II. South of the Border
A few weeks after our return to Sydney there was a brief coda to the Global Prowl. I left Clare in Sydney and spent four days in Melbourne, Australia’s second-largest city. You might think that cosmopolitan Melbourne is the obvious alternative for somebody priced-out of Sydney. I had a look at some figures. It wasn’t encouraging.
The June 2011 Worldwide Cost of Living survey, prepared by the Economist Intelligence Unit, a sister company of the Economist magazine, ranks Melbourne as the 7th most expensive city in the world. Sydney is at number 6. Perth and Brisbane are 13th and 14th. This is more disheartening when you remember that these are four of only five cities in Australia with a population over 600,000. That’s across the entire 7.69 million square kilometres of the isolated Australian continent.
The Economist survey, designed for expatriate business people, does not factor in the price of housing, so I looked elsewhere for that information. It was a bit more encouraging. On July 18 the Melbourne Age reported on data collected by Australian Property Monitors: “The median asking rental for a house in Sydney is [AU]$490 per week, which is 36 per cent more expensive than Melbourne’s median house rentals. Median unit rentals in Sydney at $450 are 29 per cent higher than Melbourne’s.”
Melbourne, the capital of the southern state of Victoria, lies on the Yarra River. Like Sydney, the city sprawls into endless suburbs. Unlike Sydney, which abandoned its tram network in the ‘50s—the future is cars!—central Melbourne is still navigable by the world’s most expansive tram network. It makes for an easy city to get around.
I was staying in town with my sister at her place in North Carlton, just a few minutes north of the city centre. It was a week of wintry gales and constant rain. But in typical Melbourne style, many things were happening; an Emerging Writers’ Festival and the annual International Jazz Festival.
The 80-year-old Sonny Rollins hobbled onto the stage of the Melbourne Town Hall in a billowing red shirt, wearing a white beard and a halo of white fuzz. He began by riffing on ‘Newark News’. Sonny worked his playing into shape, got speedier and more proficient as he went on, but his signature sound, a warm dark tone that filled the cavernous Town Hall—who needs the Grand Organ?—was there from the beginning. Rollins waddled in a hunch across the stage, jabbing his horn towards the crowd as he soloed. At moments he stopped playing to wave in irritation at the people filming the gig on their phones. They stopped.
The arrangements were not as exciting as Sonny’s playing. Most of the time he improvised glorious rhapsodies over slow standard changes and calypso vamps. The band comprised competent musicians who never drew much attention from the leader: Bon Cranshaw was the stalwart and ever-youthful bass player, joined by Peter Bernstein (guitar), Kobie Watkins (drums) and Sammy Figueroa (percussion). The performance concluded with the old calypso ‘Don’t Stop the Carnival’. Sonny worked around the melody, repeatedly coming back to it, laying out variations.
Although the Melbourne gig was probably superior to the Sydney Opera House performance of four days earlier, which I’d also seen, it did not feature that show’s long jam on ‘Sonny, Please’, a runaway train groove that Sonny chased and tamed with sheets-of-sound velocity and limitless nuance. But he always sounded like he was having the time of his life.
In his courteous and soft but husky voice Sonny thanked the Melbourne audience for the city’s hospitality. “I believe in the golden rule—do unto others,” he said. “I’m sorry, but I do!”
The Humble Colossus in Conversation
The next day I went to the Forum on Flinders Street, a ‘20s theatre opposite Federation Square, for an audience Q&A session with Sonny Rollins. The small crowd consisted mostly of young musicians. It was another cold wet day. Sonny came out on stage in a red beanie and a heavy coat.
He spoke of his childhood love for Louis Jordan. He said he learned humility from trumpeter Clifford Brown, who was both great and humble. And Rollins displayed his own humility, insisting that sure, his gift was for music, but a librarian could be equally gifted putting together a shelf of books and helping people to read. To the amusement of the audience, he admitted that he was initially “almost embarrassed” to play on a Rolling Stones record (‘Waiting on a Friend’).
Because Sonny likes to play unusual standards—on this tour he played Lester Lee and Bob Russell’s ‘Blue Gardenia’, originally performed by Nat King Cole—I asked him what the American songbook has meant to him as a musician.
“The American songbook? It’s a treasure. I went to the movies a lot as a kid, so I know all the songs. I love Irving Berlin but my favourite is Jerome Kern.” He was emphatic that jazz musicians had done a lot for American standards. “Take ‘Body and Soul’,” Sonny said. “Coleman Hawkins made a masterpiece out of what was really a pretty schmaltzy tune.” Later he added that he believed improvisation to be “the supreme form of composition.”
Rollins also believes in reincarnation. He is confident the lessons of this life will be carried over into the next. “Otherwise what’s the point of existence?” he said. “To eat more ice cream? I’ve had my share of Häagen-Dazs and it didn’t do me any good!”
Emerging Writers and Hypnotic Brass
While jazz was playing across town, I went to Federation Square to check out the zine fair of the Emerging Writers’ Festival. Rows of trestle tables were staffed by authors and editors selling indie novels, art journals, comics, and handmade zines.
So what’s happening in Melbourne’s indie publishing scene? There is the work of Gracia Haby and Louise Jennison, two young Melbourne book artists. I bought a copy of But I just got here a minute ago (vol I), one of Haby’s small limited edition zines, created from a series of appropriated postcards from the old USSR, Poland, and Korea. Pictures of animals have been added to the cityscapes on the postcards, and there is a handwritten epistolary text to accompany the images.
I also bought an impressively printed colour comic book called The Dirt Nap illustrated by Melbourne artist Brendan Halyday. Some independent publishers and writers groups from Sydney were down for the festival, including Penguin Plays Rough, who organise story readings in Sydney’s Inner-West and have published anthologies for print and ebooks.
That night I went back over to the Forum to see another Jazz Festival performance. The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble come from Chicago’s South Side, eight sons of the former Sun-Ra Arkestra trumpet player Phil Cohran. They combine impressively tight horn charts with hip-hop and chanting and bravura showmanship. Only recently the ensemble were busking in the streets of Manhattan. Shakily-filmed clips of their street performances were winding up on YouTube. Soon, bareshirted and bathed in blue light, the brothers jumped up and down in sync as they ran through their repertoire. The only thing really missing was solos and improvisation. The packed-in crowd loved it.
I left Melbourne knowing it was the final stop on the long road leading back to Sydney. The global prowl took Clare and I about 60,000 kilometres. We visited four continents, taking in 11 countries, about 20 cities, plus many towns and villages.
Back in Sydney in temporary accommodation and grounded for the immediate future, I’ve begun to study Spanish and prepare for a new semester of teaching creative writing to undergraduates at university. Clare has gone back to archeology. By necessity we’re hoping to hole up in a new flat in Sydney for at least the next 18 months. But the outlook for low-income renters seems even bleaker than it was when we gave up our Petersham flat at the end of 2010: a one percent vacancy rate and ever-rising rents. I don’t see Clare and I being able to stay in this city for the long term.
But why fight it? As you’ve seen, there are a lot of fun cities around the globe.