The captivating new documentary shining a light on St Kilda’s storied jazz history

The captivating new documentary shining a light on St Kilda’s storied jazz history

Words by Meg Crawford

With the St Kilda Film Festival about to get underway we take a look at one of the many intriguing documentaries screening at the nine-day extravaganza.

While punk and dirty rock’n’roll might be front of mind when it comes to St Kilda’s music scene, it was jazz that got the suburb swinging decades prior.

From the 1920s onwards, St Kilda’s fabled music venues created a jazz hub for hot talent all the way from Aussie legends Vince Jones, Bob Sedergreen and the late Allan Browne through to international greats including US pianist Chick Corea. Now, this rich jazz history gets a loving treatment in Kaye Blum’s documentary St Kilda Jazz Stories, which screens as part of this year’s St Kilda Film Festival (SKFF).

Blum – who variously wears hats as a filmmaker, journo, lecturer and copywriter, amongst other things – has had a long connection with both jazz and St Kilda. For starters, she co-founded the St Kilda Summer Jazz Festival in 2016 and created the St Kilda Jazz Heritage Tour digital project, enabling the jazz-curious to navigate the suburb via the history of its dancehalls, ballrooms, coffee lounges, clubs and pubs.

Realistically though, Blum had been steeped in jazz since she was a kid. “My grandfather was a trumpet player and played in a lot of the dancehalls in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s,” she says. “He died when I was still quite young, but my fondest childhood memories were Sunday afternoon sessions at his house and listening to him play. That’s why you’ll see his trumpet in a lot of scenes – it’s a leitmotif throughout the film and reminder of my connection to jazz.”

Plus, Blum’s lived in the hood on and off since she was a teenager. “I’ve had 14 addresses in St Kilda over my lifetime, and while I’ve lived interstate and overseas, I always come back,” she reflects. “It’s my hometown.”

That said, St Kilda Jazz Stories unfolded tangentially as Blum delved into the legend of The Espy. “This project started way, way back in another form,” she explains. “I was actually researching the history of The Esplanade Hotel and discovered that jazz was playing there, and thought, ‘hang on a minute, there’s a really big story here about St Kilda’s jazz history that hasn’t been told’, and the more I dug around the history of the old venues, the more I realised how incredible that story was.”

While appropriately putting jazz on St Kilda’s musical map (literally in the case of the Heritage Tour), Blum also took the opportunity with her documentary to focus on celebrated jazz producer and promoter Horst Liepolt.

Liepolt, who passed away in January this year, immigrated to Australia in 1951 and by ’57 had opened the fabled Jazz Centre 44 in St Kilda. In later years, he had a hand in everything from booking Sydney’s now sadly defunct Basement through to producing 48 jazz recordings, including the Grammy Award-winning album Bud and Bird. However, outside of jazz circles, he’s never quite received the kudos he deserved. Happily, Blum goes a long way toward setting this straight.

“Jazz Centre 44 was probably the first modern jazz club in Australia, so it was incredibly important historically,” she notes. “Horst basically spent 30 years of his life dedicated to promoting Australian jazz, but he’s never been formally recognised for that contribution. So, recognising him and having other musicians recognise him in the film was really my way of paying tribute for all that he did for Australian jazz.”

While her film is obviously a love letter to St Kilda’s jazz scene, Blum makes the point that it has much broader significance.

“It’s being told through the lens of St Kilda, so there’s an assumption that it’s only relevant to a St Kilda audience, but it’s really not. It really paints the much bigger picture of Australia’s jazz history.”

St Kilda Jazz Stories is just one of many intriguing features being screened as part of St Kilda Film Festival. Slamdance explores the story of the celebrated annual American festival of the same name. Now in its 25th year, Utah’s Slamdance is renowned as the festival “by filmmakers for filmmakers” and in 2019, SKFF will welcome Slamdance’s programmer and filmmaker, Adele Han Li down as the event’s international guest. Two films made up of specially curated Slamdance shorts will be screened on Saturday June 22 and Sunday June 23 as part of the SKFF.

In tandem with St Kilda Jazz Stories comes The Return of The Espy, a 30-minute documentary on the celebrated venue’s revival. There’s also a feature on St Kilda troubadour and singer-songwriter Broderick Smith while punters will be given the keys to the mind of renowned music video director, Natasha Pincus, through Cemetary. Pincus directed Gotye and Kimbra’s ‘Somebody I Used To Know’ and has worked on clips for Paul Kelly, Sarah Blasko and Powderfinger.

St Kilda Film Festival runs from Friday June 21 to Sunday June 30. You can catch the world premiere of St Kilda Jazz Stories on Saturday June 29 at St Kilda Town Hall as part of the Sounds of St Kilda session. Grab your tickets here and explore the rest of the St Kilda Film Festival program here.

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