A short history of Communist jazz

‘Since 1947, he has been intermittently associated with Communist-sponsored peace activities.’

That’s from an ASIO file compiled in the 1960s about the jazz pianist Graeme Bell, who died last week aged 97.

The various newspaper obituaries document Bell’s musical accomplishments and his significance as the ‘grandfather of Australian jazz’. But it’s also important to note his relationship with the Left, not only because of the story’s inherent interest but because it highlights how much unfinished business remains from the Cold War.

Since 1989, we’ve seen an old rightwing narrative of the twentieth century become hegemonic, a story that equates communism with fascism, and therefore demands that former members of the Communist Party be treated with the same odium that one-time National Socialists receive. Both ideologies were totalitarian; both led to millions of deaths – and that’s why Lee Rhiannon’s past memberships should be endlessly slobbered over.

The new dominance of this narrative – a longstanding argument of the Cold War Right – owes a great deal to the collapse of the Cold War Left’s illusions in the Eastern Bloc dictatorships. Those who once hymned Stalin’s Russia as a paradise have been forced to confront the millions of deaths kindly Uncle Joe presided over and, not surprisingly, many have abandoned their old ideas and taken up those of their opponents.

That’s understandable but it’s still deeply silly. The atrocities of the gulag matter – of course they do! – but the tens of thousands of people who belonged, at one time or another, to the Communist Party of Australia were not individually responsible for the crimes of Stalinism. The working-class members of the CPA did not join to run a dictatorship. They signed up because the communists were the main (and often the only) force campaigning for causes that are now almost universally recognised to be just, from rights for Indigenous people to trade unionism, from equal pay for women to ending apartheid. On almost all of these issues, they were actively opposed by the mainstream political parties and regularly harassed by the security forces, often to the point of losing their jobs. Indeed, the wiseacres who today dismiss CP members as totalitarians (and nothing but totalitarians) might ask themselves where, exactly, their intellectual forebears stood.

But the communists were not merely responsible for political reforms that we now take for granted. They also played an often unacknowledged role in cultural innovations.

Jazz is a case in point.

As a black music, jazz was massively inhibited in this country by the national obsession with racial purity. When, in 1928, Sonny Clay toured with his band The Colored Idea, the Commonwealth Investigative Branch – the forerunners to ASIO – devoted themselves to monitoring the musicians, determined to prevent them ‘consorting with white women’. Eventually, the uniformed police raided an after-concert party. Truth explained what they found:

Empty glasses, half-dressed girls, and an atmosphere poisonous with cigarette smoke and fumes from the liqueur – and, lounging about the flat, six negroes.

After a sustained media campaign, which respectable papers like the Age joined, a parliamentarian raised the matter in the House of Representatives. After reading out headlines like ‘Nude girls in Melbourne flat orgy’ and ‘Raid discloses wild scene of abandon; flappers, wine, cocaine and revels’, he asked, ‘Does the Minister not think that in the interests of a White Australia and moral decency, permits to such persons should be refused?’

The Minister agreed – and six band members were deported.

That was the context in which the young Graeme Bell had to learn his craft.

In the 1940s, jazz appealed to the young almost as much as it horrified the establishment. During the war, many local musicians came into contact with Americans who introduced them to developments in the scene. Melbourne became the centre of a local enthusiasm for ‘hot’ or traditional jazz, which, with its emphasis on improvisation and authenticity, paralleled new directions in visual arts and literature. In October 1941, the Contemporary Art Society hosted an exhibition of modernist painting, at which Bell and his band played. Here’s Truth again:

Jitterbugs shimmied to a weird new brand of swing music and lank-haired collarless ‘modernists’ argued about what-have-you … Long haired intellectuals, swing fiends, hot mommas and truckin’ jazz boys rubbed shoulders on friendly terms. While swingsters hollered ‘Go to town’ and jittered in the aisles, the intelligentsia learnedly discussed differences between rhythm of hot jazz and pigment of Picasso.

Yet, most of the time, there was nowhere for this hollering and jittering to take place.

Key to the evolution of Melbourne jazz was thus the Eureka Youth League, a body affiliated with the Communist Party, and meeting in a refurbished hall in Queensberry Street, North Melbourne.

The leader of the EYL was Harry Stein, whom the turncoat Cecil Sharpley once described as ‘a jazz crazed Communist whose chief attribute is his ability to talk fluently on anything at any place at any time.’ Stein, himself a semi-professional drummer, founded the Eureka Hot Jazz Society in 1945, a time when Australia’s musical isolation was so intense that jazzers habitually accosted American sailors on the docks to ask them if they had any records. (After the Sonny Clay episode, it was not until 1954 that another band led by a black musician would be permitted to tour.)

Stein also organized the first national Jazz Convention, which met in the Eureka Hall for five days of discussing, listening and playing hot jazz. Bell later recalled:

We were all walking on air. Here were these musicians from Hobart and Adelaide – few of us had previously met – who had been searching out this music that we had. Their aims were the same and they talked the same language. The rapport was almost unbelievable.

Papers given at the conference were later published in Max Harris’ Angry Penguins journal – again, reflecting the association with modernism.

Later, the young communists of the Eureka Youth League raised money to send the Bell Band to Prague to participate in the World Youth and Students Convention, a huge leftist event. The rave reviews Bell received established his reputation both abroad and when he returned.

Thereafter, the ABC offered him a prestigious recording contract – but only on the basis that he severed all connection with Communist fronts like EYL, something to which he reluctantly agreed.

With the onset of the Cold War, the CPA itself became much more sceptical about both modernism and jazz. By 1953, the party theorist Paul Mortier was urging young people ‘to turn their backs on the eroticism, escapism and subjectivism of Jazz’. In its place, he advocated folk music – and, in due course, the EYL went on to play a leading role in the revival of Australian folk. But that’s another story.

Why does any of this matter? Partly because a more detailed look at what communism actually meant in Australia provides the best antidote to those right-wing dismissals of the entire labour movement as innately infected with a kind of Red fascism. It is, quite obviously, possible to condemn without reservation Stalin’s atrocities while still recognising the positive achievements of groups like the EYL.

Which is not to say that Stalinism did not impact in Australia. Again, that’s why the history’s important. Even in the brief account given above, you can see the potential that existed for a productive engagement between modernism and the Left, a potential not realised because the theoretical crudities and dogmas of Stalinism got in the way.

Nonetheless, whatever their faults, the young activists of the EYL were, on most issues, head and shoulders above their political contemporaries. They were right about all sorts of things, one of which was jazz. And the Left today shouldn’t be afraid to say so.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

More by Jeff Sparrow ›

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  1. BTW, that building in Queensberry Street, which is still there, was originally the meeting place for the old Victorian Socialist Party, the group to which Tom Mann belonged when he was in Australia.

  2. Thanks Jeff. Very illuminating. I had no idea of the Left’s links with jazz in Australia. I would have guessed folk of course, but not jazz. Because Bell was an exponent of what I always thought of as trad jazz (a jazz I’ve had no musical attraction to) I’d never taken that much interest in him.
    (Wikipedia also tells me that Bell was the Narrator for the 1973 Australian performance of Tommy, with Ian Meldrum as Uncle Ernie!)

  3. My mother used to go to performances by Bell in the 40s and everyone knew that he had toured/was touring the USSR…he would have had a miserly career without Eastern Black backing and thats’ the irony especially for many Australian novelists under the communist imprimatur such as Alan Marshall,Katharine Susannah Prichard and Frank Hardy. That doesn’t mean that they were bad writers but the sales did help them eat. Similarly Australian art is formatted often by those influenced of the CPA gaggle of artists –and not simply by dint of the rigid lines of Noel Counihan . Blackman, Perceval, Arthur Boyd and Albert Tucker wer all caught up in the radical political swirl. The cultural influence of the old CPA on Australia was huge. From Judith Wright to Oodgeroo Noonuccal to the wonderful Criena Rohan to the “New Theatre’ movement — the CPA milieu was very large indeed. With folk like Bell froning the movement jazz — ‘trad’ jazz –here in the sixties was seen as the first cultural port of call for those moving left. It was a radical music mix in a way that the folk milieu didn;t have the same cred until later. Folk here in the early sixties seem so very Christian, twee and ‘folksy’.

  4. Yes, an obituary on Bell in the local press a few days ago was pretty much standard fare: early family history; making a name for himself in the jazz world; travelling overseas with his Australian Jazz Band and being pursued by groupies; failed marriages to long time marriage and children; receiving MBE and AO for his music; Aria Hall of fame etc. No mention of communist affiliations though. Still, it’s good to know that the once commy Bell was considered worthy of such honours by country and empire. I saw him play a few times, and on one occasion mentioned to the girl I was with that Bell was a communist. He doesn’t look like one, she said, squinting for a closer look. That’s because he has only one head, I replied.

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