordings. The rise of a group of musicians dedicated to New Orleans jazz at this time is seen as a dramatic decline in local colour, as Johnson writes: “Musicians like Bell, Pickering, and their colleagues assimilated rather than pedantically copied their sources. The mouldy fygges gave jazz more definition as a concept, but in so doing they narrowed its possibilities.”
The primary motivation behind the musical adventure of the mouldy fygges was the recording done by William Russell in New Orleans during the 1940s. Having found ageing African-American musicians such as clarinetist George Lewis, trumpeter Bunk Johnson, and trombonist Jim Robinson, Russell set about preserving their music on his small American Music record label. The appeal of old, neglected, black musicians from New Orleans was irresistible to those seeking an authenticity in jazz, and hence a very strong New Orleans community developed in Australia. In Melbourne, the Melbourne New Orleans Jazz Band was, plausibly enough, an example of this, as was the Yarra Yarra New Orleans Jazz Band. These two groups had enormous popularity at the end of the 1950s and during the early 1960s. It was in fact at a dance in Beaumaris, the Strut, that a performance by the Yarras inspired young friends Bill Howard, Brett Iggulden, and Allan Browne, to form a band of their own, and this was (for the immediate future) the Gin Bottle Jazz Band.
I believe that the growth of a community of musicians devoted to New Orleans music and the so-called “archaic” style of the Johnson and Lewis bands, was only a consequence of the thinking which had accompanied the beginnings of the postwar Australian jazz scene. The insistence by Bill Miller, when he founded the magazine Jazz Notes in 1941, that there was a strain of righteous jazz which should be pursued to the exclusion of all that was inauthentic, was something which took hold in Australia. Miller cast himself more often than not as the channel for this true music, and the pages of his magazines resound with his uncompromising approach. As interest in New Orleans jazz grew, bitter arguments raged in Miller’s magazines between those who believed Bunk Johnson was truly a link with the very beginnings of jazz, and those who, apart from maintaining a great interest in 1920s jazz, had been captivated by the generation of white musicians in Chicago which took its lead from this music and continued to play it into the 1930s and beyond: Eddie Condon, Pee Wee Russell, and others. The consequences of debates in Australia over authenticity and genuineness in jazz have been far-reaching, and in a sense are not unknown even today. For bands studying from records, the idea that the music could be reproduced faithfully was an important one. But the search for the true music was one which generated enormous acrimony between adherents to one style or another. So authenticity became a significant concern for the traditional jazz community, and in its many manifestations this concern shaped the Australian scene.
Yet it was also a consequence of circumstances in Australia, where there were felt to be few if any direct links to the jazz tradition. Rudi Blesh’s Shining Trumpets, one of the first important histories of jazz, was published in 1946 and arrived in Australia to great acclaim within the jazz community. It begins: “Jazz music is a purely American phenomenon.” Point taken. A great many histories of jazz begin on this note. In Australia, the knowledge of being without engendered a passionate quest for truth in music. Blesh, on this first page of his introductory chapter, took great trouble to make clear that he was writing about “pure” and “authentic jazz,” and it is little wonder that the book did so well with readers here who were desperate for both information and affirmation. The first wave of Australian jazz musicians in the 1940s and the New Orleans aficionados who followed may have had their differences, but the motivations for their tastes were strikingly similar. The New Orleans enthusiasts simply believed they had got closer to the source.
In time, the Onions would show signs of a search for authenticity. Once again, however, the results it produced were unique. Primarily through an examination of developing repertoire, the Onions’ career can be seen to be a modelling of a history of jazz, which at times resembled an argument in favour of specific musicians as important. It is a balance, though, between the planned and the spontaneous, similar to the manner in which their performances balanced the desire to get the music across effectively with a desire to have fun.
None of the boys who began the band had formal musical training on the instruments they chose to play—trombone (Howard), trumpet (Iggulden) and drums (Browne). The colleagues they rounded up to complete the group—Kim Lynch on tuba, Felix Blatt on banjo, John Funsten on clarinet and John Pike on piano—were little better off. In an atmosphere of trial and error, and the absence of any notated music, the boys set about learning to play jazz. Fortunately records were plentiful, as Iggulden’s father had amassed a considerable collection—one which even included the rare French pressings of Russell’s recordings of George Lewis in New Orleans. However the method, such as it was, was by no means methodical or thorough, and the band’s path to the achievement of sound and style was as idiosyncratic and treacherous as had been the Bell band’s over 30 years before. The resources on which the musicians drew were haphazardly selected according to what appealed. Their technical limitations on instruments they were learning as they went meant that although they studied records closely and learned parts by ear, the reproduction of them was always subject to variation.
The beginnings of the band were as much in rituals of teenage friendship as musical exploration. Saturday nights found them walking the Beaumaris streets, drinking and playing. The importance of friendship amongst the musicians was such that it has been suggested that in later stages superior musicians were overlooked in order to employ those who fit in. Stage performances by the band preserved the spontaneous humour and sense of the ridiculous which had their origins in teenage friendships, and it was the dressing up and falsetto singing which for many made the Onions particularly distinctive. The band exploited these qualities, reproducing a measure of them in the studio, and making them an integral part of their image within the local scene, through advertising and the decoration of the venues they operated.
They didn’t sound, then, anything like the models on whom they based their performances. Inspired by recordings made in the 1920s, they sought only to emulate the spirit they found there, and Iggulden has said that in dissecting a song in order to play it, “I was trying to get the same feeling that I got when I played the record.” The Onions’ reputation was made not on their resemblance of American heroes but on their curious selection of repertoire, their sense of humour and energy in live performance, and to a degree their youth.
The first period of the Onions’ career lasted until clarinetist Gerry Humphrys, who had been in the band for three years, tubist Lynch, and pianist Ian Clyne, a more recent addition, broke away to form the pop group the Loved Ones. This followed the dramatic change in musical taste among teenagers which occurred around the time of the Beatles’ Australian tour in 1964. Traditional jazz was no longer as viable a music as it had been, and the three musicians who left the band did so because they were more dependent financially on it than were the others. The band’s second period was one of musical consolidation, in which the repertoire broadened gradually to include music of larger bands, such as those of Luis Russell and 1930s Louis Armstrong. A closer and more thorough attention to model recordings was evident in the EP King Oliver Revisited, recorded towards the end of 1965, on which four Oliver tunes were performed by an enlarged version of the Onions which featured Oliver’s trademark two-cornet front line. The LP Big Band Memories demonstrated a similar dedication to a studious broadening of the band’s repertoire, featuring tunes recorded originally by Russell, Red Allen, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, Armstrong, and the larger Oliver groups. It was during this time that the first European tour was organised and undertaken, and the band performed at the Jazz Jamboree in Warsaw, Poland, during October 1967. The third period began shortly after the Onions returned, and replaced the tuba with the string bass. Another tour took place between 1970 and 1971. The continuing quest for new music brought items from the Swing era—a period of music passionately hated by a vast number of traditional jazz fans—into the repertoire, but as the exploration became more and more extreme, it led to an untenable situation wherein the band began to lose its audience and (perhaps more importantly) its direction and conviction. Between 1974 and 1983 the Onions did not perform, and the band was believed to have broken up permanently. After 1983, when a benefit reunion was organised for Bill Howard, whose house had been destroyed in the Ash Wednesday bushfires, the Onions found new life as a band able to maintain a semi-regular performance programme of festival appearances and occasional gigs in Melbourne. They travelled to Europe a third time in 1992, and released the CD Crisis shortly thereafter. Bill Howard’s death in 1996 signalled the end of the band.
At all stages, the Onions were continually open to new repertoire, and eschewed the hackneyed repertoire of the majority of traditional jazz bands. Occasionally chauvinistic about their selections, they were more often at the mercy of what affected them personally, and Iggulden has described the process of finding material: “Someone heard a song, or a thing, or an arrangement, or an idea, or a player, or a band, [and said,] oh fuck, that’s really good, let’s do it.” So the band’s exploration of King Oliver’s music, for example, did not stop with “Dippermouth Blues.” In fact, to my knowledge they never played this most famous of Oliver’s tunes. Those they chose to study—and the fact that they played so many is significant also—were selected with an eye on what would work well for the band, and what they liked. The band’s repertoire ultimately included tunes from New Orleans, a vast number of Armstrong items from across his career, some Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford and Fletcher Henderson items, as well as music of Morton, Dodds, and the other 1920s luminaries. This catholic repertoire was represented in the band’s live performances in a conservatory approach so that tunes which might be energetically demarcated by critics and some musicians were pushed alongside one another. During a performance in Malvern, England, in 1967, Ellington’s “Creole Rhapsody” was followed by Clarence Williams’ “Cushion Foot Stomp,” and preceded by the more theatrical “Big Chief Battle Axe” with its crowd-pleasing drum feature. The Onions adhered ultimately to no single jazz style, and this was a strength of the band, directly resulting from its haphazard beginnings.
But traces of traditional jazz chauvinism subsisted even in the Onions’ outlook. Particularly after 1965, when the split in the group drove home the new favour for pop or mod music, a certain moral superiority inhabited the continuing Onions’ engagement with jazz. The idiosyncratic synthesis they achieved was based on the hard work involved in becoming closely acquainted with a broad range of music. And even as early as the band’s second commercially released recording, which was a performance at the 1963 Australian Jazz Convention, it can be seen that close attention was being paid to specific historical recordings in the development of the band’s repertoire and performance style. The four tunes on this release are traceable to specific sources: “Barnacle Bill” to the Hoagy Carmichael band in 1930, featuring Bix Beiderbecke; “Perdido Street” to Johnny Dodds’ New Orleans Wanderers of 1926; “Since My Best Girl Turned Me Down” to Beiderbecke once again, this time in a group he led in 1927; and “It’s Tight Like That” to a recording by Chris Barber with Lonnie Donegan. Efforts have been made to learn significant parts of the original performances, such as Beiderbecke’s famous solo on “Barnacle Bill,” or Dodds’ on “Perdido Street,” and in some cases formal arrangements have been preserved. This was, however, not so much a conscious attempt to authenticate themselves within a pure jazz tradition as the feeling that such elements were integral to the pieces themselves. A comparison between the Onions’ “Barnacle Bill” and Carmichael’s could not possibly be thought to suggest any slavish copying. But there were elements associated with songs, on the basis of significant recorded performances of them, which musicians learning those songs would accommodate.
At times in the Onions’ career they were referred to as a copyist band, yet the sound they made as a band bore very little resemblance to the sound of any band on which their performances were based. Browne has explained it another way, in terms of the fact that it gave musicians who were not readers and who lacked formal training, material to practise. Learning parts by ear from recordings allowed something to be grasped, and created a point of reference. For whatever reason, there was a faithfulness to recordings then which was important in the adoption of jazz repertoire, and whether it went so far as the desire to be authentic or merely to provide a starting point, remains a matter of opinion.
Distance and detachment give licence, and although writers for Miller’s magazines during the 1940s and 1950s argued for righteous jazz, the situation in Australia was such that it was only a matter of time before opposing, or simply more flexible, positions were outlined. The visits of the Bell band to England around 1950 were the beginnings of a real awareness of the possibility of an Australian jazz style, and yet that band had merely filled in what recordings and teachers had been unable to provide. It’s my position that subsequent bands did the same, and the notion of their having narrowed the possibilities of jazz is slightly mistaken. The communication between band and audience was also important, although it is all too readily ignored in discussion of music preserved on studio recordings. A quick musical example comes from the first period of the Onions, and should properly be compared with their more conventional performances of traditional repertoire. At any rate, this version of “Mandy” demonstrates some of the more unexpected aspects of their performance.
This recording is the product of a band finding its place in a local scene, and putting its stamp on the music it plays. Humour played an enormous part in the Onions’ music, and performances on stage were punctuated by spontaneous absurdist acts. The origins of the elements they introduced are the subject of another paper, but it is obvious that this approach had not been derived from American recordings.
In the creation of their own musical identity, the Onions diverged from tastes and practices of preceding bands; yet their mission as jazz musicians in Australia was similar. They adopted a music from afar, and they sought to play it with a sincerity, an energy and a spirit equal to that which had inspired them. As an Australian jazz band, the Onions consciously or not, conformed with procedures which had become established over the twenty years before they began so that in choice of repertoire, attention to models and the character of the band in performance, they maintained the relationship between scene and tradition which is a foundation of Australian jazz, even as they extended both.
 Bruce Johnson, The Oxford Companion to Australian Jazz (Melbourne: OUP, 1987) 56.
 Rudi Blesh, Shining Trumpets: A History of Jazz (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946) ix.
 Brett Iggulden and Allan Browne, personal interview, 27 March 1999.
 Brett Iggulden, personal interview, 12 October 1998.