Australia's top music prize for jazz legend

Bob SedergreenThe nation’s most valuable individual music prize - the Australia Council for the Arts Don Banks Music Award 2008 - goes to Australian jazz icon Bob Sedergreen. The Melbourne pianist, composer and educator received the $60,000 award at a ceremony at the Paris Cat on Thursday night.

A crowd of family, friends and supporters squeezed into the small jazz venue to see Sedergreen presented with the long-overdue award, recognising his services to music. This Australia Council award is “to publicly honour a senior artist of high distinction who has made an outstanding and sustained contribution to music in Australia”.

The award is tailor-made for Sedergreen, who has been performing as a jazz and blues pianist since the 1950s, playing with his own bands Blues on the Boil
and Art Attack as well as with the Brian Brown Quartet and the Ted Vining Trio. He has been the accompanist of choice for jazz luminaries such as Dizzy Gillespie, Nat Adderley, Ritchie Cole, Milt Jackson and blues legend Jimmy Witherspoon. For the past twenty years he has also been very active as a teacher and mentor, as well as a performer. His latest regular gig is with the band Blow at the Ethiopian café in Collingwood.

Sedergreen heard the news about the award when his wife Rae rushed into the TAB and said, ‘You’re in real trouble’! Although a self-effacing man, Sedergreen rose graciously to the occasion on Thursday with a speech that showed he felt finally vindicated by the Australia Council’s recognition. He plans to spend the money on fixing a tooth he broke on a lamb bone the previous day, upgrade the old Falcon, and take Rae on a cruise.

As one of the many people whose lives have been touched by Sedergreen (I took part in one of his Join a Jazz Vocal courses), I can endorse the contribution he has made. He has not only been a jazz and blues performer at the centre of the music scene in Australia for fifty-five years, but is still promoting a love and knowledge of jazz throughout the community. He has lectured at the Victorian College of the Arts and the University of Melbourne's Faculty of Music, and he is currently the co-Creative Director of the Stonnington Youth Jazz Initiative, along with Allan Browne. For Melbourne Jazz 2008, Sedergreen will present an interactive youth concert workshop with members of the Stonnington group.

With the support of his wife Rae, Sedergreen is always ready to take on some new venture. His latest passion is his work with Year 8 and 9 students at Ruyton Girls’ School. His work so often encourages the most unlikely students of jazz, anyone who has an interest. His insistence is not on technical prowess, but on feeling and self-expression. He regularly gets up early after playing a late-night gig to impart the soul of jazz to young and old with nothing but encouragement and good humour.

Thursday evening’s celebrations started with a performance by Mistaken Identity, a band made up of his sons Mal and Steve, Nick Heyward and his long-term collaborator Ted Vining, whom Sedergreen calls his ‘mentor’. Peter Harper paid a musical tribute to Sedergreen, before Mal played his own Eternal Spirits, a moving acknowledgement of his father’s influence and the twenty-five years they have played together.

Dr Graeme Koehne, Chair of the Music Board, presented Sedergreen with the award. The Don Banks music award was established in honour of Don Banks, Australian composer, performer and the first chair of the music board. This is the third time the award has been presented to a jazz artist: Alan Browne and Bernie McGann were previous winners. Last year’s winner was the composer Peter Sculthorpe. Koehne went on the enumerate highlights of Sedergreen’s career and mention the twenty albums he has recorded and the publication last year of his autobiography Hear Me Talkin To Ya.

Cheers went up when Koehne handed over the cheque. We all knew how hard it is for a jazz musician to make ends meet. Sedergreen then took the microphone: “Crikey,” he said, handing the huge bouquet over to Rae. Then, ever the musician, “I hate this mike!” He gave an entertaining speech, with many allusions to other jazz greats, accompanied by the occasional drum roll from Vining. He outlined his plans for the money in Project – Spend It, when he looks forward to sitting on a cruise ship not feeling like a jazz musician. He thanked his family and his extended musical family, in particular Vining, who discovered him in 1969 at the Prospect Hill Hotel. He talked about the turning point in his career in 1978 at a jazz festival in Finland when alto sax player C I Williams told him that jazz was not about competition but about contribution. From that moment, Sedergreen made it his mission to contribute. Mission accomplished.

To close the ceremonies, Sedergeen sat down at the piano, with Vining and Heyward, and played the title track from one of the albums he recorded with the Ted Vining Trio: Number One. It was his moment and he was proud to affirm it.

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