James Macaulay on “Middle Class, White” Jazz



Melbourne jazz trombonist James Macaulay enters the spotlight with his quartet at the Kew Court House this month. Joined by award-winning young jazz pianist Joseph O’Connor, bassist Tamara Murphy, and James McLean on drums, James will present his new compositions alongside works from recent release ‘Three Minute Blitz’.


You’ve said that your music is directly inspired by Australian jazz – tell us why you’ve moved beyond American influences and looked closer to home.

I’ve realized over the last few years that taking inspiration from historic or legendary American jazz recordings over and above Australian ones kind of limited any sense of identity – cultural and personal. Who I am, where I come from. I’m a middle class, white guy from Melbourne who was fortunate enough to go to a music school. I didn’t suffer in any respect. I realized that I could go and see my idols here, I could attend their performances frequently, I could talk to them, befriend them. It’s a lot more electric than the identification with historic American recordings from the ‘50s or ‘60s when those people have passed on long ago in a very different cultural circumstance.

What are the differences between those eras of jazz in Australia and America, anyway?

At that time, Australia was very much behind. In the ‘60s in America, they had Miles Davis and John Coltrane doing innovative things at extremely high technical levels – whereas in Australia, we were still essentially imitating the ‘20s jazz of Louis Armstrong. So technically, there was this kind of amateurishness and it was very hard to get a record from America. The record might arrive three months late and be broken – you’d have to go through this process to get modern jazz and so we’re kind of behind. That’s why the New Orleans revival scene in Australia has always been very strong.

So as a middle class, white boy from Melbourne, how does Australian jazz represent your identity?

I can hear Australian jazz musicians, I’ve played with them, they’re in a similar position. They haven’t suffered in the same way racially that American jazz musicians have. We’ve had this clean slate, so there’s this uniquely Australian culture where it’s unjudgemental and an unpolitical scene. I think our jazz is lighter and more buoyant.

Typically, people do look back into past for stylistic influences. Was jazz so good to begin with that it’s hard to improve?

It’s not so much about improvement in my mind, it’s about expressing in a different way. It’s an interesting form, which is very flexible and creative and it’s led to different manifestations. Every voice is different. Perhaps now it’s more uncommon to look back, but I think it’s become increasingly fashionable to look back to the very beginnings rather than the boys in the ‘50s and ‘60s, bebop and post-bop and stuff like that. I think early New Orleans jazz has a lot of secrets in it that have still been unexplored by contemporary jazz musicians.

Tell me about your own pieces. How do you approach jazz composition when jazz in itself is such an improvised genre?

In this particular group, there are essentially relatively simple song structures. They’re like songs without words. I like the idea of them as being received as songs – emotionally. A certain kind of melody directness or lyricism is very important to me. It’s about free interplay and strong melodies and themes.

See the James Macaulay Quartet at the Kew Court House, 24 April 8pm. Tickets $25, www.kewcourthouse.com.au.


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