“… the most powerful and forgotten aspect of music is its role as a change agent; its potential as a transformative force for individual and groups.” Ted Gioia, Healing Music
For anyone who haven’t had their lives enhanced by its existence, Colbourne Avenue, in St Johns Rd, Glebe, corner of Colbourne Avenue, is a unique music venue in inner-city Sydney. Colbourne Avenue has previously been known by a few other names– Cafe Church and 8 O’Clock Sharp – but it’s been operating once a week on Thursday nights for years with the reassuring regularity, sonority and comfort of a greatly loved grandfather clock.
Among its devotees, congregants, local residents and Australia’s finest jazz musicians, Colbourne Avenue occupies a uniquely cherished status. It’s in a separate category to all other jazz venues, none of which it is in competition with and none of which can provide all of what it does. It’s long overdue to do more than pay tribute to Colbourne Avenue’s achievements. It’s important to explore what it provides, why it’s been able to do it, and to recognise that the way it presents music represents something that’s important to intrinsic qualities in the relationship between music and the human spirit.
Colbourne Avenue is more than a jazz venue and more than another inner-city music hangout. I’d suggest that it’s a sacred space. To understand why, a description and some history helps.
First some history.
In the late 1990s the Uniting Church in Glebe sold their old stone building and the congregation moved to the current premises on the corner of St Johns Rd and Colbourne Avenue. They began a congregation called Cafe Church, which attracted musicians, artists, and others in the liminal space between the old working-class Glebe and the new. The saxophonist and composer Spike Mason, in addition to being a member of the Glebe congregation, was administrator of the Glebe Uniting Church who was responsible for booking its premises for various uses. Others in the congregation were also jazz musicians or music-lovers. The musician-congregants – Spike Mason, Andrew Lorien, Barney Wakeford, Cathy Kirkpatrick and the theatre director James Scott decided to use the room for a one month series of concerts. The pianist Bill Risby was their premiere performer; the legendary saxophonist Sandy Evans another – a prescient choice as Sandy remains one of Australia’s most generous and spiritually expressive musicians.
Beginning with jazz and folk concerts on Mondays and other nights, the format evolved into jazz (but jazz understood in its most diverse forms) and the performance night settled into every Thursday night at eight o’clock. Thus it has remained, with hundreds of Thursday concerts in a warm carpeted room both spacious and intimate; illuminated by gentle lamplight, furnished with comfortable sofas and blessed with high ceilings, lush acoustics and free tea and coffee.
The quality and stylistic diversity of Colbourne Avenue artists has been remarkable. This is no more than a sprinkling of my most memorable experiences in the last ten years. There’s simply no room to describe them but it’s well worth looking at the Colbourne Avenue web site (colbourneave.com) to get a quirky description of every gig from 2000 to 2016.
2007: Alex Hewetson’s Climbing Tree; Virna Sanzone and Matt McMahon; 2008: The Translators; Paul Cutlan and Andrew Robson; Mark Isaacs Trio
2009: Steve Elpick, Paul Cutland and Phil Slater; Jess Green and the Pre-Loved; the Leonie Cohen Trio; Cameron Undy and Mike Nock;
2010: Spike Mason’s Book of Hours; Steve Barry’s piano trio; Daryl Pratt sextet; Alex Hewetson’s Climbing Tree; Richard Maegraith’s Amphibious; 2011 Showa 44, Daryl Pratt; Susan Gai Dowling with Carl Dewhurst and Bernie McGann; Najde Noordhuis; and the Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band
2012: John Harkins and Brendan Clarke; Mike Nock with Howie Smith and Laurence Pike; The Field; Ken Allars Trio; Harry Sutherland Trio. 2013: Mike Majkowski, Pug Waples and Dale Gorfinkel; Luke Sweeting Sextet and Quintet; John Harkins with Jon Swartz and Andrew Gander; Adam Simmons’ Origami; Tony Gorman’s Monday Club; Virna Sanzone and Kevin Hunt; Mary Rapp’s Sextet; an incredible series of piano duets.
2014: Acronym Orchestra; Roil; Simon Ferenci; Great Waitress; Grey Wing Trio; Lucien McGuinness’s Salvation Street Shout; Paul Cutlan and Gary Daley.
2015: Clayton Thomas, Julia Reidy and Shota Matsamura; Phil Treloar’s marimba and drum kit explorations and his duets with James McLean; Barney McCall and Mike Nock; Julien Wilson and Barney Wakeford; Alister Spence and Raymond MacDonald; Clocks and Clouds with Kraig Grady and Terumi Narushima; Antipodes.
2016: Bob Barnard; James Ryan’s unforgettable celebration of Chuck Yates’ 80th birthday; Gary Daley and Paul Cutlan; John Maddox duo; Selen Gulun; Sam Gill and James McLean; Baecastuff’s Mutiny Music; Fabian Hevia’s Far Beyond
The spacious, high-ceilinged room is furnished with warm lamplight and comfortable sofas and chairs. Its warm and mellow acoustics combined with snug ambience and warm carpeting could have been tailor made for the intimacy of small group jazz and vocal improvisation. It can be used acoustically or amplified; it can be configured as desired either for standard front-on performances or for wonderfully immersively experiential listening in-the-round. It has a regularly tuned grand piano (sometimes two – one of its marvellous specialities has been programming regular series of piano duets).
Still, even the physical ambience of the room, its bounteous acoustics, the startling quality of the musicianship and the presence of a proper piano aren’t enough to explain the uniqueness of Colbourne Avenue. Intangible factors contribute.
The entirely voluntary service of the organisers and the Church itself shapes everything. Although some members of the congregation who started Colbourne no longer live in Sydney or have family commitments that prevent them from attending, Andrew Lorien remains the rock, organising the mailing list, engaging the musicians, benignly presiding over most Thursday nights and unfalteringly devoting his time, temperament and diverse musical tastes that are as luxuriantly generous as his profuse bushranger beard and as free of prejudices as his feet are of shoes. The others – Naomi, Skye, David, Ann-Marie – who work at the door, set up the room, wash up in the kitchen and clean up afterwards are all volunteers and members of the Church. Delightful people too.
The Uniting Church itself has never charged a cent for use of the room, the kitchen facilities, electricity or the free tea and coffee. Nor have the volunteers. So 100 percent of the $20/$10 entry fee goes to the musicians. That’s right – 100% every gig, every week, for 17 years. Jazz musicians are accustomed to getting peanuts and needing every dollar they are paid. But Ive seen them asking Andrew to please take some of the door money. He always refuses, explaining that taking any money would alter the spirit of the Colbourne Avenue and the nature of the place. When people who are short of money want to come in, there’s no haggling, let alone rejection. Put simply, the ethos of service by the volunteers and the Church itself unobtrusively pervades the ambience, enriching the responses from musicians and listeners.
The consequences are manifold and transformative. Musicians are selected without regard to their commercial appeal and all are adequately rewarded. No financial compromises are necessary over who to book because profits aren’t relevant, so unfashionable septuagenarian and octogenarian master- musicians, brilliant young students yet to establish a name, visiting musos who are unknown in Sydney, and free outriders with few prospects and no recognition all get to play their music in an ideal setting if Andrew or Barney believe they have something to say. There’s no rush to kick people out after the gig; the place isn’t organised to maximise food or booze profits; locals come who aren’t part of an insider jazz crowd and audiences, musos and the Colbourne organisers chat and get to know each other.
Colbourne doesn’t rush to end its evenings because they have staff to pay or because they’re not turning over booze revenue. Acquaintances are established and some turn into companionship or friendship. It’s a great, relaxed hang – that elusive quality often lacking among excellent jazz venues. Listeners are attentive, respectful and friendly. Those who attend dwell in a loving collegial atmosphere. Everyone becomes a better, warmer person during that time and takes that home with them. It’s a consequence of service and selflessness.
And it is completely unobtrusive. None of the volunteers draws attention to their beliefs or their volunteer status. The Uniting Church has no signs advertising itself or notifying audiences or musicians that its is freely donating its premises. In one way it’s unfortunate that the generosity of the Uniting Church is not better appreciated. Recognition and gratitude are good things. But there are also gratifying consequences of a modesty and invisibility that’s so unusual in an era characterised by conspicuous displays of virtue and personal branding, that advertises good deeds by flaunting red noses, foregrounding meaningful displays of facial hair or relentlessly bragging on social media.
Spirituality too can benefit from remaining unstated. Duke Ellington, who understood music and dance as tributes to and expressions of a higher form of being, astutely observed that “too much talk stinks up the place.” Anglo-Celtic Australia has an emotionally constrained, strongly secularised culture, and most Australians beyond Church-going or New Age communities are neither accustomed to or comfortable with overtly proclaiming spiritual inclinations. Rightly or wrongly, when sponsorship, virtue, devotion or belief is advertised, sceptical and secular prejudices stir and many tune out. Unlike in America, this applies even to a number of wonderful local jazz musicians who are practising Christians.
This is where the non-verbal, supra-rational and universalist nature of music comes in. When it’s the right music with the right spirit in the right place with the right ambience and the right audience vibrations, music has the capacity to convey spiritual qualities and elicit spiritual responses without any recourse to verbal statements, linguistic definitions or delineations of belief.
In the endless arguments over whether music should be art (culture) or entertainment (fun) it’s usually forgotten that music has an earlier, more basic function than either of these. In his fascinating book Healing Music, the outstanding American music and cultural critic Ted Goioa points out that from its origins, music has been a practice of healing, a form of human expression used to augment human health and well-being. Most cultures have deployed music – holy music in holy places – to heal us both spiritually and bodily. Even in our sceptical, secular and empirical culture where the bodily healing qualities of music remain open to dispute, few music-lovers doubt the capacity of music to transform and salve the spirit, no less than the transformative and healing qualities of love, friendship, beauty, compassion and community. The spiritual power of music is enhanced by its being a naturally communal from of expression, unlike essentially individual and private forms such as prayer, contemplation, meditation or reading.
Sacred music doesn’t need literal explanations and even when words exist we don’t need to understand them for them to perform their magic. Without understanding a word I’ve listened to Monteverdi vespers in Latin, to Sufi musical devotions in Farsi, to Bae-Il- Dong singing Korean Pansori music with Simon Barker and Scott Tinkler, and to services sung in an ancient Ethiopian liturgical language in a Lalibela cave-church. Each of them transported me utterly. Non-vocal music can do the same.
Similarly, unstated practices of belief provided by those who have created Colbourne Avenue have established an environment where the better parts of our nature (community, generosity, friendliness, respect, sharing the most universal and immediate form of artistic expression) are allowed to flourish in an atmosphere of love. It’s a place where very good people and a generous Church have wordlessly put their beliefs into practice, using a warm room, comfy chairs and inspired musicians to create a sacred space that brings the numinous into our experience.
I haven’t seen anyone turned away from Colbourne Avenue, I’ve never seen a hint of unpleasantness and I’ve never heard a harsh or unkind word uttered. At the end of the night, saying goodbyes and strolling towards a car or dawdling up Glebe Point Rd, most who are leaving feel a sense of being suffused by serenity, peace, companionability, warmth and attunement to beauty. These are the fruits of being elevated by the total quality of the experience in a deeper and more holistic sense than just having enjoyed good music. Better qualities and higher feelings are taken back into a wider, colder, more competitive world. The pure experience of music undiluted by commerce, in an environment of warmth, has conveyed spirituality without any need for speech.
with thanks to Dave Sampson for this article and to the wonderful people who have made Colbourne Avenue happen over the years and the many fine musicians who have performed in this space. We will miss you.