After completing a Diploma of Education and finding I could think of nothing I wanted less than to try to teach high school students about music that didn’t interest them, I headed back to the Victorian College of the Arts to take part in its first floating of the Master of Music Performance degree (1995-6). This was something of a watershed: here were repertoire and improvisation candidates sharing a learning space without acrimony or combat, and here were educators valuing the endeavours of each with impartiality. My first year ensemble project was a duo partnership with Ben Robertson; my second was a piano duo with Sandra Aleksejeva, playing Stravinsky and Gershwin. One further requirement of this course of study was the writing of a minor thesis, and mine concerned the extended compositions of Duke Ellington.
It wasn’t a tremendously sophisticated work of scholarship, but it sowed a seed; late in the piece, when I finally devoted myself to its completion, I found myself curious as to the possibilities of musicological excavation. This, and the experience of being asked to play with the Red Onion Jazz Band in its final performances, at the 1996 Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues, determined my path for the next few years.
The origins, development and significance of the Red Onion Jazz Band, 1960-1996, undertaken in the Conservatorium of Music at the University of Melbourne, took three years between 1997 and 2000, and was motivated firstly by my having met the Onions in late 1996, and feeling that they had a story worth telling, and secondly by a perception that the achievements of earlier generations of improvising musicians in Australia were being ignored – largely through a lack of awareness – by younger students of the music. It seemed to me (and it still does) that young players who completed their tertiary study and immediately belted off to find out what was going on in New York were blind to the fact that for a great many years Australian musicians had sought a stream at its imagined source but had invariably wound up sounding like themselves.
Publications from the thesis appeared in Musicology Australia and Context. The whole thing is in the Baillieu Library at the University of Melbourne. Subsequent research (which is by fits and starts ongoing) into the life and music of John Sangster, has appeared in Context, following a presentation at the national conference of the Musicological Society of Australia in 2008.