15 Happy Feet Jim Coates Band at the Embassy Ballroom in 1937Just how far can the retro thing go? I was perfectly happy to see vinyl records make a comeback, that made sense. They sound great, the technology is delightful and nothing beats a striking 30×30 cm album cover with sleeve notes big enough to actually read. But lately there have been attempts to reintroduce tape cassettes and this chills me to the bone. Tape cassettes were the MP3 of analogue audio. It wasn’t just the way they sounded, they were also inflexible and kept finding new ways to fail.

And now it’s 78-rpm records. Okay, we’re not talking the brittle shellac discs people used to buy when the only alternative was the radio, a guy called Jack Mitchell is focused on retrieving, digitising and saving forever the music that was presented by them 70 to 100 years ago.

15 Happy Feet fJack describes himself as a jazz historian, discographer and archivist. He’s produced several CDs for the Australian Jazz Museum in Melbourne harvested from ancient 78s, the transfers being done by a volunteer ex-ABC engineer whose main aim, Jack says, is to reduce surface noise, and in that he’s been entirely successful. They’re for sale through the museum’s website.

A high proportion of 78-rpm records carry jazz music which is not surprising when you think about it. The development of recorded music and the emergence of jazz went hand-in-hand. As prohibition took hold across America so did the music coming out of New Orleans and it carried a generous dose of the risqué, making it perfect for the salacious speakeasies serving up moonshine and the scandalous dance styles being executed by their customers.

Thus the 1920s and early 30s is generally regarded as music’s Jazz Age. It led to the big bands of swing and set the stage for the Gershwins, Frank Sinatra, Andre Previn and Elvis. And all this music and dance was taken up with gusto by Australians, fuelled by the bonus of freely available booze.

15 Happy Feet Palais De Danse in Melbourne in 1933Jack’s first foray into digitising all this resulted in a couple of double CDs of music from the 1940s and 50s, and he’s just completed a project he’s called Happy Feet, with 127 minutes of Australian jazz music from the 1930s. He called it Happy Feet because it gets folk dancing.

All the tracks on the double CD were originally mastered for release on 78-rpm records, most by Columbia at its studio in Sydney’s Homebush although some tracks were recorded in Melbourne by Featuradio, and others by Rex Shaw’s Prestophone label. A few come from London.

“Thousands of 78s recorded electrically after 1925 still sound great,” Jack said. “But some were never issued and I bought taped copies of some of those original acetates from Rex Shaw. The 78s produced by Columbia were renowned by collectors around the world for their smooth, quiet surfaces, rivalled only by the German Brunswick label.”

I’ve listened to an early copy of Happy Feet and it’s totally representative of the age, lots of trumpets, trombones, double basses, saxophones and slick vocals at up tempo rhythms.

Okay, it’s all completely mono but it is nicely engineered and the sound quality is surprisingly good, with very little of the noise and scratchiness usually experienced with 78s. One track, Dinah, gets a bit muddy and indecisive but Jack explains it was taken from a Cinesound movie short.

If you’re into such stuff Happy Feet is something of a treasure. It’s $25 from the Australian Jazz Museum and details are on its website, www.ajm.org.au. You’ll find the website is a fantastic repository of Australian jazz music and history.

First published by smh.com.au May 2019.


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