Graeme Bell
[ Issue 46 ]

Emily Bronto is definitely one of Graeme Bell’s many fans

Bikwil honours Graeme Bell

Graeme Bell

Bet Briggs pays a personal tribute to durable Australian jazz musician Graeme Bell.

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For Graeme Bell — Bet Briggs


On 7 September this year Graeme Bell, renowned Australian jazz pianist, band leader, composer and gifted painter as well, celebrated his 90th birthday. What a feat! What a treat for the jazz community worldwide to celebrate whole-heartedly, because Graeme Bell has been bringing joy to jazz lovers everywhere for decades. He still is.

His life in jazz and the significance of his contribution have been well-documented. In particular, Dr Bruce Johnson, also an outstanding jazz musician and jazz historian, in his book The Oxford Companion to Australian Jazz (1986) gives a meticulously researched account of Graeme Bell's influence and stature, describing him as “a giant in the history of Australian jazz”.

Graeme himself at 72 shared the joy and adventure of his music-making in his very readable autobiography modestly titled Graeme Bell: Australian Jazzman (1988).

Then, in October 1993 at the 2nd Doubly Gifted Exhibition held in Waverley Library, Bruce Johnson delivered The Inaugural Bell Jazz Lecture, Jazz & Society: Sound, Art, Music — Living, introducing it as “an important tribute to an important part of Australia’s music history, and to a particular individual without whom that history would be much poorer: I mean of course, Graeme Bell himself . . .”

Further on, Bruce succinctly describes the Bell achievement:

Graeme Bell’s tours of Europe in the late forties and early fifties actually generated jazz movements in those regions. The Bell Band radically altered the social function of jazz in the United Kingdom, changing the direction of its subsequent history and setting the stage for the “trad boom” of the early sixties. It established in the minds of European musicians the sense of an Australian jazz style which has inspired imitators, collectors and social historians.

That historic occasion was one of the very few times in my years in the jazz community that I have met Graeme.

His birthday is a historic occasion, too, and as a personal tribute to him I’d like to share a reminiscence of a very special encounter with him.

My late husband John Briggs and I had joined the Sydney jazz scene in the mid-1970s. In May 1978 on an autumn evening soft with surprise, John, in delightful conspiracy with my sister Carolyn and her husband Paul Creevey arranged a birthday party for me — very surprising, indeed, as there’s no formal significance about being 47, unlike being 21 or 50 or 90! That night, 26 years ago, I was totally and truly “surprised by joy” by the party itself, the friends present and by the piano man who enlivened it all, the genial giant himself, Graeme Bell. What a night it was: one of the happiest of my life! I have several photographs which capture some of its magic moments.

Another precious photograph I have is one which memorialises John dancing in Martin Place to the Graeme Bell All Stars on a spring or summer day in 1980.

My encounters with Graeme — not many, in truth, over the years — and my memories and the photographic reminders of them, I treasure. The most recent encounter, though indirect, happened one morning after his birthday. I heard Margaret Throsby on ABC FM talking with him by phone: a brief but refreshing interview. I was struck with delight by the youthfulness of his voice answering her questions so enthusiastically, praising life and reflecting on his own and how much more there is for him to discover.

The quality of joy, I thought, is the very nature of the man!

At the time I’d been trying my hand at a particular verse form, “giving it a go” to borrow Graeme’s words at the end of his book. After some practice I thought, “I’ll try and write one for Graeme”. The result — I’ll call it an improvisation in words — is a non-jazzy, non-satirical effort supposed to be in the form mentioned in the title.


For Graeme Bell
A Trio of Clerihews

Graeme Emerson Bell
plays beaut piano, paints as well:
our great Australian jazz man
now also’s a nonagenarian! olz

Gee whiz G.E.B.,
where would we jazz lovers be
without you? Becos
you’re the Grand Jazz Wizard of Aus!

Good on you, dear Graeme:
long may you deliver us from mayhem
with joyful artistry and sentiment
and go on gently being a doubly gifted gent.

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