Almost all my musical adventures are tangled up with my efforts to build a great jazz band and then to present the band's wares. So, it is a rare thing to go off to the wilds without the troops, and naturally these very occasional sojourns are filled with a degree of novelty and charm for me. After three tours, I am beginning to find a second home "Down Under." It was in this high good spirit that I sailed through my 38th consecutive New Year's Eve bash at The Landing, and set out for Australia.
After a day in San Francisco I boarded the great silver kangaroo, "Qantas on the wing" and was off on the 14 hour ordeal across the Pacific. Two meals and two movies later I retreated to the extreme rear of the plane which fortunately was mostly empty. With my very quiet Yamaha practice mute, I ran scales on my cornet for a half hour or so. At one point a couple of Qantas stewardesses wandered back in my direction and discovered me with, "Oh, you're a musician!" We began some polite chit-chat and soon a couple of stewards had joined the crowd. I revealed that I was going to Australia to perform a wide ranging string of one nighters with the great Bob Barnard. All heads nodded. Yes, they all knew about Bob Barnard. After a little pause one of the stewards spoke up, "You're going all over Australia with Bob Barnard?"…another pause and then, "Hope your liver is in good shape!"
These days Bob doesn't live up to his drinking reputation. He is fit and healthy and strides around his Sydney neighborhood with great vigor. I have found that, as is sometimes the case, the stories have got bigger in the telling or Bob has calmed down 80% or so.
After a couple of days of chasing him around "Crow's Nest" (that's the name of his Sydney neighborhood) we headed off, flying to Queensland, mostly to the city of Brisbane which is drop dead charming, I'd say. With a winding lovely river snaking all through town, it is not unlike San Antonio, except the river is some 100 times as wide. Big boats zoom up and down taking citizens up and down, and in typical Aussie fashion they all seem to be having a lovely time, all the time. I know they can't always be having a lovely time and I think maybe they see me coming! "Oh look, here comes an American chap, let's put him on a bit."
We went off to gigs in various Queensland towns. I won't go into all the details, but for example, one was in Toowoomba, a town of about 100,000. When we arrived at the site of the gig, the Toowoomba Jazz Club, it was great stuff for me. The Club is an up-on posts, open windowed little house, of about 800 square feet. It was wall to wall folding chairs, soon filled with wall to wall Australians all fanning themselves against the heat. It's hot in Queensland in January and the locals are still waiting for Captain Cook to return as promised with the first air conditioner! I'm pleased to report that Barnard and Cullum armed with nothing more than two cornets, took the place by storm.
The tour went on, and eventually we were back padding around Sydney, which as the world knows is about as high powered a city as one might find. Just as I was thinking this was the place for me, duty again drove us on, this time in Bob's car, some 350 miles to a southern coastal town called Merimbula where we again dazzled the home folks with our little dance, did a quick U turn and raced back to Sydney.
As painful as this 700 mile back seat drive sounds, it was a roaring good time. We were four in the car, being joined by Bob's brother drummer, Len Barnard and pianist Chris Taparell. Len, a brilliant musician, has, in his seventy or so years, accumulated enough great stories to carry one in a highly entertained state, all around the perimeter of Australia and back.
We also played at Mittagong. How about that? Toowoomba, Merimbula and Mittagong! All along, Len, who is also known as the "center of knowledge" about how and where to find the best meat pies in Australia, kept me on the alert. "Now it is only another 100 kilometers to Cooma," he'd say. "There you'll taste near perfection--a meat pie that will dance on the tongue." After several pies he noticed me chewing on an antacid tablet and commented that meat pies sometimes gave him indigestion too. Bob, pondering, offered that they ought to just crush up a couple of antacid tablets and add them to the pie recipe!
We flew to Melbourne, Australia's number two city, but don't let anyone in Melbourne hear you say that. Once you get there, no matter what you might say about Sydney, Melbourne did it first and did it better. Despite the bragging, Melbourne is a hell of a place with amazing grand old buildings all around, and beautiful wide streets and streetcars, they call trams, running all through the city. Unfortunately, some Swiss salesman got there a few years ago and convinced Melbourne to forgo its charming antique streetcars for modern Swiss streetcars that come with plastic seats and no rattles. I tried to tell them that some places like New Orleans and San Francisco have been snooping around places like Melbourne quietly buying up the antique street- cars and that they must not realize that they are being hoodwinked! After I spoke this way a couple of times, I gave it up as I could see my streetcar thoughts were viewed as revolutionary, as though someone from Sydney had put me up to it! Regardless of all this, Melbourne has romance oozing up out of the storm drains and you have to work very hard not to have a good time there.
But for me the best was last, as we flew from Melbourne to Tasmania, and I'm here to tell you that Tasmania is about as nice as it gets. It's an island off the southern coast of mainland Australia--a big island, about the size of Ireland. Being south, it's cold much of the time. There virtually is not a freeway anywhere. All roads are two lane blacktop and they lace hills and valleys, rivers and coastlines, that reminded me of the best of the Texas Hill country. Of course, in a 30 minute drive one tends to run out of the best of the Texas hills, but Tasmania just goes on and on with one beautiful vista after another, hour after hour. Bob and I played on the north/east coast at a small town named St. Helens and there, as W. C. Fields said, they were so packed in, they couldn't laugh Ha Ha Ha, they had to laugh Ho Ho Ho! It's odd, you can hardly find an audience for jazz in Chicago and you go to the end of the earth, close to the end anyway, and here's this big red hot jazz crowd.
My long time friend Diana Allen had joined the Tasmanian leg of the tour, and the Cullum/Barnard escapades finally having ended, Cullum and Allen set off in a rented Aussie auto for a tour of Tasmania. Diana is a jazz impresario/writer from Melbourne who is seriously in pursuit of jazz wherever it hides. I first met her when she discovered The Landing in 1983.
But, in this case we weren't after more jazz, we were bent on soaking up the atmosphere and a little of the fine wine of the island. Our main destination at the other end of Tasmania was the capital, the city of Hobart. This is another very impressive and well preserved city. It's quite old by Australian standards and is situated on a picturesque harbor. It boasts the best seafood in the world.
Tasmania is best known to Americans for the Tasmanian Devil, made famous by a whirling figure in Warner Brothers' cartoons. In truth the Devil is a cute little animal, a little larger than a squirrel. They are black with a white stripe on their backs and they're called "devil" I suppose, because if one gets a hold of your hand he could mess you up pretty badly and you probably would come away cursing like the devil!
But for me, the most fascinating of all Australian animals is the Tasmanian Tiger. This animal is now almost certainly extinct, as they haven't confirmed a sighting of one since 1936. Still, people keep saying they see them now and then.
Tasmania is partially covered with "bush," as they call it. Mostly it's thick forests of eucalyptus trees. All these forests and some more huge areas of craggy, hard to explore mountains they call wilderness, could well have hidden a few remaining tigers and those of us with too much romance and imagination in our blood, like to think that they just might be out there.
The Tasmanian tiger is a marsupial as are most Australian animals. That is, they carry their young in a pouch, ala the kangaroo. But the tiger is closer to a dog in appearance and is slightly smaller than a Dalmatian, with strong kangaroo-like back haunches. It's called a "tiger" because of the tiger-like stripes across its back.
So, one day I wandered off into the bush in search of the tiger--but found him out for the afternoon. I finally had to be content with a couple of tiger museums. I bought tiger socks (socks with tiger stripes), tiger note paper and a tiger sweater that could be fitted to a tiger-like dog! Upon my subsequent and victorious return to San Antonio, I equipped my dog Peggy with this Tasmanian tiger skin and set her loose in the "bush" at the back of my garden. Photos for inspection are supplied for the non-believers among you!
Australia is well worth the trouble it takes to get over there. Meat pies, great beer and amazingly friendly people are on every corner. The place is loaded from stem to stern with fine restaurants and quality jazz is lurking in the shadows, waiting to be discovered by addicts like me. The exchange rate makes prices low. If you go, be sure to go to Tasmania and tramp around after the tiger. If you find one, take a photo and you'll be world famous the next day!