Getting Personal with Vince Jones
interview by Steve Proposch
Vince Jones remembers playing in the Wollongong under 10s soccer team. “I was born in Paisley, just outside of Glasgow. My dad ran out of steam for Scotland at the time. He wanted to go somewhere warmer. He had three places in mind – Africa, Australia and Canada, but he chose Australia … I think, because of the opportunities here … [but] he probably flipped a coin and here we are. We landed here on 19th April 1963.”
What were your parents like?
Vince Jones: They were very musical people. Extremely musical. There’s something about the Scots and their connection to jazz and soul music, rhythm and blues, man. They just found American music so rich. My dad was a big, big fan of black music like Lois Armstrong, Duke Ellington. He was also a fan of Frank Sinatra and all of the fabulous songsters of the time but he loved Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie and all those cats too.
And did they play music themselves?
VJ: Oh yeah, my dad played right up until late in his life. When he was younger I think he aspired to be a professional musician but, you know, four kids, 1950s and 60s, I think the opportunity slipped away from him. But he never stopped playing music all of his life. He had a band – at one stage he had a big band. He had a little quartet that played around Wollongogong and Sydney … mostly around Wollongong actually, but as a younger man he played around Glasgow and Paisley – all around Scotland actually.
You mentioned four siblings, I know your two sisters, Angela & Katie, both got into music as well?
VJ: Yes, mostly Angela. She was a professional singer for many years. She worked for Brian Cadd. She sang jazz. A bit like my mum, you couldn’t stop her singing. She sang all day. But when she had kids I think she realised that … you know, music is a tough game. You’re pretty much a precariat – you live a precarious life. It’s a gig economy of course, unless you’re perhaps teaching, or whatever. So it’s not really for parents. Unless you’re established before the kids … it’s not easy for someone who has children to be in the music game.
You have two daughters yourselfnow, Sonny & Estella?
VJ: Yes. They’re wonderful, and they’re very musical as well. They dance and play music all day. The youngest one plays piano from morning to night. They just doodle. We have to get her studying soon.
So is it a gene, in your family? Or is it influence?
VJ: I think it’s association. My father practising … we didn’t have a TV as kids, and my father would come home after work, and he would sit and write arrangements for his little quartet, and I’d watch him playing on the piano for hours. Hearing your dad playing, writing horn parts for his big band, it really fine tunes your ears as a kid. Listening to my mum too. She sang all the time. She loved all music – jazz music, very much. She was a lover of song. And my dad would accompany her.
Do you have a favourite family story?
VJ: I remember, as a young boy, watching my mum sing at parties, and at some of the concerts she’d get up, wearing her yellow and black polka dot dress, and sing her heart out. That was it for me. When I saw – not only the adulation, but the fun she was having – I was hooked.
What do you like to read?
VJ: I like books that are filling in the gaps. Rather than fiction, I like to read fact. I like [Noam] Chomsky and [John] Pilger. I love reading philosophy. I’m reading a book on economics at the moment, which is very heavy, but there’s aspects of it which are enlightening. I’m not a fiction guy. Everything from Zen to Economics.
So you’re on a continuous learning trip?
VJ: Trying to learn, yeah.
You have a pilot’s license. What do you love about flying?
VJ: I don’t fly as much as I used to. Only enough to keep my license up. I thought it was an exciting way to get to gigs. I really enjoyed it. And I didn’t really enjoy being in traffic. There was a Yoga and Buddhist community across the road from me where I lived in East Gippsland, and they had an airstrip, so I thought, well, I better get a plane and start flying to gigs. Flying is quite exciting. It can be very dangerous at times, in bad weather, but it’s a good, fun way to get to gigs.
Have you ever come close to dying?
VJ: Yeah, it is more dangerous being in a aeroplane if anyone tampers with it. I was flying into Moorabbin when it happened. I had no oil pressure. I thought my engine’s about to die, and here I am in the suburbs, you know, suburban houses below me, and I thought ‘just keep the nose up, just make it to the runway’. It was a heavy moment. I had stuck my neck out both in public and on TV about old growth forests. I lived next door to old growth forest at the time and I just thought knocking it down and chipping it seemed ridiculous. Obviously there was a lot of corruption and greed in that industry, and so I spoke out about it, and next thing you know I was attacked. They cut up steel wool very finely and stuck it in my engine. I spoke to Bob Brown about it, he said, you know, you need to constantly lift your profile to stay above the potential of being personally attacked. I’m not like that by nature. I’m personally more interested in the music. But Bob said he had two friends who were flying across from Tasmania to Canberra with a petition that was signed against the damming of the Franklin, and … their plane went down. They were never found. Their plane was never found. But he told me he was standing there as they were getting ready to take off, and someone yells out ‘Good day for a swim!’ and then disappears. So, I mean, to target me is one thing, but I could have landed on a couple of suburban houses, and damaged a more innocent people’s lives. For those people who tampered with my aeroplane … it’s a selfish and thoughtless act.
You’ve returned to the South Coast of NSW now – what is it about the area that you love/inspires you?
VJ: I used to travel down the coast as a kid, you know, for camping, and I lived down near Moruya, which is about four hours from Sydney. But, we have a small airport here and now I just catch a Rex flight to go wherever I have to go.
And prior to that place you were living on a property where you discovered a coal mine – the Old Bulli?
VJ: Yeah, there was a coal mine there – one of the oldest mines in Australia. And I didn’t know it was there initially, because it was covered by lantana. There were actually three mines at one stage on that block. And I looked it up, and apparently George Bernard Shaw and DH Lawrence had both gone to that mine, because of the union activity. I think George Bernard Shaw’s interest was in the union movement, or the anti-establishment movement of that area. He lived in Thirroul for a while, and I lived in Coledale, which is a suburb near there. Yeah, amazing times back then. I love the history of that area. I love the Australian scallywag sort of history. And you could see them camping in the bush – squatting in the bush. Wild times.
We played at Bulli – the heritage area – just a few weeks ago actually. and that was such good fun. Built in 1893 this old pub, and it was such a pleasure to go back there, because my dad came out here initially with his two brothers to work the coal mines. And my dad worked there for a year and then got tired. He didn’t like it. He got claustrophobic, down in the mountain. But his two brothers worked there right up until they retired. And you got to know the coal mining families, and the history. It was wonderful. I must have been a coal miner in my past life, somehow.
How would the acoustics be down there?
VJ: The mine that I had – that I inherited when I bought this piece of land – they had indentured children down there at one stage. It was such a small mine, less than two metres high and the same wide, and the pit ponies would go in there trailing the miner, who was riding on a dolly, lying on his chest, and they would pick into the side of the mountain, and the children would fill the panniers up and lead the pit ponies out. And from there it would all go down to the dock and off on a boat to England. Bizarre, really. Their parents went to the pits and asked if there was work. The mine would say, yeah, we’ll take the kinds on – 10 year olds – get them pulled out of school, or they never went to school, and they would indenture them for life to work in the mines. I’m not exactly sure when child labour stopped in Australia, but the rumours are that the children who died in the mines never had a gravestone. They never put one up for them. Unmarked. I wonder if that was guilt. I’m not sure.
Extraordinary, isn’t it. I remember reading the brilliant old American scholar, Scott Nearing. His father actually owned a mine, and he was the one who started the movement about banning child labour in mines.
What about more current events like the Adani coal mine – where is coal at now?
VJ: Well, I think Adani is a disgrace. I think that the consensus worldwide is about a move away from coal. Let’s use the great nuclear reactor in the sky. There’s enough evidence to show that coal a is dangerous pollutant for the future, for our children. But it’s cheap, or at least it’s sold as economically viable. But if you look at that classic graph of profits equals revenue minus the cost, and if you look at the long-term cost to all of our health and especially that of our children, there’s obviously a lot more at stake in using coal. It’s just not feasible in this day and age.
I think politicians should be removed from office if they insist on that short-term thinking. But how do we do it? I mean I’m here, sitting in my lounge room. I’m not out there lobbying to put the fossil fuel industry where it should be, in its grave. So I’m as responsible and lazy as the next person, you know?
I just hope … you know, particularly the Americans, don’t manufacture consent for war and push the button. That scares me quite considerably. Particularly with Bolton [Trump’s National Security Adviser] and Pompeo [U.S. Secretary of State] in office. These men are extraordinarily short-sighted. Anyway, it’s probably not what we should be talking about [laughs].
True. So you started playing clubs around Melbourne when you were about 20 years old. Can you describe the music scene. Was it competitive or supportive for you?
VJ: That would be 1974, ’75 something like that. I was not commercial back then. I wasn’t connected to an agency or a record company, so we could be as avant guarde as we liked. We could play whatever music we wanted to. And we did. You know, a lot of original music came forth from the band I was in. There was a healthy live scene in Melbourne. Sydney had that, you know, where musicians would back a singer, but in Melbourne it was very band driven. And in bands you never made a cracker until you were successful, as in you had a hit single, or could pull a good audience. So it was a hard road, but there were a lot of good venues around where you could get a gig. And, you know, when you’re enjoying yourself, and when the mood is right, you’ll endure anything.
I saw what might have been your first TV performance live on Channel Nine’s talent show New Faces all that time ago?
VJ: It was probably Red Faces, the Daryl Somers show … no, I was probably on New Faces … I can’t remember.
There was a club in Carlton that we started up, called the Cashew Club, I think – no, Skydive – and we did it for a few years and it pretty much honed my skills. I remember for Channel Nine, the Don Lane Show asked me to go on and sing and play a few times, and Daryl [Somers] got me on regularly to sing and play, but my objective was to play residencies, at a club or a pub or something, to get the boys playing regularly together and to get that sound that you get after playing a lot together. TV was never my objective. I realised early that, if you become famous at a young age in this country, you tend to get taken off you game musically. I would say, when [fame] comes you’ve got to be ready for it. And, unfortunately a lot of those talent shows, ahh, the kids don’t seem to go anywhere past that. They don’t have the mileage … It can lead a young person into a sort of black zone. I was always very cautious of that. I didn’t really want to be known as something I wasn’t. I wanted to be a singer, play music, play trumpet and jazz music. It doesn’t really take very long for the music industry to turn around and say I love what you’re doing, it’s great, but why don’t you sing this?
Yeah, play something we know mate.
VJ: Yeah that’s right. I remember Paul Hogan saying to me, you know, if you just sang that, you’d be bigger than the BeeGees [laughs]. I really enjoyed working with Paul Hogan. He was terrific. Always very supportive. But TV was great fun when we did it, because when we did it people would come from everywhere to the gigs. It was great.
And you did cover some more popular songs on the Come In Spinner (1990) album with Grace Knight, which has outlasted the show itself I think.
VJ: Yeah, well, the record company that I was with offered me this opportunity to sing a soundtrack. And I thought, well I’ve never done one of those, so I’ll do it for fun. And they were great songs. In fact I picked half of them, the ones I did at least. And it took off. It was really popular because it was related to that TV show, which was rocketing in the ratings. They came back to me after the show and said we want to make an album of that music. And I said, no, I don’t do that. And they said well we’re going to do it anyway, and we want you on the cover. So I said I don’t want to be on the cover. You know by that stage I had three albums out on my own. I had a direction, and it wasn’t Come In Spinner. But the ABC got their bank of lawyers on me and they said, you gotta do it, you gotta do the shoot. It was in the fine print, which unfortunately I didn’t read, so I had to do it. Bizarre isn’t it. I didn’t want that kind of commercial success, and I knew it would be very successful because it was a very successful mini-series, and I had a feeling it might just take off. Of course it did and sold half a million records. And for years after that half the audience would leave halfway through the night, because I wouldn’t do those songs. It took me two years to remove myself from the Come In Spinner audience, and regain that fan base we’d been developing over the years.
Of all of the arts music is perhaps most about collaboration, and I wanted to ask you about the latest album you have with Paul Grabowsky …
VJ: Playing with Paul is something else. He’s terrific. I love playing with him. He pushes it to the limit. He’s very, very creative.
I think the title … I thought it was a good title. Provenance. I thought it was a perfect title – a couple of old crusty guys who have been playing music all their lives [laughs]. But the record company, the ABC, was like, awww.
You also collaborated with Paul back in 1987 on It All Ends Up In Tears.
VJ: Yeah, working with Paul back then was amazing. The band was on highs, it was all original music and there were some great songs. Paul played in the band for a while after that. We had a very sophisticated band out of that era. My objective as I said before is to get the band to sound like a band, not like a bunch of musos that have gotten together. There’s something about bands when they play a lot together. That can be really special. It’s an empathy you can never buy, and I can hear it developing. You need to play a lot with these particular musicians to get that sound. It’s difficult to explain what it is, but it doesn’t come from competition. None of us are competing in there. It’s like four or five or six musicians painting a mural together. There’s democracy there even in the process of making the music.
You’ve got to move around each other, don’t you. Try not to bump into each other.
VJ: And enhance each other as best you can.
You’ve also done some shows recently with Van Morrison’s music?
VJ: Well again it was something I wanted to do for fun. As a teenager I saw the Modern Jazz Quartet and Connie Kay was in it, and at that stage of my life I was a big fan of Miles Davis and Coltrane, and I heard Richard Davis playing with Miles Davis, and I thought, wow. And when Van hired those guys to make Astral Weeks (1968), I thought, this is going to be an interesting project. And it would never have sounded like that without them. And I very much enjoyed that record as a kid, Richard Davis particularly, on bass. Without them playing on that record I don’t think it would have had the mystique that it has. So, yeah. And Van was on the air, everywhere you go. Everyone knew Van, you had to listen to it. So when the opportunity was offered to me to sing, at a concert level, those songs, I thought it would be great. We interpret them, we don’t do them as written, but at the same time we’re not disrespectful. We basically open them up so that everyone can have a play.
I noticed, touching on Miles Davis again, there’s something else playing at the Melbourne Jazz Festival, a Australian movie called Dingo, (dir. Rolf de Heer 1991) which features Miles in a cameo.
VJ: Yeah, I remember when it was being made I was in Adelaide at the festival, and the great man who co-wrote the music for that film, Michael Legrand, was out here with his manager. And I remember it was being made with Colin Friels out in the back blocks of South Australia, in the outback. I must say, it’s fictional, but really quite enjoyable. It’s good fun. And always a joy to see Miles Davis.
Your show for the Melbourne Jazz Festival is called A Personal Selection. What can we expect from this show?
VJ: Well, I’ve got about twenty songs so I’ll have to pare it down. There’s a lot of songs we haven’t played for many, many years. I can’t actually say at this stage which ones will get in and which ones won’t. Obviously, there’s songs in there like ‘Nature of Power’, ‘Rainbow Cake’, and ‘Jettison’, a few others like that which will make the cut. But there’s another dozen we have to pick. It will be interesting to see what we come up with.
It’s Matt McMahon who’s doing the music directing, Ben Waples on double bass, Tony Floyd’s playing drums. We’ve also got Javier on percussion, Julian Wilson on saxophone … ahh, we’ve got a small string section, which alternates, whoever can make it on the night. We’ve got Phil Sayer on trumpet – it’s a very creative bunch.
What is it about sad songs that we love so much? Are they affirming or transcendent for you?
VJ: Well, there’s something very special in the pain. For some reason, I think, the lyric tends to direct more choices that are more melodic to the song. Whereas a happy, up song won’t generally have as rich a melody. Cole Porter wrote, ‘Every Time We Say Goodbye’ and, oh man, it sounds like every time we say goodbye. That loss, that death, it’s there in all those songs, so you have to colour it in such a way, melodically and lyrically, that to my ears they always sound so beautiful those songs. I think that’s the way to describe it.
How about developing audiences overseas – are you getting much traction there?
VJ: I’m at a stage in my life where I don’t want to tour internationally so much any more. I’ll go to Tokyo or something but I don’t want to do the twenty nights in Europe because it usually means a lot of different airports, which tires me out. When I was younger I got a real charge from Europe with a tour of One Day Spent (1992), and got onto the jazz charts there, and I sold quite a few records at the time, and there was an opening there for me to get on the festival circuit. The only problem with that I had was funding. I found myself having to fund international travel myself. I’ve never received a grant. For some reason they thought I was independently successful, so that was the reason I didn’t go to the U.S. very often. I just couldn’t afford it. And you’ve really got to go there and play there. You’ve got to play festivals, get the critics to write about you, get your material on U.S. airwaves, all that. It’s pretty big. I’m 64 now, and I love it here. I’ve no intention of living in New York or Los Angeles to make all that happen. Not interested.
Distribution channels have changed dramatically over the last few years. How do you engage with these platforms?
VJ: You have to accept them, they’re here to stay. Whether I believe they’re a good thing for musicians, I don’t actually. I do get some listens through Spotify but, not that long ago, before they came in, I was able to make a reasonable living through publishing CDs and record shops would all have my stuff on sale. Now that’s gone. I don’t think I’ve seen a cent through Spotify or iTunes yet. I fear that there will be less new, interesting music produced, because people can just go and just crunch the numbers, and the Spotify people will just suggest the artists that people are already listening to. So I think we’re just going to go around and around in retro circles. I think that platforms like Spotify should actually set a few million dollars aside each year to encourage young artists to make new music. Because they don’t pay much to artists as it is. We see nothing, really. Unless you’re already big, or have a hit. Someone like Bruce Springsteen, he might make money out of them. But someone like myself … they’ve also taken the ability to … I mean, I’ve got two records recently released, and god knows will they ever get airplay. Will I break even? I don’t know. People just aren’t buying CDs.
Someone like Chris Wilson, he’s not even represented on Spotify.
VJ: Yeah, artists like Chris, mate, you won’t see. Artists who fall below that level of … popularity or, whatever you want to call it – recognition – they are really suffering. A lot of very, very talented people too. A whole invisible layer of artists sitting there, just below the line of vision. I might just sneak in to the odd playlist, but I think there’s a lot more people listening to Elton John or, you know, McCartney. It’s just about popular music, really.
The income from CDs dropped off when individuals could burn their own CDs – when it was built into computers and everyone was burning for everyone. I mean, artists like Chris Wilson were paying for these things out of their own pockets. I spend $26,000 making Moving Through Taboos (2004), and $10,000 making One Day Spent, and those records just broke even. If I was to spend $10,000 on a CD now, I’d be seriously trying to get a grant or something, or someone to give me the money to do it. I’d be crazy to do it myself. So, sadly I think there will be less creative music made. Or, maybe it’ll change again. Who knows? [laughs]
There’s a decent market for vinyl still, isn’t there?
VJ: I think there will be, because there’s something about vinyl … the music sits in the air longer. In my opinion it stays in the air longer than the digital music. My old turntable here, and I’ve got a pair of old [A&R] speakers and a NAD amp, and the music sort of seems to go into the cracks of the room. It stays around longer.
Do you think you’re ever going to retire?
VJ: No I don’t think I will. I’m still singing well. I’m not playing great trumpet these days, but I sing every day. And I’ve still got arrangements running through my head. So, I might go back to vinyl, huh? It’s a good idea.
Vince Jones – A Personal Selection, part of the Melbourne Jazz Festival, Melbourne Recital Centre, 31 Sturt St, Southbank (VIC),
7.30pm, Thursday 6 June 2019.
Melbourne International Jazz Festival
31 May – 9 June 2019