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Perth: Jazz Guitar Down Under



Perth, Australia is a vibrant city with beautiful year-round weather, boundless beaches, and an active music, arts, and jazz guitar scene.

Perth, Australia is known as the place where blockbuster film actors Heath Ledger and Sam Worthington were born.  If your movie tastes are more toward art-house films, it is also where actress Judy Davis is from.  Located in southwest Australia, Perth is a vibrant city with beautiful year-round weather and boundless beaches. Add to their twinkling skyline is active music, arts, and jazz guitar scene supported by the Jazz Guitar Society of Western Australia.  The JGSWA was founded thirty-one years ago by guitarists Ian MacGregor and Garry Lee.

Minstrel music imitating American performers has been part of Australian culture since the mid-1800s and played a crucial role in jazz music development.  During the 1870s when steamships carried immigrants between the western United States and Australia, vaudeville performers toured Australia in these entertainment steamboats. Ragtime came to Australia in 1890 when American artists would do excursions around the country. This circuit included the black ragtime vocalist, Ernest Hogan, and white artists Ben Harney, who claims to be the originator of the ragtime style. American vaudeville and ragtime singer, Gene Greene taught the Australian entertainers how to improvise in the ragtime style. 

Perth street scene

In the 1920s West Coast American Jazz Bands would tour Australia regularly. Trombonist Frank Coughlan, referred to as “The Father of Australian Jazz,” was an active bandleader on the east side of the country, in Sydney, from the 1920s to the 1970s. 

Jazz culture has been much more active in the eastern part of the United States, in such cities as New York and Philadelphia.  The same is true in Australia, where the active music scenes are in the eastern cities of Sydney and Melbourne and Perth being its west coast “Los Angelistic” cultural center.  

After World War II Dixieland, swing, and bebop music all grew in popularity as it migrated to “Down Under’.  Some Australian jazz musicians moved to the United States and played with major jazz artists including singers Billie Holiday and Carmen McRae.  Today, the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts in Perth has produced world-class musicians such as bassists Linda May Han Ho (who currently is in Pat Metheny’s band) Dane Alderson (of the Yellow Jackets), and Troy Roberts (who is a saxophonist with organist Joey DeFrancesco). Guitarist Tim Vanderkuil studied with Perth jazz guitarist Ray Walker and is currently is the music director for British singer-songwriter, Adele.

Ray Walker is one of Western Australia’s leading professional guitarists. A versatile and accomplished player across many styles, Ray has performed in a duo format with many world-class guitarists such as Martin Taylor, Peter Leitch, Gary Potter, John Pisano, and the late Emily Remler.

Ray Walker

A veteran of literally thousands of recording sessions for radio and TV, Ray has also appeared with the Western Australia Symphony Orchestra in numerous concerts since 1965, including a performance as a soloist on classical guitar in Rodrigo’s ‘Concierto de Aranjuez’. In 2000 he recorded his own CD ‘Affinity’ in Los Angeles with well-known American guitarist John Pisano.

Ray tells the story “When Joe Pass did a workshop here in 1990 there were a number of students of mine present. Someone suggested that I should play a couple of tunes with Joe, to which he kindly agreed. When we finished, Joe stood up and declared ‘You guys needn’t worry …this guy knows what he’s doing!’  Coming from one of the greatest, those were words to cherish indeed!”  Ray was on the Jazz Department faculty at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts in Edith Cowan University from the inception of the jazz program in 1984 until his retirement in 2017.

Ray Walker, Ian MacGregor. and John Scofield

Guitarist Freddie Grigson has been at the forefront of Australia’s ever-evolving jazz scene for the past 35 years. His artistic virtuosity and authentic interpretation of the jazz language has earned him a reputation as one of the country’s most in-demand guitarists. Originally from Melbourne, Freddie moved to Perth in the early 1980s. He has worked with singers Sammy Davis Jr. and Shirley Bassey and has shared the stage with guitar greats Joe Pass, Herb Ellis, Mike Stern, and John Scofield.  He currently holds the position of head of the Jazz Guitar department at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA).

Herb Ellis, (unknown), Ian Macgregor, Charlie Byrd, and Barney Kessel 

Guitarist and composer, Simon Jeans keeps himself busy gigging around Perth both as a straight-ahead jazz and fusion guitarist.  Danish guitarist Kristian Borring has worked and performed in the UK, Europe, and Australia. He currently resides in Perth where he is teaching guitar at the Western Australian Academy of the Performing Arts (WAAPA) and is finishing his practice-led Doctoral research on the non-isochronous meter in jazz composition and improvisation.

Jeremy Thomson is an up-and-coming guitarist from Perth and has performed with some of Australia’s best jazz musicians. Cliff Lynton is an internationally respected guitarist who has toured extensively throughout Australia, America, and Europe, having played with renowned artists such as John Farnham, Jerry Lewis, and many notable performers from Los Angeles and Las Vegas. 

Martin Taylor and Ray Walker

Guitarist and vibraphonist Garry Lee is a jazz educator at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. He is also an occasional writer on jazz, contributing over 100 reviews to the West Australian newspaper, UK’s Jazz Journal International, and various other publications.

Though he considers himself an amateur, Ian MacGregor, has been active playing guitar in big bands and swing combos since he immigrated from England to Perth in 1981.  

Garry Lee and Ian MacGregor started The Jazz Guitar Society in 1989 at a workshop led by Emily Remler, who was going to be its first Patron before she sadly passed away after her second Perth visit in 1990. Ray Walker tells “When Emily Remler came to Perth at the start of her first tour of Australia/New Zealand in 1989, the domestic airlines would not allow her to take her guitar on board, it had to be checked in and travel in the luggage compartment. This horrified Emily, as she only had a gig bag and the risk of damage was high with so many internal flights ahead of her. I was playing a Gibson ES335 very similar to her ES330 at the time, so I said she could borrow my case for the tour. She seemed taken aback that a complete stranger would offer this but I had no hesitation in trusting that she would somehow get it back to me. (She wasn’t coming back to Perth) Sure enough, it turned up on my doorstep three weeks later, carefully wrapped in bubble wrap with a lovely note thanking me and a little “p.s. ‘You play great!'” 

Joe Pass was the first Patron of the JGSWA in 1990 followed by Martin Taylor who has been a Patron for over 30 years. The society is lucky to have the patronage of some of the world’s best guitarist. Ian MacGregor writes “After forming the JGSWA Joe Pass was brought to Perth due to the existence of our Society to play at the Festival of Perth and give workshops. I was given the job of looking after Joe for 5 days (he is my favorite guitarist, so a dream job) he gave me a gift of one of his cigar boxes which I still have. During the time Joe was here, Martin Taylor was also in Perth with Stephane Grappelli and I invited Martin to come to Joe’s concert/workshop at WAAPA (they were staying at the same hotel). It ended up that this was the first time they played together, so quite historic.”  Ian also tells “while driving Joe Pass around Perth. I put some music on in my car, it was one of Joe’s early 60’s albums. He asked ‘Who is that?’ I told him it was one of his early 60’s albums (I think it might have been with Les McCann) he said ‘I haven’t heard that since I recorded it.’ So, I made a copy on tape for him.” 

Martin Taylor, Joe Pass, and Ian MacGregor

Ian has hosted great guitarists Martin Taylor, John Pisano, Ulf Wakenius, Paul Bollenback, and Peter Bernstein when they have visited Perth to perform and do workshops.

The Ellington Jazz Club in the city of Perth is a seven-night-a-week venue and has recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. It has hosted many international jazz artists as well as some of Perth’s finest jazz musicians.

Jazz Fremantle was formed in 1992 by some jazz lovers who wanted great music on the south side of Perth.  They promote live jazz to the wide community and provide a showcase for local bands.

Founded in 1973, the Perth Jazz Society strives to support local jazz musicians, enhance the artform, facilitate live performances and encourage the creation and documentation of original music. It has had a long and distinguished history in presenting jazz of the highest quality in Perth, and supporting emerging, established, and visiting artists.

For the last eight years, the Perth International Jazz Festival has brought artists from all over Australia as well as the occasional international artist for three days of great music.

Edith Cowan University hosts the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts and has a full program of classical, contemporary, and jazz music where Fred Grigson oversees the jazz guitar program.  A number of exceptional musicians have graduated from this institution. 

Jonathan Fitzgerald is an internationally recognized performer and teacher, and Chair of the Guitar Department at the University of Western Australia’s Conservatorium of Music where the primary focus is classical guitar that provides an excellent foundation for jazz and contemporary styles. 

The Australian Guitar Institute in Perth was founded by Frank Maceri after many years of teaching in some of Perth’s leading colleges and music academies.  This establishment offers outstanding private jazz guitar instruction.

This article was written with research assistance from Garry Lee, Ian Macgregor, Kathy Parker and Ray Walker.



More ‘jazz guitar’ cities from Joe Barth.

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