Graeme Bell: Musician who brought back dancing to British jazz


The pianist, composer and band leader Graeme Bell was the only Australian jazz musician to become well-known in Europe. In 1947 Bell and his amiable adventurers had recklessly travelled to ravaged post-war Europe to play jazz as the Graeme Bell Australian Jazz Band (always firmly insisting on "Australian" in their billing). With no work arranged in advance, they spent four and a half months touring in Czechoslovakia, where they played at the World Youth Festival in Prague. Bell must have been a convincing hustler, for the band was paid to record a dozen tracks for the otherwise classical Czech Supraphon label.

On its first trip to England in 1948, the band moved into Humphrey Lyttelton's house. Lyttelton, who had never met them before, remarked that he "had Australians the way other people had mice." In February 1948 the band began to play at the Leicester Square Jazz Club. Although, like the European jazz bands, the Bell band's rhythm section swung like a lead balloon, there was a unique freshness to their music. It was in part due to the emancipated nature of their repertoire – which included show tunes and folk songs – but also to the more imaginative playing of the front line. Bell echoed the work of pianist Jelly Roll Morton in his playing, and the horns drew their influences from further afield; they had more than a touch of Chicago style.

In those days in Britain serious jazz devotees listened to the music quietly, and with reverence. The original function of jazz as dance music was out of the question, but under the Bell band's influence dancing to jazz began again at the Leicester Square Jazz Club. The results were sensational; crowds flocked to see them, and as a result of the music's new popularity it became possible for a musician to earn a living by playing only jazz, which led eventually led to the great Trad boom of the next decade.

The Bell band stayed in London for nearly a year. Bell and Lyttelton quickly became friends and when Bell and the band returned to England for a more extended stay and tour from autumn 1951 until the spring of 1952 the two bands combined to record for the Parlophone label. In retrospect it's obvious that the Australian free-thinking influenced Lyttelton's progress away from traditional New Orleans jazz and into the music's mainstream.

Graeme Bell was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1914 and began classical piano lessons when he was 11. When he was in his mid-teens his trumpet-playing younger brother Roger persuaded him to turn him towards jazz. In 1941 the two led a small jazz group in residence at a café in Melbourne. By 1943, by now under Graeme's leadership, the band played regularly for the Hot Jazz Society of the communist Eureka Youth League in the city. By 1947 the band had become nationally known through records and broadcasts.

In 1947 Bell made the first tour of Europe and after his return to Australia, founded, in 1949, the Swaggie label, which to this day still sells jazz albums across the world. Bell – a pioneer in the places he played – visited South Korea and Japan in 1954-55 and finally settled in Sydney in 1957, where, indulging the first of his many hobbies, he opened an art gallery.

Throughout the 1960s he led the Graeme Bell All Stars, which held residencies in Sydney and toured nationally and overseas. In 1975 Bell established another record label, Sea Horse. In 1993 he returned to Britain to be reunited with Lyttelton at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival.

I had first met Bell in 1952, when he gave me a photograph of the band which he had signed for me. In 1998 BBC Radio Two produced a two-hour programme in celebration of Humphrey Lyttelton's jubilee. In addition to the Lyttelton band and its many alumni, Bell took part, being delighted when the BBC flew him and his wife first class from Australia. I presented the programme, and Bell insisted on signing the original photograph once more "...and here we are again, Steve, still going strong."

"Going strong" indeed, for Bell continued travelling and meeting his many friends into his nineties. Latterly, following several operations on his back, he used a walking frame and a wheelchair in the various pubs, but his brain remained as sharp as ever it was and he thoroughly enjoyed the final years of a most gregarious life.

In 2008, when he finally gave up playing the piano, in celebration of his 94th birthday he returned to his birthplace, Melbourne, to introduce a concert made up entirely of his jazz and non-jazz compositions, which was later issued on CD.

Bell was made MBE on 1 January 1978 for "valuable service to jazz music" and an Officer of the Order of Australia in June 1990 for "service to music, particularly jazz." Throughout his career, Bell was renowned for treating his musicians with kindness and understanding.

Graeme Emerson Bell, musician: born Melbourne, Australia 7 September 1914; MBE 1978 married 1942 Margot Bliss (marriage dissolved), 1946 Elizabeth Watson (one daughter, marriage dissolved) 1961 Dorothy Gough (one son); died Sydney 13 June 2012.

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