The Australasian Jazz and Improvisation Research Network: Birth of a Notion


The Australasian Jazz and Improvisation Research Network: Birth of a Notion.

Bruce Johnson, Chris Coady, Rob Burke

Bruce Johnson

Speaking from my own experience, the seeds of what is now the Australasian Jazz and Improvisation Network were planted well over a decade ago, in informal conversations I had with John Whiteoak about the growing interest among young researchers in Australasian jazz history.  There have been attempts to document that history as far back as the 1930s, in for example the pages of music trade journals, most ambitiously on an occasional basis in Eric Myers’s Jazz: The Australasian Contemporary Music Magazine which flourished in the 1980s. Most often, free-standing publications have taken the form of personal memoirs, perhaps the most notable of which was Graeme Bell’s of 1988.

Early academic studies of jazz outside the US included Starr on the USSR (1983), Kater on the Third Reich (1992), Ballantine of South Africa (1993) and Haavisto on Finland (1996), Atkins on Japan (2001), Nettelbeck on France (2004). Australia was one of the first countries to receive such attention. For me, with a background in Cultural History,  the pioneering publication was Clunies-Ross’s article on the formation of an ‘Australian Sound’ back in 1979. There was a ‘registry’ style privately printed Encyclopedia compiled by Hayes. Scribner and Magee in 1976, but extended scholarly monographs were pioneered with Andrew Bisset’s  Black Roots, White Flowers in 1979, updated in 1987. This was followed by my Oxford Companion to Australian Jazz (1987) and The Inaudible Music (2000), and John Whiteoak’s Playing Ad Lib (1999). New Zealand was slower to develop its local jazz historiography, but the library is now growing, with work by Hardie and Thomas (2009) and Ward (2009, 2013).

In the meantime, interest in the history of specifically antipodean jazz was growing within research communities, particularly in the form of university-based dissertations; an early example was Tim Stevens’ doctoral project on the Red Onions Band, which as far as I know became available in 2000. The turn of the century saw a tipping point rapidly approaching, and for me it was when I was invited to present a keynote paper at the conference in 2009 of the Nordic jazz research network in Aalborg, Denmark. As I recall, it was there that I met Tony Whyton, one of the principals in the multi-national jazz research project called Rhythm Changes, for which he invited me to give a keynote on jazz and Australian identity in Amsterdam in 2011. That was followed by an invitation to guest edit a special double issue of the UK based Jazz Research Journal. Although I was aware of scattered Australian jazz research projects, it was the circulation of the call for papers that brought that work to a focus, disclosing a community of early career researchers that appeared to have reached critical mass.

During the long process of editing that double issue, published in 2015, then converting it into a book length collection of essays, the idea grew that we were probably now in a position to explore the idea of a formal association. My original idea was to use the launch of the book as an occasion to hold a conference at which such an association could be founded. To that end I circulated the suggestion, under the provisional title Association of Australasian Jazz Researchers, to all the contributors to the collections, also through the Australian Dance Bands email list, and the international membership list of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM). I also tabled a discussion paper at the Australia/New Zealand chapter of IASPM’s annual conference in 2015. With the collaboration of New Zealand researcher Nick Tipping, over this period we solicited expressions of interest and compiled a register of over thirty names, mainly from the Australasian region but also from as far afield as the UK, Italy, Portugal and South Africa.

In the course of this activity I also became aware that in 2013 Christopher and Michael Webb were preparing an application to fund a one day symposium at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music on jazz research in Australia.  Here was a group with a similar objective in mind. From my own point of view, there were many reasons to piggy-back the idea of a formal association on this event. To begin with, the infrastructure was in a much more advanced stage of preparation. My own Australian academic affiliation at that time had recently undergone a change of leadership and policy which made it less amenable to sponsoring the kind of symposium/conference that I had in mind. In addition, my own on-the-ground availability to give continuous attention to preparing such an event was compromised by the fact that I spend many months each year working outside Australia.  I had conversations with the organisers of the Sydney symposium, in which we agreed that if we also treated it as a pilot for the longer-term proposal, this would enhance the likelihood of their funding application being successful. The following text in quotation marks is Christopher Coady’s own account, sent to me at my invitation on June 16 2017:

“In 2014 I convened in partnership with Dr Michael Webb a symposium at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music titled: Negotiated Research Paradigms and the Jazz PhD in Australia. We sent out a national call for participants with the aim of determining 1) the extent to which jazz is considered a significant (or potentially significant) field of research at the postgraduate level in Australia, 2) what kinds of jazz-related topics are considered to be worthy of research attention, and 3) which methodologies are considered to be both appropriate to such research and sufficiently rigorous to produce useful/meaningful data (as well as what the designation, “useful/meaningful data” might mean). Reading between the lines here, the event was clearly aimed at fleshing out better strategies for doing practice-based or artistic research in (or I suppose, through) jazz. A large contingent of our attendees came from interstate and Michael and I did liaise with you [Bruce Johnson] in the run up to the event, although unfortunately, you had a conflict with another conference in Melbourne that same week (I think perhaps it was IASPM?) and weren’t able to attend. Rob Burke and Nick Haywood both attended and the notion of putting together a network of researchers, which you had initiated prior to Antipodean Riffs, was discussed at length during one of the panel sessions. … Michael and I wrote up some of the data we collected throughout the day for an article now published in the British Journal of Music Education”

The Symposium confirmed the high level of interest in jazz research in Australia and Australian jazz research, and the ball was then picked up by a group who had been represented at the Sydney event and, with Monash University affiliations, also had access to the kinds of infrastructure that could act as a platform on which to build further. Following further conversations which included myself, Christopher Coady, Michael Webb, and the Monash group,  it was agree that Rob Burke and Nick Haywood at Monash would assemble a team that could set about organising a further meeting of stakeholders for the formal inauguration of an association.  I turned over the registry that Nick Tipping and I had prepared to Rob, and was delighted and impressed to see things moving at a most efficient pace, so that when I returned from several months working in Europe, a one-day symposium was already scheduled for Monash University  for October 31 2016. Because Rob and his team were the prime movers in setting that up, I now invite them to take up the narrative.


Rob Burke

My interest in researching jazz was based on how research informed my practice as jazz performer and composer, which is why I have become an advocate for practice-based artistic research. In 2015, after the Sydney University day-long symposium and day conference at the VCA, the jazz staff at the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music, Monash University – Paul Williamson, Jordan Murray, Tony Gould, John Whiteoak and myself discussed the possibilities in developing a national jazz research group. We put the ‘word’ out to colleagues in Melbourne and interstate to garner interest. It was then bought to my attention that Bruce Johnson had already started collecting interest in an Australian research group, so, it was agreed that we collaborate and come together early November for a 1-day conference at Melbourne University/VCA to be convened by Monash (Rob Burke) and VCA (Rob Vincs). There were around 40 attendees with five speakers – Roger Dean, Bruce Johnson, Chris Coady, John Whiteoak and Tony Gould – who are some of the leaders in jazz research in Australia. At the conference, there was much discussion on the machinations in the setup/structure of the group where it was decided the name of the group should be the: Australasian Jazz and Improvisation Research Network (AJIRN). Next, was decision for the formation of the AJIRN committee, website and conference committee.

The set-up of the committee consisted of: Rob Burke, Bruce Johnston, Nick Haywood, Chris Coady, Roger Dean, Fiona Burnett and Rob Vincs

The conference committee: Rob Burke – convenor, Chris Coady, Fiona Burnett (program chai), Rob Vincs, Nick Haywood. Website design: organised by jazz guitarist Alistair McLean

As Monash University was the Education Partner to the Melbourne International Jazz Festival (MIJF), we negotiated for the AJIRN conference to umbrella the MIJF in June 2017, which was held at the Paris Cat Jazz Club on the 1st – 3rd June. The theme of the conference was Agency in Jazz; a provocative topic but it was the committees aim to challenge jazz researchers and not go over ‘old ground’ of previous overseas jazz conferences.

Following is an outline of the theme(s):

Discussion around agency has accumulated in significant research and commentary about jazz and improvisation – particularly in terms of aesthetics, culture and cognition. The thrust of the discussion seems to have moved from assuming the musician has singular agency in his or her work to a more distributed agency where other agents collaborate to create music.


In this conference, a cross-section of researchers from the field will explore the notion of agency in jazz from multiple perspectives, including:


  • the consequential and inter-related impact of diverse and dynamic agents on creativity and innovation in improvised and experimental jazz;
  • how agency is articulated in the analysis of performance/composition, including for example, identifying methods of analysis appropriate to a particular modality;
  • articulating and accommodating sociological concepts of agency, such as maintaining allegiance to localities in globalised, post-diasporic jazz;
  • how agents and agencies are characterised in performance experimentation;
  • the utilisation of agents and agencies external to the composer, performer and performance; and
  • the contrasting frameworks of musicologists and experimental performers/composers in relation to agency.


There were forty-two papers presented, which were divided into many areas of research including: artistic research, historiography, scenes/environment, and cognition. Eleven of the papers were presented by postgraduate students who received expert feedback from a selected panel and conference participants.

Many interesting topics that addressed the Agency theme were discussed during the conference including:

  • what is agency in jazz?
  • leadership – hierarchal positioning in jazz performance
  • methodology for analysis
  • identity (Australia – Syd/Melb – New Zealand)
  • cultural history
  • psychology of what happens and has happened in jazz

At its conclusion, it was agreed that the conference format should continue for the next two years at the MIJF and that it was a rewarding experience for all. From the committee’s perspective, AJIRN has an important role to nurture jazz research in the Australasian region, develop support and collaboration and to further enhance understanding of what we do a jazz researchers.





Reading List

Atkins, E. Taylor (2001) Blue Nippon: Authenticating Jazz in Japan. Durham and London:

Duke University Press.


Ballantine, Christopher (1993) Marabi Nights: Early South African Jazz and Vaudeville.

Johannesburg: Ravan Press.


Bell, Graeme (1988) Graeme Bell, Australian Jazzman: His Autobiography. Frenchs Forest,

NSW: Child & Associates.


Bisset, Andrew (1987) Black Roots, White Flowers: A History of Jazz in Australia. Revised ed.

Sydney: ABC Enterprises [1979].


Clunies-Ross, Bruce (1979) ‘An Australian Sound: Jazz in Melbourne and Adelaide 1941-

51’. In Australian Popular Culture, ed. P. Spearritt and D. Walker, 62–80. North Sydney:

George Allen & Unwin.


Haavisto, Jukka (1996) Seven Decades of Finnish Jazz: Jazz in Finland 1919–1969, trans.

Roger Freundlich. Helsinki: Finnish Music Information.


Hardie, Richard, and Allan Thomas, eds. (2009) Jazz Aotearoa: Notes towards a New Zealand

History. Wellington: Steele Roberts.


Hayes, Mileham, Ray Scribner and Peter Magee (1976) The Encyclopedia of Australian Jazz.



Johnson, Bruce (1987) The Oxford Companion to Australian Jazz. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.


Johnson, Bruce (2000) The Inaudible Music: Jazz, Gender and Australian Modernity. Sydney: Currency Press.


Kater, Michael H. (1992) Different Drummers: Jazz in the Culture of Nazi Germany. New York

and Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Nettelbeck, Colin (2004) Dancing with De Beauvoir: Jazz and the French. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.


Starr, S. Frederick (1983) Red and Hot: The Fate of Jazz in the Soviet Union 1917–1980. New

York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Ward, A. (2009) ‘“ANZAC, Hollywood and Home”: Creating a New Zealand Jazz Culture’. In

Many Voices: Music and National Identity in Aotearoa/New Zealand, ed. Henry Johnson,

93–102. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars.


Aleisha Ward. (2013) ‘Fascinating Rhythm: Australian and American Influences on Swing in New Zealand’. In Shifting Sounds: Musical Flow. A Collection of Papers from the 2012 IASPM Australia/ New Zealand Conference, ed. Oli Wilson and Sarah Attfield, 187–97. Dunedin:

IASPM Australia/New Zealand.


Whiteoak, John (1999) Playing Ad Lib: Improvisatory Music in Australia 1836–1970. Sydney:

Currency Press.