The father of Australian jazz

Vale, Graeme Bell
 Tamara Osicka
Graeme Bell in front of a sign advertising The Graeme Bell All Stars tour in Czechoslovakia, 1947

The NFSA is mourning the loss of Australian jazz legend Graeme Bell, who passed away today in Sydney at the age of 97. Pianist, composer, band leader and a passionate promoter of jazz in Australia, Bell had a musical career which spanned 70 years. He is regarded by many as the most influential jazz musician that Australia has ever produced.

Graeme first trained as a classical pianist but was converted to jazz by his brother Roger Bell, playing their first gig together in 1935 in a Scout Hall as the ‘Hot Air Men’.

As well as being a superb musician, he was an active member of the Australian jazz community who worked to raise the profile of Australian jazz. He created opportunities for jazz musicians to play, set up the Uptown Jazz Club and formed groups such as the Victorian Jazz Lovers Society.

This is an excerpt from 'Two Day Jag’, one of the first jazz recordings of Graeme Bell’s Dixieland Band, from a session in January 1944. NFSA title number: 232811.

Bell is also remembered for playing a part in the Australian Jazz Convention, a movement during the Second World War which was a magnet for radical arts and political groups including the Eureka Youth League. During his long career, he toured extensively both national and internationally, perhaps most significantly to Czechoslovakia for the World Youth Festival in 1947. Graeme was made a Member of the British Empire (MBE) in 1978, an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1990 and was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 1997.

Graeme Bell
Graeme Bell being presented to H.R.H. Princess Elizabeth by Lord Donegall who is standing next to Princess Elizabeth. Left to Right is: Deryck Guyler (compere), Humphrey Lyttelton, Joe Daniels, Mick Mulligan, Graeme Bell and Alan Radcliffe.

Bell is also featured in the NFSA’s Film Australia Collection. Australian Colour Diary 37: Country Jazz captures the New South Wales township of Dubbo in the throes of a jazz festival – the 25th Annual Australian Jazz Convention 1970 – and New Year’s Eve celebrations. Musicians include the original Graeme Bell Australian Jazz Band (playing 'At a Geogia Camp Meeting’); Allan Stott’s Hottentots ('Bill Bailey’); Lachie Thompson’s New Whispering Gold Orchestra ('Old Time Religion’, featuring vocals by Margaret Roadknight); Nick Polities and His New Year’s Revelers; and the Dubbo Corps Salvation Army Band. It was directed by Bob Kingsbury and produced by The Commonwealth Film Unit 1971.

Graeme was a strong supporter of the National Film and Sound Archive and was committed to ensuring Australia’s jazz history was preserved. He donated much of his personal archive to the NFSA’s collection. We hold photos, posters, letters, concert programs, speeches and lots of the beautiful music that he made over his long career. His first commercial recordings, ‘Swanston St Shamble’ and ‘Two Day Jag’, made in 1944 on Ampersand Records, are also in the collection and in 2007 were recognised by the NFSA for their significance when they were made part of the National Register of Recorded Sound – Sounds of Australia.