John Buchanan, was awarded an Order of Australia Medal (OAM) in the Australia Day Honours this year for, “services to jazz music, and to the broadcast media”.
Buchanan has long been involved in the jazz scene, organising concerts and festivals as well as broadcasting on radio for many years. He joined Fine Music as a volunteer in 2009.
In a recent interview with Fine Music’s Michael Morton Evans (In Conversation), John Buchanan gave an account of his early experiences of the Sydney jazz scene and how it influenced his career.
While he’s always had an interest in music, a concert at the Sydney Town Hall in April 1952 placed jazz music on the map for the young Buchanan: “I have vivid memories of going to the Town Hall that Monday night. Eight musicians ran out onto the stage, all dressed in green suits. It was Graeme Bell’s Australian Jazz band, just having returned from a European tour and the first number they played that night was High Society, an old New Orleans march, but it was a march that really had a different sound about it, a beat about it and a swing about it… and that’s when it all started,” he said.
After that, Buchanan frequented jazz clubs around Sydney, one in particular the Sydney Jazz Club’s weekly venue in Martin Place located in the basement of the Real Estate Institute. “It was below street level in the middle of Martin Place,” explained Buchanan. “The house band, the Paramount Jazz Band were a great traditional band. Harry Harmon was the band leader and they gave us great music every Saturday night.”
Eventually, Buchanan began playing in bands himself, as well as “trying to battle through” gaining qualifications in accountancy.
When the 1960s rolled around and the rock n’roll era hit jazz, “basically knocking it for six” according to Buchanan, he found that the world had lost interest in traditional jazz. However, in the mid-1970s with the formation of Tom Baker’s San Francisco Jazz Band in Sydney, Buchanan’s enthusiasm was reawakened.
“He [Tom Baker] had top Sydney musicians like Paul Furniss and John Bates in his band… they were terrific musicians and launched this great new jazz band. Traditional jazz was alive again in Sydney,” said Buchanan.
Around this time, Buchanan also began his own band: “I lived at Dural and at that time we ran a monthly dance at the War Memorial Hall with a band called the Peoria Jazz Band and we had a lot of fun.
“I managed to encourage people to come up, good musicians to come up and play with us and sit in with us.”
Revival of sorts
It wasn’t a great leap from running a band, to staging jazz concerts, and it seemed a natural progression in Buchanan who fancied that he would modestly try and start a jazz revival.
“I thought we’ll just try one concert and then see what happens. It did well and led me on to doing other ones and then doing a few jazz festivals.”
In 2002, with the death of Tom Baker, Buchanan’s enthusiasm waned again: “He was such an inspirational man when it came to music, he was a one hundred per cent true jazz musician. He really knew the music, he loved it and it was his life.
“I kept going, but when Tom died my idea of trying to start a new jazz revival just about seemed impossible. I didn’t think it could be done without the inspiration of Tom.”
During the 1990s, Buchanan wrote and published his book Emperor Norton’s Hunch (1996) based on the Lu Watters Band, the band that played such a big part in the post-war jazz revival and the band on which Tom Baker based his own San Francisco Jazz band.
On his first trip to San Francisco, having decided to write the book, to meet Lu Watters in the early 1990s, unfortunately Watters died on the same day Buchanan arrived.
“I had to rely on people like Bob Helm and Wally Rose and others in the Watters band to supply me with information for the book. Despite the sad beginning to my visit I had a wonderful time in San Francisco, discussing the great jazz tradition that Lu Watters had left on the West Coast.”
Having dedicated 25 years to supporting and enjoying the jazz scene in Australia, Buchanan reflects: “It takes a fair amount of time but I’ve enjoyed it all. I’ve enjoyed working with all the musicians and enjoyed sharing my enthusiasm for the music with the people who come along to the concerts and festivals”.
Leonard Bernstein’s famous phrase that jazz music requires a hint of pain is, “true to me”, says Buchanan. “This great folk music started with the blues, the spirituals, and then grew with the 1860’s emancipation after the American Civil War.
“It all led to this wonderful music. I fell in love with the music, and the people who created it. I will always be grateful to them and their wonderful music, as long as I live,” says
– Samuel Moore