Sydney Conservatorium, known locally as 'The Con', is a striking building in a superb location. A gothic structure, with turrets, originally constructed in 1821 as the government stables for the colony of New South Wales, the Conservatorium is located in the city's idyllic Botanic Gardens. Standing a few hundred metres behind Jørn Utzon's fabulous Sydney Opera House, not only does the Conservatorium enjoy superb views across Sydney Harbour, but it is situated within gardens that boast sensational flying creatures, a bewildering population of sulphur-crested cockatoos, sacred ibis, lorikeets, flying foxes, and more.
One endearing intention when the Conservatorium opened in 1916 was: 'To protect amateurs against the frequent waste of time and money arising from unsystematic tuition'! Leading the jazz faculty in providing such protection these days is double-bassist Craig Scott. 'I'm called the Chair of the Jazz Unit. I feel like a piece of furniture when I hear that one,' he says. 'I've been doing this for three years, but I've been teaching here since 1985.'
Scott, 50, was born in Australia, and has always lived there. 'Growing up, I didn't study jazz particularly, because in those days there were no jazz degrees here in Australia. In fact, I started by thinking I might want to be a schoolteacher. I started to train, then took offence because there was more physical education training than there was music training in the course I was doing, though it was a music degree. So I thought, 'This is for the birds.' Furthermore, they didn't like jazz. 'They lost me straight away,' he says.
Scott maintains that he's learned everything he knows from a few key players he's worked with. 'It underlines, I think, the importance of the aural tradition,' he says, 'Because I didn't study jazz formally, as such, but I certainly studied it by picking the brains of great pianists, great saxophone players, great drummers and great bass players. There are marvellous bass players in Australia. I'm thinking particularly of the guy who I watched a lot, the expatriate American Ed Gaston. Ed is still a wonderful, bass player. To get to watch that every night you couldn't go wrong. He played with all kinds of people. And there are particular pianists who I studied harmony with, by proxy, I guess.'
Craig Scott has played professionally since 1975. 'I've been very fortunate that I've been able to play with a lot of great musicians: Joe Henderson, Red Rodney, Urbie Green - hundreds of people.' He particularly remembers a session with saxophonist Joe Henderson. 'I just couldn't believe how extraordinary he was. The pianist - who is a wonderful musician, a guy from here called Paul McNamara - he and I really thought we had done our homework on what Joe was going to be like. We'd got all the records he'd ever made. We'd sat down, listened to them, worked out the changes he was going to use, and did all of the stuff you could possibly do to have done your homework. And our sound check consisted of Joe coming in and saying: 'Do you know such-and-such?' And us saying yes, and he'd go, 'Oh, Good,' and asking, 'Do you know that? Oh good.' They didn't play a note.
'On the first gig, Joe played two or three choruses, and it was really great. He started to warm up a little bit. He played another two or three choruses. Then he started to get a little crazier, and played another two or three choruses. By about the fifteenth chorus his playing had gone from something that was wonderful to something that was beyond description, I looked over at Paul and we both rolled our eyes. It was like standing on the end of a train station and trying to catch the train that didn't stop. It was just unbelievable.
'That first set, we played one tune, which went for about an hour and a half. I've never heard anything like it. Every night was like that. He had such extraordinary energy in his playing. It was a real privilege to do that sort of stuff. And subsequently I've been in that sort of situation a lot - with people from here, too. There are some marvellous players here, so I've been very lucky.
'One of the first things I learned was with a particularly great jazz pianist named Julian Lee, a blind man from New Zealand. He's not very well now, but he's still around, fortunately. I had had virtually no experience. I arrived with my Real Book under my arm and he furiously accommodated the terrible bass notes that I was putting underneath him by altering virtually every chord he was going to play! At the end of the first set, he said: 'You've got the Real Book there, haven't you?' I said, 'Yeah, great isn't it?' And he goes: 'No it's not really great. So next set, we're going to play all those tunes again, and you can shut the Real Book, and use your ears.'
'As that was the first time I've ever played with him, I just about died. But it was actually a beginning, for me, of an understanding of the necessity to listen. It seems obvious, but it's not particularly obvious to people who are not from that kind of background, or who haven't had that sort of experience.
'A lot of what happens in the Conservatorium now replicates that kind of practice to a large extent. I think it's essential. The thing that I stress to the students here is first of all, burn all the Real Books, because most of them are wrong! We get 85% of what we take in from our eyes. So if you are looking at a chord chart, and it says something, that's what you are going to play. It doesn't matter whether the rest of the band explode, play a different change, or drop dead. You wouldn't notice.
'So [written] music is verboten in my classes. There are no charts. That's the end of it. They've got to learn the stuff by ear. They are allowed to read something in the practice room, but my expectation is that when we have an impro class, I tell them what they have to know by next week. I expect them to turn up and make a pretty good fist of what they're supposed to do. I guess, being a bass player, you tend to learn a lot of songs. I couldn't tell you how many songs I know, or how many I've had to learn by ear, on the spot, after the bandleader counted them in!
'So I really want to see the students develop those same kinds of skills. To have knowledge of what's likely to happen in a tune is essential. There are not that many common harmonic movements in jazz. The standards, particularly, do similar things. That's why the old adage is that if you know a hundred standards you know a million. Having an expectation of where something might go (harmonically) is part of the deal. That occurred to me as a result of that little lesson of having to shut the book and listen. I must say, even to my meagre understanding of the music of the time, these tunes came alive with the correct changes, with beautiful voicings being put underneath them, and someone NOT furiously accommodating my terrible bass notes thundering on regardless, and making me find the right ones. That was the beginning of a long-standing musical collaboration I had with Julian, which I must say I miss terribly, because he's not in sufficient health now to play the piano.'
Julian Lee came from New Zealand. 'At the behest of Frank Sinatra he went to Capitol Records. Julian is great friends with George Shearing. He arranged all of the Shearing large group stuff for George. He has extraordinary ears. He would remember it all, recite it into a tape recorder, and someone would take the tape recorder and transcribe it out. There was some incredibly complicated run in the strings. They were listening to it. Julian stopped the tape, and said, 'The third viola on the second desk, in that bar, in the semiquaver passage, did you play the thirteenth semiquaver as an F natural instead of an F sharp?' And the guy said, 'Yeah, I did. I wasn't going to say anything!' '
'In the undergraduate programme at the Conservatorium we have about 60 students. We could take more, but I think we are at about the right size because the standard is uniformly so high. We have about 160 people turn up every year to get into first year. Normally we take 16 or 17, maybe 18 at the most. We have a four-year Bachelors degree. We also have a two-year diploma, which is aimed more at mature-aged people. We have a masters degree, which is a research masters. Although it's a performance degree, the emphasis is on the research component, and how the performance is reflecting the research component of it. We have a (written) PhD, and we are just about to introduce a performance doctorate. We have eight or nine small ensembles, and there are two big bands, both by audition.
'The people I've listened to the most? There's that incredible black American tradition, which was turned on its ear by Jimmy Blanton. That was taken onward by people like Oscar Pettiford, Ray Brown, Charles Mingus and people of that generation. Paul Chambers is king of bop soloing. Listening to Paul Chambers is a lifetime study for anybody on this instrument. Scott Lafaro's impact on the way the instrument was played in ensembles is as profound as Blanton's was. I've listened to a lot of Lafaro, and the people who come out of that tradition, like Eddie Gomez and Gary Peacock. I'm an unabashed lover of all the Bill Evans trios. Chuck Israels contribution was enormous. Scott Lafaro is inestimable. It's terrifying to think how well he would have been playing had he lived longer. Eugene Wright, of the Brubeck band, was here a couple of weeks ago, and did a master class. He's in his mid-eighties.
'I started on the piano, but I wouldn't pay money to hear me play the piano! I love Ron Carter's playing. I particularly like the techniques that he used in the hands of Buster Williams. There's a real raunchiness about Buster's playing which I happen to really dig.
'As you get older you tend to pare things down. As you listen to the lineage of Eddie Gomez in that trio, the later recordings are much more lyrical than the early ones. The solo he plays on the Michel LeGrand tune You Must Believe in Spring, on the album of the same name, has three ideas in it. But they are beautiful crafted ideas, a masterpiece of construction. When you take it apart, it's like looking at a Georges Seurat painting. You have the dots there. You stand back - and they all join up.'
'I use an aged Roland Cube for an amplifier, and an old Underwood pickup which goes in the wing slots of the bridge. My bass is a German factory bass from about 1890, from the Mittenwald area, a copy of an Amati. It's very similar to one of the basses that Stanley Clarke uses, according to the luthier who fixed it up for me, Neville Whitehead.
'It's a nice little three-quarter German bass. I had another instrument, a Hermann Dölling junior, which was older and bigger. I sold it to one of my students a couple of years ago, because he really needed to have an instrument of that quality.
'I've had a lot of bass students, and he was the guy whose playing excited me to the extent that I thought that if he has this bass, it will be in better hands than it is with me. I actually preferred my smaller bass anyway. Selling it involved a certain degree of altruism - and a certain degree of necessity!'