Once known as the ‘latest American craze’, jazz music was embraced in Australia as early as 1918.
Its popularity only grew throughout the 1920s, the great age of jazz, and beyond. And the smoke-filled clubs of Kings Cross were the perfect venues for jazz musicians to gather to jam and perform.
During the 1930s, 40s and even 50s, jazz was still considered cutting-edge music and for Sydney residents, Kings Cross was the place to experience it. The rather daring and risqué nature of jazz was well suited to the flavour of the area and its local denizens.
The swanky Roosevelt Nightclub opened in Orwell Street, Kings Cross, near the end of World War 2, and was popular with American servicemen taking their Australian girlfriends out for a night on the town.
In 1947, the Roosevelt was bought by notorious businessman Abe Saffron, and became his first nightclub, helping earn him the title of ‘the King of the Cross’. Saffron brought both the glamour of New York and the grit of Las Vegas to the Roosevelt, importing big name jazz acts to perform at the club, including greats such as Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Junior.
Barbara James, an Australian radio swing and jazz singer, then at the height of her career, played at the Roosevelt, wowing crowds with her use of the latest technology — the microphone.
Many musicians have been associated with Kings Cross, with a number of jazz legends among them. Bob Birtles, an Australian jazz alto, tenor and baritone saxophonist and bandleader, was part of Sydney’s developing modern jazz scene, playing at the El Rocco Room and The Paradise.
In the 1950s, Peter Piercy, a jazz pianist-accompanist, had a thriving career in the local scene, playing many concerts at the Sydney Stadium in Rushcutters Bay and accompanying Sinatra when he was in town.
El Rocco Room’s New York-style jazz cellar in Kings Cross – thought to be the city’s oldest jazz club – was the most significant Sydney venue for modern jazz from the late 1950s until 1969.
Under the management of artist and jazz lover Arthur James, the club developed a reputation as being the place to see the most innovative acts, attracting some of the best international and local musicians; among them, American jazz singer Sarah ‘Sassy’ Vaughan and Australian jazz musicians Errol Buddle and Bob Bertles.
Graham Burrows, Judy Bailey and George Golla were others that could be found playing and having jam sessions at El Rocco with their friends. The older players tended to favour cool jazz while the younger players often preferred hard bop.
In 1994, Arthur James was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for his contribution to developing Australian jazz.
Another local figure who made a significant contribution to the scene was Kings Cross communist, intellectual, journalist and publicist Harry Stein, who founded Australia’s first jazz convention in Melbourne with Graham Bell in 1946.
Catch live jazz in Potts Point today
El Rocco has been owned by musician Paul Roper for the past decade and now hosts theatre, stand-up comedy, and a variety of live music. It stays true to its roots with jazz nights upstairs every Wednesday evening (for enquiries contact Paul at [email protected])
The Potts Point Hotel also regularly hosts jazz, swing and blues acts, including chilled Sunday sessions. Check the website for upcoming events.