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Jazz and nation in Australia: bridging the gap on screen, 1919–1933

Abstract

When jazz arrived in Australia as live performance in 1918, it initially was taken by the establishment as a threat to national identity, in particular as that identity had been associated with masculinist rural mythologies centred on what was known as ‘the Bush’.1 The Bush was where the nation was created, through the heroic labour required for the conquest of the land. With its roots in nineteenth century pioneer frontier narratives, the values of the Bush were at odds with urban modernity and the lifestyles it fostered. The musical expression of the latter was jazz – a cacophonous importation from the USA with connotations of ‘negroid’ savagery and decadent effeminisation. Jazz thus functioned as the ‘Other’ in received discourses of nation. By the 1950s there was a growing synergy between Australian identity and jazz, consolidated by the arrival of a new music of the Other in the form of rock’n’roll. But the beginnings of this rapprochement can be identified from the early thirties when changes in the understanding of both jazz and nation began to bring the two into closer alignment. This paper explores those early relational shifts as they were manifested cinematically. Although it is widely held that the Great Depression ended the first phase of Australian jazz history, nonetheless it will be argued here that it was the search for solutions to the problem of the Depression that help to build a ‘bridge’ between jazz and Australian identity, in conjunction with a new appreciation of the meliorative possibilities of modernity, particularly as reflected in the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the transition from silent to sound films

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