The Bell Awards 2019

By Andra Jackson.

Sydney’s lockout laws and the ABC’s cuts to music programs were concerns raised for their impact on musicians at this year’s Australian Jazz Bell awards.

They were made in an acceptance speech by one of the award winners, Sydney musician Jonathan Zwartz. Now in their 17th year, the annual Bell awards were established to recognize and encourage excellence in performance, creativity, recording and presentation in the jazz field. This year’s gala presentation was held at Bird’s Basement in Melbourne this week with musicians attending from around Australia.

The awards this year covered six categories. All winners faced strong contenders in a field of three finalists elected by the judges in each category.  

The Best Jazz Vocal album award went to Josh Kyle for the album Trombone Song Cycle. He was up against finalists Margie Lou Dyer for the album Old Digger’s Picnic and Harriett Allcroft for the album Archie. The Best Instrumental Jazz album award went to bassist Sam Anning for the album Across A Field as Vast As One. Trumpeter Mat Jodrell and the album Echoes of Harlem and pianist Barney McAll and the album Zephyrix  with the Monash Art Ensemble were the other finalists in this field.

Pianist Andrea Keller took off the award for the Best Jazz Ensemble for the Year for her Five below Live, selected from a final field that included Jonathan Zwartz’s Animarum and Sam Anning’s Across A Field As Vast As One. The Best Produced Album went to pianist and composer Barney McAll for Zephyrix that featured the Monash Art Ensemble. It was selected from a field that also included Sam Anning and Mat Jodrell for the previously mentioned albums.

Trumpeter Niran Dasika was chosen as the Young jazz Artist of the Year for the album Suzaku with runner-ups Flora Carbo and Erica. And Josh Bennier and the recording To The Bone.

The Best Jazz Work of the Year title was award to double bassist and composer Jonathan Zwartz for the track Animarum from the album of the same name. It was up against Mat Jodrell’s For My Folks from the album Echoes of Harlem and Sam Anning’s Sweethearts from the album Across A Field As Vast As One. Each winner performed after receiving his or her award.

In an off the cuff speech in accepting the award for the Best Jazz Work of the Year for Animarum, Sydney’s Zwartz –also winner of the 2018 ARIA award for Best Jazz  Album for Animarum – said he felt a bit envious of the present Melbourne jazz scene. He said the Melbourne jazz scene was thriving and provided a supportative environment for young emerging musicians to develop. That had been the case when he first started out in Sydney in the 80s. Its jazz scene was flourishing and he had the opportunity to play and learn with iconic jazz musicians such as elders Bernie McGann, Chuck Yates, Bobby Gebbert and Mike Nock.

But those same opportunities are no longer available for the new generation of musicians as in recent years, the Sydney jazz scene has struggled to survive. Part of the reason is Sydney’s lockout laws –aimed at cubing after dark street violence – forcing venues to close early.

“Sydney suffered a triple blow with poker machines, entertainment licences, and then the lockout laws.’’ Now that most venues have closed, he finds there are few opportunities to play. But he is hopeful a current review of the lockout laws will help energise the Sydney jazz scene again.

Zwartz also spoke of the harmful and flow-on effects of the ABC’s cuts to music programs on radio as well as in mainstream media “where we are all but invisible’’, and cuts to arts funding bodies like the Australia Council. “This makes it harder and harder to earn a living and what do we say to musicians graduating from schools about their future?’’

The awards also featured the induction of Sydney saxophonist Sandy Evans into the Bells Hall of Fame. Evans was unable to attend but arranged for Zwartz to accept on her behalf. He noted that it was only the second time a female musician had been inducted into the Hall of Fame, with pianist Judy Bailey, the first. “But that is changing,’’ he said. Evans’ prepared speech included thanking an array of people including all the people who work so tirelessly behind the scenes supporting musicians in the jazz world.’’ It was an apt acknowledgement as this year’s Bell Awards were largely organised on a volunteer basis by Melbourne Jazz Co-operative co-ordinator Martin Jackson. Musicians playing on the night volunteered their services while Bird’s Basement staff came in on the night off and worked for free.

Also inducted posthumously into the Hall of Fame were jazz impresario Horst Liepolt who ran the Basement in Sydney and Sweet Basil’s in New York, pianist and composer Allan Zavod who played with Frank Zappa, Eric Clapton,  and, and pianist Bryce Rohde who co-formed the Australian Jazz Quartet/Quintet.

Bird’s Basement owner and jazz benefactor Albert Dadon AM with other sponsors including APRA/AMCOS funded the awards. Judges were Dadon, Wangaratta Jazz Festival founding artistic director Adrian Jackson OAM, Martin Jackson, ABC Jazz presenter and music journalist Jessica Nicholas, and 3PBS and former ABC jazz presenter Gerry Koster.