I’d love to hear about your musical career journey from tertiary classical studies and playing with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra to finding your way to jazz. How did this transition happen for you?
I’ve been involved in music all my life in some form or another. As a teenager, I was in a band called Taste – we were signed to Warner and had a few hits. It’s interesting to think of what would have happened if we had kept on going with that and where we’d be now. At that time, everything was by ear: I hadn’t studied music formally in any way and I realised that I should probably start learning about it because music was my whole life. In year 12 I picked up the double bass and practiced like absolute crazy to get into the VCA. I would practice for full days! Luckily I had this very good English teacher who understood how much I wanted to make music work, and she was very supportive of the fact I needed to prioritise practicing. I knew I didn’t want to be in a rock band for the rest of my life, so I auditioned for the College and begun studying and playing classical music. I thought that would be my course – practice and study then audition for the Melbourne Symphony and make a living off that. When I was at the VCA I became exposed to jazz and that was when I really figured out how many great musicians lived in Melbourne.
At this time were you aware that opening a jazz club was something you were interested in doing?
I was aware of the fact that I had to get myself through college! I come from a big Italian family with not much money, so I think I was starting to become aware of the fact that I had to plan for the future, and that feeling coupled with the realisation that there were so many great players in the city really built my desire to build a jazz club. I was working a lot to support myself and I hadn’t found the sort of place that I thought would be satisfying to go after a gig and have a drink and listen to some good music, so I started to think “I’ll do that one day”. It became a bit of a dream. I started to look around at properties sort of vaguely and because of how expensive everything was I thought it’d never happen. Then a serious property crash happened in 1990, where property prices literally halved in one weekend. I went to an auction and nobody was bidding so I said to the agents “is anyone going to bid on this property?” and they told me no one was interested. So, since there was no auction in the end they took me to the bank and asked me to make them an offer, and I made this crazy offer and they said yes! And that was the beginning of Bennett’s Lane.
At this beginning stage of Bennett’s Lane, were you still playing classically at all?
By the time Bennett’s Lane began I had actually moved away from the classical world. I had gotten into the MSO as a casual player, but I had thought I wanted to be a soloist. I did a few concertos with orchestra as a double bass soloist, and I went and studied in Italy to see if I could make it happen, but I realised that it wasn’t really what I wanted to dedicate my life to. When I got back from Italy I decided I wanted to broaden my knowledge and get involved with different genres and play in smaller ensembles. I also wanted to do more improvisation! And then there was Bennett’s Lane. That evolution from rock to classical to jazz and all the people that I met along the way that helped Bennett’s Lane come into existence. I just started calling my friends! When Wynton Marsalis was in town in the early days I remember standing on the side of the stage when he came to perform and saying something like “I suppose you play a lot of these clubs”, and he said, “there aren’t that many clubs like this around the world”. And then goes “just stick to it, you’re on the right track.” We’ve had lots of big internationals since then.
I suppose that’s one of the really special things about a club like Bennett’s lane – you could be anywhere in the world!
I think it was one of those unique clubs. When great things are happening on stage, you could be anywhere in the world – Paris, New York, Chicago. It’s like a jazz capsule. I think Melbourne is a really special place though, it has a great pool of talent and it can really be a world class destination for music. For me it was about being focussed and knowing exactly what I wanted out of the space.
Is programming a skill that you developed by trial and error in those early days of Bennett’s Lane?
Programming is a bit like being a chef in a kitchen! I come from a performance background, and have been playing professionally ever since I was young, so by the time I got through college and established the club, it felt almost like a natural progression. My colleagues were the musicians playing for me, so it didn’t really feel like programming it all! Then I realised sort of by accident that I was the artistic director of the club, and I’ve taken that experience and skill into the Melbourne International Jazz Festival. It’s making a lot of moving parts work together – that’s the skill, I think.
How did all those skills you’d picked up from programming at the club translate into the role you have now at the Festival? You clearly have a natural affinity for the business side of the music industry – has that just been part of the process of growing up a musician?
I’ve been on the board for 16 years, so I’ve seen all of the different sides of the festival, including its evolution. My father was a grocer, and at 10 years old he used to take me to the Victoria Market and so I was watching how those transactions worked and how business was done in a very raw way. I would see how you could get there at 3 in the morning and produce was one price, and at 6am they were a different price. I noticed time decay, and how the value of things changed as time went on. That experience will stay with me forever. I really got to understand his struggles as well, and that sort of propelled me along, giving me the incentive to just go for it.
Your career has seen you make quite a lot of transitions, both in your performance career and then from musician to business owner. I’m really interested to know what it was like to move from classical music to jazz, particularly in relation to improvisation.
I think on some levels I’m still transitioning! I still try to practice daily. I think being in Taste really set me up for life because the other musicians performing with me were seriously talented, and I spent a lot of time watching them solo in an improvised way. Learning about classical music was very different because everything is written and the way you make your mark is more about interpretation than anything else. Unlocking the improvisational aspect of music is like a whole new vocabulary – you can play your own thoughts. Getting to that stage feels like a great achievement: you can play free over a structure and make it your own.
So, for people who are classically trained that would like to move into jazz, are there ways of working towards that in the practice room?
Firstly, I think if you are a classical musician you shouldn’t fear improvisation. You’ve got to really tackle it head on, because once you get it, you’ll have a great sense of freedom and satisfaction. I know many classical musicians who might not even give it a shot because they’re too scared to try, and that’s the biggest problem. If you can play an instrument professionally, you can absolutely improvise, you just need to drop your fear. Practically speaking, the more you develop your ear the better. Learning the jazz vocabulary is really important because the more tools you have at your disposal the easier it will become. Then when you’re playing on stage with a band and someone says take a solo, you’ve got all this information available to you that will help you with your decision making.
Music is happening every night at Michael Tortoni's Jazzlab in Brunswick. See what's on here.