by Mel Forbes, Australian Jazz Museum
If you’ve attended a major jazz event in Melbourne in
the last thirty years, chances are that the event was
organized and the performers introduced by a
smartly-dressed, immaculately-coiffed lady of a
certain age! This is Diana Allen. But is this what a
jazz impresario is supposed to look like?
Diana Allen has spent much of her adult life promoting
jazz music and musicians, along the way associating
with not only some of the great icons of jazz, but also
nurturing up-and-coming musicians who these days
are at the forefront of the Australian jazz scene. All of
this had the most unlikely beginning. Forty years ago,
in 1975, Diana was living in Terang in the Western
District of Victoria, married and the mother of three
sons. The Terang Civic Theatre, a building with
Victorian charm but in serious need of restoration, had
been threatened with demolition and replacement by
the Hall Committee and the Shire Council. Diana was
appalled at this decision and was stirred into action, winning a stay of execution, and heading up a
fundraising committee to facilitate restoration of the fine old building. Having loved jazz as a young
woman, and missing it in country Victoria, and being married at the time to an amateur jazz
trombonist, she dreamed up the idea of organizing jazz concerts (in a town where most of the
residents knew nothing about jazz) to raise the funds for this project. From this beginning developed a
concert series of four jazz concerts a year over the next ten years from the mid ‘70s to the early ‘80s.
This, combined with a little assistance from the Ministry of Arts, resulted in the re-birth of the Civic
Theatre into a multi-purpose performing arts and community centre which is still going strong to this
day, thanks to jazz and Diana’s preservation convictions.
Along the way, she also learnt the ropes of jazz presentation and introduced great musicians such as
the young Tom Baker and his Swing Street Orchestra to Victorian audiences, established music
therapy trials in the local hospital and institutions, ran jazz concerts for local schools, and set up the
Jean Wood Music Scholarship in the local area which continues to this day. In 1985, having restored
the Civic Theatre she returned to Melbourne after 25 years raising her family in the Western District
and decided to pursue the organizational side of jazz. She formed Club 177, a Sunday jazz luncheon
club, recognizing the potential market for jazz in venues a bit more genteel than pubs, and so-called
because it shared the premises of the Danish Club at 177 Beaconsfield Parade, Middle Park.
Club 177 offered monthly Sunday jazz luncheons for the next fifteen years, featuring the best of local,
interstate and overseas musicians. These included Graeme Bell, The Allan Browne Band, New
Harlem, Graham Coyle, Bob Barnard, Tom Baker, and the list goes on. Throwing off the constraints of
some jazz bands, Diana sometimes preferred to invite specific musicians to perform, and along with
their complementary talents created new line-ups that often resulted in new bands. Food in nice
surroundings was important too; not for Diana a rough-and-ready counter lunch, but always an elegant
one. A menu we hold at the Archive reflects the food tastes of the times, with wine prices we can now
only dream of; how about house wine for $0.80 per glass, Seaview Moselle at $7.50/bottle, and at the
premium end, McWilliams Mt Pleasant Sauterne at $10.40? Those were the days!
The Club’s stint at #177 was short-lived however and in 1986 it underwent the first of many moves
around Melbourne seeking the perfect venue while retaining its name of Club 177. Over the next few
years the Club moved to Belmare in Beaumaris, Rialto Receptions in Fitzroy Street, St. Kilda, the
Richmond Cricket & Football Social Club and many others. Diana sometimes took to the waterways
too, with a number of cruises being organized on the Yarra and Murray rivers.
The venture came under some
financial pressure in 1988, with
Diana coming to the realization
that she was providing more
value to customers than her
prices reflected. But the club
bounced back by March the
following year with realistically
higher prices, this time at
Studley Park Receptions, the
former La Brochette in Kew. In
1990 the club moved to the
Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club,
where it settled in for some
years until cost pressures again
forced a re-appraisal. This time
Diana decided to call the
monthly luncheons quits for a
while and Club 177 bowed out
after 15 years of presenting outstanding jazz musicians on a regular basis. Diana decided instead to
focus on jazz consultancy and special events and Jazz Australia was created. By this time she had
also become Graeme Bell’s Melbourne representative and was also organizing a lot of fund raising for
various organizations including the Australian Jazz Museum and the Motor Neurone Disease
Association. After a year however and a change of name to Jazz Australia Diana continued her
luncheons on a seasonal basis at her new venue The Bentleigh Club where she remained for the next
15 years.
During the Club 177 years however Diana introduced various distinguished overseas musicians to
Melbourne audiences – performers such as Ralph Sutton, Kenny Davern, Jim Cullum, the Swedish
Jazz Kings, Martin Litton and Spats Langham and Jon Weber. Also during this era, from 1987 to 1990,
Diana was convenor of Decanters Jazz Club at the Melbourne Hilton, which, on Friday and Saturday
nights, featured slightly more contemporary quartets and vocalists.
Diana also introduced events to celebrate the birthdays and milestones of some of the icons of
Australian jazz, such as the numerous celebratory concerts for Graeme Bell, who staged more
comebacks than Nellie Melba, and jazz
luncheons celebrating the birthdays of Ade
Monsbourgh. She also was adept at
recognizing young talent, featuring the likes of
Steve Grant, James Morrison, Jo Stevenson,
Doug de Vries and later the young Michael
McQuaid. It was she who flew Michael to
Melbourne from Canberra for his first
Melbourne appearance, a Tribute to Ade
Monsbourgh at the Victoria Club. Not long
after that he moved to Melbourne
Much earlier in 1983 Diana had travelled to
the US and UK to study the local jazz scenes
and to observe the latest trends in the
presentation of jazz. Not only did this trip
confirm Diana’s belief that Australian jazz
bands were among the finest in the world, but
they made her aware of some of the jazz
treasures and surprises awaiting travellers in
places such as San Antonio and San
Francisco. This trip provided Diana with many
excellent contacts and later led to her leading a Jazz Tour to the USA with 22 delegates.
As with any profession involving creative people who work hard and party even harder, the jazz world
spawns deep and abiding relationships. In the course of a long career which has involved organizing,
promoting, hosting and caring for countless hundreds of musicians, Diana has formed very strong
relationships which have lasted. Graeme Bell and Diana were firm friends and colleagues for over 25
years till his death at 97. He once lamented that she had not been around to organize his band’s gigs
in his earlier years as she organized his milestone Melbourne concerts later on. Another close and
respected friend is Ian Smith, with whom Diana has worked closely for over 30 years. She can always
count on him for support – whether it be to head up groups for private functions, the trios at the Amora
Hotel or 7 & 8 piece bands for a concert. The respect is mutual – and Ian often sets up or checks the
sound system at her Sunday Luncheons, then heads off to do his gig at the Amora Hotel, and rushes
back afterwards to catch some of the music. Among her overseas friends is bandleader Jim Cullum,
whose jazz club The Landing in San Antonio, operated every night for 40 years and Diana visited many
times. Diana rates the Jim Cullum Jazz Band as the best classic jazz band she’s heard in the USA
and among the best in the world. She was instrumental in getting this amazing band to the Montsalvat
Jazz Festival in 1990 and Jim has returned several times since to tour for Diana with Bob Barnard as
Cornet Copia.
A little bit at odds with her current image, is the Diana that used to get up to the microphone at jazz
concerts during her Terang years, and sing with the band! After she moved to Melbourne however and
discovered the wealth of talented vocalists on hand, she decided to give singing away and concentrate
on what she does best, organizing gigs to showcase Melbourne’s great jazz talent.
Diana is a cultural events organizer par excellence, with a staggering list of organizational
achievements in her CV. She has either organized or been Artistic Director of events such as
Candlelight Christmas Jazz in St Paul’s Cathedral; The York Jazz Festival in WA, several Morningstar
Jazz, Wine and Food Festivals, the jazz component of several of the Castlemaine State Festivals, The
Yarra Valley Jazz Festival, Twilight Jazz at Werribee Park and soirées at Tanglewood Winery at
Merricks North, plus the music at Government on Australia Day for some years. She was also
runner-up to Adrian Jackson for the position of the first Artistic Director of the Melbourne International
Jazz Festival. She was the driving force behind the long running Smithy’s Riverwalk Trio, still held
every Sunday at the Amora Hotel and was a compère at the Montsalvat, Wangaratta and Southern
Highlands Jazz Festivals for many years. Diana has also been Artistic Director of a number of events
including the Lord Mayor of Melbourne’s Jazz Reference Group and Twilight Jazz at Hawkstowe Park.
It is interesting that, with her enormous fund of experience, she still gets tense before an event, and is
never complacent enough to deliver a speech without notes. Nothing is left to chance; she wants
everything to be perfect for both the audience and the musicians with no slip ups.
Diana believes strongly that the event and its surroundings should honour the music and the
musicians. The pub scene, with its jazz band ‘thrown in for free’ as a barely-heard accompaniment to
loud conversation, is not for her. Hence Jazz Australia events and her other ventures are held in fine
surroundings, which have ranged from the former Miettas to Hamer Hall, the Assembly Hall in Collins
Street, Leonda, Dallas Brooks Hall, to riverboats on the Yarra, and the music is always a concert,
never back ground music, and often accompanied by good food and service. That’s Diana’s style, and
she likes and encourages her audiences to listen to the music and not talk above it and always
allocates plenty of conversation time.
You’d think that, in almost four decades of organizing musical events, Diana would have had her fair
share of disasters, but she says they have been ‘too few to mention.’ Sure, one famous international
musician gave her a scare by getting sloshed on stage; a few Australian musicians have turned up
badly presented, and she well remembers the very first concert she presented in Melbourne where she
herself sported a black eye as a result of a fall the previous evening (that was the concert where she
first met Fred Parkes, with whom she later spent six years, but that’s another story). There haven’t
been any disastrous musical performances on her watch, but from time to time she’s been let down by
caterers and kitchens along the way, but these have been few and far between.
When asked about the highlight of her 38-year career, Diana had no hesitation in nominating her
collaboration with Graeme Bell. She represented Graeme for 25 years in Melbourne, beginning with the
launch of his autobiography in 1988, and culminating with the launch of his double CD of 40 of his own
compositions, compiled at her urging, and which marked his final retirement from public appearances.
In between these there were numerous grand milestone events, and many memorable performances.
Diana’s observation is that Graeme had a genuine affection for people, and appreciated his audiences
and they flocked to hear him in return. With his flair for marketing and his strong attitude of
co-operation and appreciation of others’ efforts, to say nothing of his own musical talent and prowess
as a band leader, she found him a wonderful person to work with.
As might be expected, Diana is a strong supporter of the Victorian Jazz Archive, having provided
encouragement to Ray Marginson prior to our founding, and she maintains close friendships with a
number of our members and volunteers. In 1999, when we were still struggling to get the Archive on a
sound financial footing, Diana gave us a generous donation from the proceeds of Graeme Bell’s 85th
birthday concert at Dallas Brooks Hall and his 90th at The Assembly Hall. She has also donated her
papers to the Archive, and we hold a full collection of her newsletters dating back to 1985.
Although even the strongest jazz scene in any city is still precarious and subject to the whims of
fashion, Diana is strongly positive about Australian jazz musicians of all genres. She feels that they
are well-trained, creative, dedicated to their art, and that they take better care of themselves than their
predecessors. At the risk of being controversial, she thinks that the Melbourne jazz scene is the best
in Australia, and that the Australian jazz scene in general is among the world’s best. To her, as to so
many of us, the key to the future is, of course, attracting young people to the genre, and she highly
praises musicians who reach out to involve both young players and young audiences.
Organising big events is a pressure game, and nobody gets rich
in the jazz business due to only 2% of the population following
jazz everywhere in the world, so you need passion to persevere.
Operating without support from grants or subsidies, Diana has
had to confront a number of “moments of truth” over the decades,
but passion has always kept her going. You’d think a lady of ‘her
age’ might settle down now to cards or needlework but not Diana
– and even though she has supposedly “retired” to the seaside
village of Point Lonsdale, we hear she is busier than ever. She
organized 13 concerts last year, and about a dozen are planned
for this year, a mix of charitable local fundraising and for-profit!
Somehow this indefatigable lady just goes on and on…….