: Words

Glocal Dialects in the Sydney Jazz Scene: Indigenisation Through the Influence of Oz Rock and Asian Musics

Article published in Context Journal of Music Research, University of Melbourne, 41 (2016): 35–44

View and download here

Read more from context here

A Deeper Shade of Blue: A Compositional Folio Informed by Ethnographic Research into the Sydney Jazz Scene

Jeremy Rose

2016, PhD, University of Sydney

My PhD comprises a folio of creative work and accompanying thesis. It is in three volumes and includes five recorded works.

To download a copy of my PhD thesis (Volume I), click here


This folio contains scores and audio recordings of five original compositions with critical commentary and ethnographic investigation. The research aims to test existing concepts of an Australian jazz identity and create new constructs for how music is created by a practicing jazz composer and performer. The research presents the results elicited from 11 interviews with selected Sydney jazz scene participants, providing an oral account of the way they create, conceive and perceive jazz music in Sydney and to compare evidence.

In the five compositions I research various ways of integrating improvisation, non-Western and Australian influences into jazz and classical music contexts. I provide a case study of eclecticism and the role of improvisation in shaping programmatic goals with specific reference of my major work Iron in the Blood: Music Inspired by Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore for jazz orchestra and two narrators. The other works include River Meeting Suite for saxophone quartet, sitar, vocals, tabla and iphone, Oneirology for saxophone quartet and piano, Between Worlds for string quartet and saxophone and Border Control for flute, piccolo, bass clarinet, trumpet and vibraphone.

This research addresses some of the deficiencies in the literature on Sydney jazz and creative music and illuminates the creative practices lying behind the creation of localised jazz identities through a case study of my composition portfolio and creative process. By expanding discussion beyond my own compositions, this project helps flesh out how “Australian” approaches to jazz composition, are realised across the Sydney scene and how these are distinct from other locales of jazz music production around the world.

My perspective as a significant stakeholder within the jazz community, given that I am a performer, composer, performing artist, band manager and label director provides the research with a unique credibility and valuable insight into the field.


Keywords: Australian jazz, big band, saxophone, composition, Australian identity, Sydney jazz, jazz identity




This case study of five original compositions examines the use of improvisation and the integration of non-Western influences into jazz and contemporary classical music contexts, and tests existing concepts of a universalist Australian jazz aesthetic against 11 interviews with Sydney jazz scene members and documented reflections of my own compositional process. The findings unsurprisingly rebuke homogenous representations of Australian jazz practice while simultaneously revealing sites or hubs of connectivity in relation to compositional thought. In particular, my investigation reveals a spectrum of unique strategies in the Sydney jazz scene deployed towards what at first appear to be similar ends: the integration of improvisation into various predetermined platforms in an attempt to efficiently utilise various players’ skills in “pragmatic” compositional design and the adoption of a diverse set of musical influences including a turn towards Asia and locally produced rock music. These strategies are underpinned by an aesthetic goal that seeks to highlight diversity of individual experience in the production of musical works. While these strategies can on one hand be linked to meta-tropes of Australian jazz production such as “eclecticism” and “pragmatism” (see Johnson 2000, Whiteoak 1999), I argue in this critical commentary that their outcomes belie the diverse nature of an Australian jazz scene woven together by divergent approaches to jazz practice.

The field of jazz studies outside of Australia has frequently turned to an analysis of “culture” as a way of accounting for such variations in approach and style. Indeed, Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones) famously wrote in the 1960s about the way in which the music’s context was inextricably linked to its meaning. His stinging indictment of jazz discourse in “Jazz and the White Critic” (1961) proclaimed that it was impossible to extricate the music from its racial and class politics since these were the social forces that had made the modern jazz genre what it was. Many exceptional studies have followed, linking the wider social reception of jazz with the specific cultural practices of musical communities or “scenes”’ in explanations or illuminations of sonic content (Hughes 1974, Ogren 1989, Radano 1993, Kenney 1993, Berliner 1994, Gabbard 1995, Collier 1996, Monson 1996, Panish 1997, DeVeaux 1997, Gerard 1998, Erenberg 1998, Lock 1999, Tucker 2001, Jackson 1998). These texts form a foundation for ethnographic inquiry into jazz, each revealing new methods and paradigms through which we might understand how the music is made.

Paul Berliner’s Thinking in Jazz (1994) for instance exemplifies the potential for fieldwork and interviews to illuminate the ways that musicians develop the broad array of skills required for professional performance practice – from collective group interplay to personal musical vocabulary development. The strengths of this monumental work lie not just in Berliner’s musical analysis but also in his innovative qualitative methodology that collects and integrates the opinions of sixty musicians into a comprehensive portrayal of the creative processes in jazz. As he explains: “Understanding how the artists themselves viewed the issue, how they defined their own musical practices, was of central importance” (Berliner 1994: 5). By allowing many of his theories to emerge through the data collection process, Berliner is able to challenge certain stereotypes and misconceptions of the music by taking seriously the often under appreciated perspectives of jazz musicians themselves. As fellow ethnomusicologist Ingrid Monson has claimed about the work: “No musical parameter is left unexamined, and the complex interplay between composition and improvisation is nowhere presented with greater nuance and detail” (Monson 1996: 5).

Monson in turn has contributed to the growing field of jazz ethnography by investigating the under-explored interaction of rhythm sections in jazz ensembles throughdialectical musicological andethnographic methodologies. Monson’s findings articulate how “interactiveness” facilitates cultural meaning and ideologies both in the musicians themselves and audiences on a wider level. Cultural practices based around identity, politics and race are explored throughout interviews with participants and then woven into musicological analysis, suggesting that sonic outcomes tend to reflect a community-building imperative:

When a musician successfully reaches a discerning audience, moves its members to applaud or shout praises, raises the energy to dramatic proportions, and leaves a sonorous memory that lingers long after, he or she has moved beyond technical experiences…. and into the realm of “saying something.” (…) this verbal aesthetic image underscores the collaborative and communicative quality of improvisation. A moment of community, whether temporary or enduring, can be established in such moments through the simultaneous interaction of musical sounds, people, and their cultural histories (Monson 1996: 1-2).

Monson’s collegial dynamic with the interview participants allowed privileged access to information that musicians would otherwise be unwilling to share and the opportunity for her to practice and perform theories presented in the interviews in turn facilitated her personal reflection on the subject matter.

Indeed, the sort of ethnography Monson and Berliner involve themselves in falls under the umbrella of what is broadly known as participant-observer ethnography. That is to say, their attempts to elevate the voices of artists involved in the production of jazz through interviews and field observations extends to a discussion of their own observations of performing jazz as well. Berliner explains the rationale for such a methodological approach in the opening pages to his work:

Using myself as a subject for the study-training myself according to the same techniques described by musicians-offered the kind of detail about musical development and creative process that can be virtually impossible to obtain from other methods. So, too, did reflection during my own performances on the experimental realm of jazz. Musical experiments in the practice room-for example, trying to invent and develop musical ideas-proved especially useful for testing different ideas about improvisation (Berliner 1994: 10).

In Berliner’s case, such a personal perspective on musical development and creative process colours – or better yet, enhances in Berliner’s mind – the interpretation of data produced by other participants in his study.

Yet overstepping can occur in participant-observer accounts. In a criticism of studies that feature the researchers voice too prominently, Carolyn Ellis and Arthur Bochner explain that a “mode of story-telling… akin to the novel or biography [emerges] and thus fractures the boundaries that normally separate social science from literature… the narrative text refuses to abstract and explain” (Ellis & Bochner 2000: 744). Ellis and Bochner relay the criticism of autoethnograghy:

As part ethnography, autoethnography is dismissed for social scientific standards as being insufficiently rigorous, theoretical, and analytical, and too aesthetic, emotional, and therapeutic (Ellis, 2009; Hooks, 1994; Keller, 1995). Autoethnographers are criticized for doing too little fieldwork, for observing too few cultural members, for not spending enough time with (different) others (Buzard, 2003; Fine, 2003; Delamont, 2009). Furthermore, in using personal experience, autoethnographers are thought to not only use supposedly biased data (Anderson, 2006; Atkinson, 1997; Gans, 1999), but are also navel-gazers (Madison, 2006), self-absorbed narcissists who don’t fulfil scholarly obligations of hypothesizing, analyzing, and theorizing (Ellis, Carolyn, Adams and Bochner 2001: 37).

Leon Anderson (2006) has suggested a middle-ground solution might be forged if participant-observers keep in the forefront of their minds the importance of how one argues for the significance of their data. In other words a researcher’s involvement in the simultaneous creation and processing of ethnographic data can create unique results that would otherwise be difficult to obtain but the value of this data still needs to be demonstrated in relation to current theories and debates occurring in a given discourse. As an example of how this might occur, Anderson points to Robert Murphy’s The Body Silent (1987), a work that utilises auto-ethnographic methods in an inquiry into the effects of spinal disease. Anderson writes:

Murphy’s book seeks connections to broader social science theory – especially using his own experiences to argue that conceptions of liminality provide a more accurate and meaningful analytic framework for understanding human disability than does a deviance perspective (Anderson 2006: 378-379).

Anderson’s point here is that by engaging in a current critical debate, the significance of Murphy’s data collection is made apparent to the reader of Murphy’s study. Anderson goes on to offer other useful advice about how a researcher might integrate himself/herself into a work without transitioning fully into the ‘evocative’ or literary realm, including the importance of narrative visibility of the researcher self, the ability to observe the interaction of the researcher’s investigation on other subjects (“analytic reflexivity”) and the inclusion of dialogue with informants beyond the self. Examples such as Anderson’s (2006) immersion as a complete member researcher into the social world and sub-culture of recreational skydiving and David Karp’s (1996) analysis of depression sufferers are put forth as examples of approaches that go beyond the limits of an “outsiders” perspective while at the same time providing an alternative to evocative “novel-like” auto-ethnographic accounts.

This research project aims to investigate the phenomenon of “Australian Jazz” identity through a participant-observer inquiry that embraces Anderson’s (2006) call to integrate reflection on practice into current critical debates. My purposes in this endeavour are two-fold. First, I aim to test assumptions about the nature of Australian jazz put forth in the existing literature detailed in Chapter One. Second, I aim to draw into clearer relief how cultural forces within the Sydney jazz scene have shaped my own compositional approach. As this project constitutes my submission for a PhD in composition, the music I have produced as a participant-observer necessarily forms the main focus of this narrative and should in turn form the main focus of assessment (80% of the mark awarded for the compositions themselves/20% of the mark awarded for critical commentary).

As a researcher and performer/composer, I am well situated to produce an investigation of the Sydney jazz scene and access the “special” data that would otherwise be inaccessible to other researchers. My work as a saxophonist and composer operates in a fertile overlap of jazz, popular, world, experimental and classical music, bringing me into contact with a vast array of music communities which together frequently work together in the Sydney jazz scene. I in turn possess an extensive network of contacts built through ten years of performing, recording and touring as a professional musician. I am happily preoccupied with music and connected with key stakeholders through multiple ongoing projects as well as my own record label, Earshift Music, making my position significant in terms of researcher insight, experience and commitment.

In terms of compositional practice, I aim to create works that move effortlessly between notated and improvised music, jazz and classical music and other categorisations. Over the course of preparing the works for my composition portfolio, I have investigated the mixing of musical elements such as non-Western and folk music melodic references, modal jazz harmony, the use of improvisation, orchestration, texture, use of a narrative and rhythmic structures based on number sequences. I have also worked to juxtapose elements of intercultural and cross-genre music through paraphrase, rhythmic references, and the use of diverse orchestration and textures. I demonstrate the originality of these compositional processes and solutions with particular reference to other practices within the Sydney jazz scene in my critical commentary.

My process has been a natural and instinctive indigenisation and integration of influences from Greek, Balinese, North and South Indian, Ethiopian and Australian music. These new sources have been utilised in a range of contexts in the portfolio and have resulted in an integration of various compositional techniques. The compositions have in turn been composed for musicians from various backgrounds: musicians with backgrounds in improvised music, including jazz, Indian music and free improvisation, and musicians with non-improvising background. This division has allowed me to explore approaches to working with improvisation in various compositional contexts.

Compositions in this portfolio written for improvisers include a major chamber work for jazz orchestra and two narrators (Iron in the Blood, 72 minutes), a saxophone quartet with sitar, vocals, tabla and iphone, (River Meeting Suite, 37 minutes) and a saxophone quartet with piano (Oneirology, 34 minutes). The compositions for musicians with non-improvising backgrounds include a string quartet with saxophone (Between Worlds, 14 minutes) and a chamber work for flute, piccolo, bass clarinet, trumpet and vibraphone (Border Control 15 minutes).

Embarking on such a project was inspired by my intrinsic curiosity in music from both an outward looking panoptical vision of the world in which I adopt influences from my experiences and travels around Australia and abroad, as well as an introspection that seeks to unravel and explain to myself the complex identity of my homeland. We live in a post-modern, post-colonial, post-national (post-everything?) world in which categorisation of musical styles is not only made challenging by the complexity of an artists’ practice, but necessitates deeper delving into new directions in order to find sources for new cross-fertilisation. Coming to terms with my Australian heritage has been an important step towards moving beyond self imposed stylistic limitations and questions of authenticity. This PhD portfolio provides a snapshot of my process and influences during a particular historical moment.

Chapter One traces efforts to chart the emergence of numerous jazz identities around the world, both within and outside of the United States. Whilst originally defining these identities based on sonic content tied to their geographic location, these studies increasingly incorporated a discussion of the cultural forces that lie behind the music. I argue that a turn in research design has signaled for a broader methodology to include an investigation of the cultural processes to gain a broader picture of how these identities are produced. I discuss the phenomenon of ‘glocalisation’ in which jazz music identities experience a push and pull of both ‘global’ and ‘local’ influences in an effort to re-inscribe the music with local significance. Here I “interrogate the Australian sound” through a review of existing literature on jazz music in Australia, which fail to find any common thread or aesthetic. However two recurrent themes are extracted and defined: pragmatism and eclecticism, and I set forth my plan to test these themes throughout this thesis and composition portfolio. I outline my methodology, which includes selecting and conducting interviews with 11 participants from the jazz scene, outline my methods for coding and presenting the data, and discuss performance participation in the creation of my own works.

Chapter Two presents the findings of the interviews in a discussion of how artists’ compositional decisions are influenced by the themes identified in Chapter One. It reveals the divergent nature of the artists’ creative processes and artistic trajectories, reinforcing the case for individual agency as a way of explaining the Sydney scene. However this is complicated by the artists simultaneously rejecting the notion of a universalist Australian sound whilst acknowledging the existence of legacies of local influence. I trace the emergence of style eclecticism in Australian jazz music from the 1960’s and broaden our understanding of the theme through the interview data, revealing three salient points. Artists’ creative decisions are shown to be facilitated through a broad definition of jazz music and an economic diversification of performance opportunities in genres outside that of their original training. These economic motivations are also shown to be underlined by personal loyalties with the intent of sharing both learning outcomes and income. Eclecticism is shown to manifest through the adoption of the sounds and aesthetic of Oz Rock and a turn towards Asia, in which includes non-Western music borrowing and intercultural dialogues. I argue that eclecticism can be best understood through an ‘indigenising impulse’ in which artists create meaning by re-inscribing jazz music with local significance in an attempt to authenticate (consciously or not) their place within the world. Compositional choices are shown to be driven by responses of a pragmatic nature that reflect economic, historical, cultural, aesthetic and kinship factors. I discuss strategic responses to the pragmatic nature of the Sydney jazz scene in which compositional design is meted out to efficiently maximise the musical product with limited means.

Chapter Three investigates the role of improvisation in achieving artistic and programmatic goals in an analysis of my compositions. I discuss how this is underpinned by an attempt to highlight the diversity of experience of the performers whilst simultaneously projecting a sense of unified self. The role of improvisation is highlighted through the colouring of notated ensemble passages with individual and collective improvisation. I assess and discuss various pragmatic responses to the creation of improvisational platforms for musicians from different backgrounds. These are underlined by a philosophy of using idiomatic writing that is applicable for non-Western musicians and jazz musicians, as well as changing the notation to construct improvisation platforms with high degrees of specificity for classical musicians.

Chapter Four presents a case study of Iron in the Blood: Music Inspired by Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore, and explores the integration of non-Western and Australian influences in my works. I discuss the background and influences on Iron in the Blood, drawing attention to their transnational nature whilst also drawing on Australian folk music. I discuss how the works’ objectives are to create a rich fabric of perspectives drawing from the narrative’s depiction of the character’s voices in The Fatal Shore, and how this is explored in musical terms. I trace the use of cyclic themes throughout the work, which transform to depict the altering narrative of the convict’s passage from slavery to freedom and Australia’s journey for a sense of unified self. I discuss methods for composing and performing melodies that reference folk and non-Western traditions in Iron in the Blood, and cross-reference with other works in the portfolio including River Meeting Suite and Between Worlds. This includes the harmonisation of non-Western modal systems and reharmonisation of folk material in an effort to reinvent it in new harmonic and rhythmic contexts. I outline the integration of Sheehan’s Number Diamonds system to generate rhythmic structures in Iron in the Blood, and how it reshapes the way we ‘hear’ non-Western modal material in Border Control. I finally present a summary of the research in Chapter Five and point to areas that warrant further investigation.

This research carries out an investigation of jazz composition practice as a function of Sydney jazz culture in an effort to illuminate and refine previous efforts to chart Australian jazz culture. In broad terms, this research is motivated by a desire to place Australian jazz identity amongst questions of authenticity and cultural nationalism, questions that surround all art forms in Australia. In turn, I aim to gain a better understanding of my own composition practice, and to inform my view of Australian jazz culture through the ethnographic lens so successfully deployed in studies of the New York jazz scene. In an innovative twist, my composition is informed by a report of finding from 11 interviews with a parallel analysis of my own compositions and recording portfolio. The significance of the project is evident through its cohesive methodology based on ethno-musicological and composition analysis and critical commentary. It is a collection and presentation of important interview data documenting the Sydney jazz scene, and an analysis of my composition portfolio. It is an important step towards bringing together practice based research and critical commentary, or what is often known as a composition ‘exegesis’ into a broader academic context, along with engaging in the public dialogue surrounding authenticity and performances of jazz music in Australia. In compositional terms, the portfolio is significant in its engagement with Australian history, its pragmatic compositional design utilising improvisation for musicians from various backgrounds and its integration of non-Western influences into jazz and classical music contexts.

This project helps demystify and address some of the deficiencies in the respective literature on Australian jazz and illuminates cultural practices lying behind the manifestation of Australian jazz identities. By expanding discussion beyond my own compositions, the project helps flesh out how approaches to jazz composition are realised across the Sydney scene and how these are distinct from other locales of jazz music production around the world. The project serves as a model for other such studies across the broader field of music.