Jazz Research Journal, Vol 8, No 1-2 (2014)

Early jazz in Australia as oriental exotica

Aline Scott-Maxwell
Issued Date: 16 Jun 2015


Australian jazz historians sometimes note how the earliest so-called ‘jazz’ music to reach Australia via the popular stage was largely perceived as ‘novelty noise’ due to the use of new ‘jazz’ percussion effects and other novelty sounds in intriguingly unfamiliar combinations. Notably, Chinese percussion instruments were important ‘novelty noise’ components of early jazz. Yet, by the onset of the Jazz Age, Australians already had a long familiarity with ‘oriental’ sounds both through musical representations of the ‘Orient’ in popular stage and other entertainments and also direct exposure to Chinese music performances, ranging from ‘noisy’ Chinese opera performances on the mid-nineteenth century goldfields to local and visiting Chinese vaudeville acts in the early twentieth century. The association between oriental exotica and early jazz was such that the ‘strange’, exotic, ‘noisy’ sounds of Chinese music came sometimes to be understood as ‘jazz’. This association was successfully exploited by Chinese jazz acts such as Sun Moon Lee and his ‘14 Oriental Stars with the Chinese Jazz Band’ during their six-month long Australian tour in 1927, when they were described as both ‘the real thing in jazz’ and ‘the real thing in Chinese’ (Brisbane Courier 3 May 1927). Tin Pan Alley-style songs with ‘oriental’ themes became a further important intersection between early jazz and oriental exotica in Australia as a significant sub-genre of Jazz-Age dance band or so-called jazz orchestra repertoire. The article examines various connections and convergences between oriental exotica and early ‘jazz’ of the 1920s within the Australian context and argues that diverse notions of jazz as exotica contributed to how ‘jazz’ was presented and perceived in Australia.

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DOI: 10.1558/jazz.v8i1-2.26834


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