Jazz Culture in the North: A Comparative Study of Regional Jazz Communities in Cairns and Mackay, North Queensland





regional jazz, jazz communities,

How to Cite

McKenzie, P. (2017). Jazz Culture in the North: A Comparative Study of Regional Jazz Communities in Cairns and Mackay, North Queensland. M/C Journal, 20(6). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1318
Vol. 20 No. 6 (2017): north
Published 2017-12-31


Musicians and critics regard Australian jazz as vibrant and creative (Shand; Chessher; Rechniewski). From its tentative beginnings in the early twentieth century (Whiteoak), jazz has become a major aspect of Australia’s music and performance. Due to the large distances separating cities and towns, its development has been influenced by geographical isolation (Nikolsky; Chessher; Clare; Johnson; Stevens; McGuiness). While major cities have been the central hubs, it is increasingly acknowledged that regional centres also provide avenues for jazz performance (Curtis).

This article discusses findings relating to transient musical populations shaped by geographical conditions, venue issues that are peculiar to the Northern region, and finally the challenges of cultural and parochial mindsets that North Queensland jazz musicians encounter in performance.

Cairns and Mackay

Cairns and Mackay are regional centres on the coast of Queensland, Australia. Cairns – population 156,901 in 2016 (ABS) – is a world famous tourist destination situated on the doorstep of the Great Barrier Reef (Thorp). Mackay – population 114,969 in 2016 (ABS) – is a lesser-known community with an economy largely underpinned by the sugar cane and coal mining industries (Rolfe et al. 138). Both communities lie North of the capital city Brisbane – Mackay in the heart of Central Queensland, and Cairns as the unofficial capital of Far North Queensland. Mackay and Cairns were selected for this study, not on representational grounds, but because they provide an opportunity to learn through case studies. Stake notes that “potential for learning is a different and sometimes superior criterion to representativeness,” adding, “that may mean taking the one most accessible or the one we can spend the most time with (451).”

Musically, both regional centres have a number of venues that promote live music, however, only Cairns has a dedicated jazz club, the Cairns Jazz Club (CJC). Each has a community convention centre that brings high-calibre touring musicians to the region, including jazz musicians.

Mackay is home to the Central Queensland Conservatorium of Music (CQCM) a part of the Central Queensland University that has offered conservatoire-style degree programs in jazz, contemporary music and theatre for over twenty-five years. Cairns does not have any providers of tertiary jazz qualifications.


Semi-structured in-depth interviews were conducted with twenty-two significant individuals associated with the jazz communities in Mackay and Cairns over a twelve-month period from 2015 to 2016. Twelve of the interviewees were living in Cairns at the time, and ten were living in Mackay. The selection of interviewees was influenced by personal knowledge of key individuals, historical records located at the CQCM, and from a study by (Mitchell), who identified important figures in the Cairns jazz scene. The study participants included members of professional jazz ensembles, dedicated jazz audience members and jazz educators. None of the participants who were interviewed relied solely on the performance of jazz as their main occupation. All of the musicians combined teaching duties with music-making in several genres including rock, jazz, Latin and funk, as well as work in the recording and producing of recorded music. Combining the performance of jazz and commercial musical styles is a common and often crucial part of being a musician in a regional centre due to the low demand for any one specific genre (Luckman et al. 630). The interview data that was gathered during the study’s data collection phase was analysed for themes using the grounded theory research method (Charmaz). The following sections will discuss three areas of findings relating to some of the unique North Queensland influences that have impacted the development and sustainability of the two regional jazz communities.

Transient Musical Populations

The prospect of living in North Queensland is an alluring proposition for many people. According to the participants in this study, the combination of work and a tropical lifestyle attracts people from all over the country to Cairns and Mackay, but this influx is matched by a high population turnover. Many musicians who move into the region soon move away again. High population turnover is a characteristic of several Northern regional centres such as the city of Darwin (Luckman, Gibson and Lea 12). The high growth and high population turnover in Cairns, in particular, was one of the highest in the country between 2006 and 2011 (ABS). The study participants in both regions believed that the transient nature of the local population is detrimental to the development and sustainability of the jazz communities. One participant described the situation in Cairns this way: “The tropics sort of lure them up there, tease them with all of the beauty and nature, and then spit them out when they realise it’s not what they imagined (interviewee 1, 24 Aug. 2016).” Looking more broadly to other coastal regional areas of Australia, there is evidence of the counter-urban flow of professionals and artists seeking out a region’s “natural and cultural environment” (Gibson 339). On the far North coast of New South Wales, Gibson examined how the climate, natural surroundings and cultural charms attracted city dwellers to that region (337). Similarly, most of the participants in this study mentioned lifestyle choices such as raising a family and living in the tropics as reasons to move to Cairns or Mackay. The prospect of working in the tourism and hospitality industry was found to be another common reason for musicians to move to Cairns in particular. In contrast to some studies (Salazar; Conradson and Latham) where it was found that the middle- to upper-classes formed the majority of lifestyle migrants, the migrating musicians identified by this study were mostly low-income earners seeking a combination of music work and other types of employment outside the music industry. There have been studies that have explored and critically reviewed the theoretical frameworks behind lifestyle migration (Benson and Osbaldiston) including the examination of issues and the motivation to ‘lifestyle migrate’. What is interesting in this current study is the focus of discussion on the post-migration effects. Study participants believe that most of the musicians who move into their region leave soon afterwards because of their disillusionment with the local music industry. Despite the lure of musical jobs through the tourism and hospitality industry, local musicians in Cairns tend to believe there is less work than imagined. Pub rock duos and DJs have taken most of the performance opportunities, which makes it hard for new musicians to compete.

The study also reveals that Cairns jazz musicians consider it more difficult to find and collaborate with quality newcomers. This may be attributed to the smaller jazz communities’ demand for players of specific instruments. One participant explained, “There’s another bass player that just moved here, but he only plays by ear, so when people want to play charts and new songs, he can’t do it so it's hard finding the right guys up here at times (interviewee 2, 23 Aug. 2016).” Cairns and Mackay participants agreed that the difficulty of finding and retaining quality musicians in the region impacted on the ability of certain groups to be sustainable. One participant added, “It’s such a small pool of musicians, at the moment, I've got a new project ready to go and I've got two percussionists, but I need a bass player, but there is no bass player that I'm willing to work with (interviewee 3, 24 Aug. 2016).” The same participant has been fortunate over the years, performing with a different local group whose members have permanently stayed in the Cairns region, however, forging new musical pathways and new groups seemed challenging due to the lack of musical skills in some of the potential musicians.

In Mackay, the study revealed a smaller influx of new musicians to the region, and study participants experienced the same difficulties forming groups and retaining members as their Cairns counterparts. One participant, who found it difficult to run a Big Band as well as a smaller jazz ensemble because of the transient population, claimed that many local musicians were lured to metropolitan centres for university or work.

Study participants in both Northern centres appeared to have developed a tolerance and adaptability for their regional challenges. While this article does not aim to suggest a solution to the issues they described, one interesting finding that emerged in both Cairns and Mackay was the musicians’ ability to minimise some of the effects of the transient population. Some musicians found that it was more manageable to sustain a band by forming smaller groups such as duos, trios and quartets. An example was observed in Mackay, where one participant’s Big Band was a standard seventeen-piece group. The loss of players was a constant source of anxiety for the performers. Changing to a smaller ensemble produced a sense of sustainability that satisfied the group. In Cairns, one participant found that if the core musicians in the group (bass, drums and vocals) were permanent local residents, they could manage to use musicians passing through the region, which had minimal impact on the running of the group.  For example, the Latin band will have different horn players sit in from time to time. When those performers leave, the impact on the group is minimal because the rhythm section is comprised of long-term Cairns residents.

Venue Conditions Heat Up

At the Cape York Hotel in Cairns, musicians and audience members claimed that it was uncomfortable to perform or attend Sunday afternoon jazz gigs during the Cairns summer due to the high temperatures and non air-conditioned venues. This impact of the physical environment on the service process in a venue was first modelled and coined the ‘Servicescape’ by Bitner (57). The framework, which includes physical dimensions like temperature, noise, space/function and signage, has also been further investigated in other literature (Minor et al.; Kubacki; Turley and Fugate). This model is relevant to this study because it clearly affects the musician’s ability to perform music in the Northern climate and attract audiences. One of the regular musicians at the Cape York Hotel commented: 

So you’re thinking, ‘Well, I’m starting to create something here, people are starting to show up’, but then you see it just dwindling away and then you get two or three weeks of hideously hot weather, and then like last Sunday, by the time I went on in the first set, my shirt was sticking to me like tissue paper… I set up a gig, a three-hour gig with my trio, and if it’s air conditioned you’re likely to get people but if it’s like the Cape York, which is not air conditioned, and you’re out in the beer garden with a tin roof over the top with big fans, it’s hideous‘. (Interviewee 4, 24 Aug. 2016)

The availability of venues that offer live jazz is limited in both regions. The issue was twofold: firstly, the limited availability of a larger venue to cater for the ensembles was deemed problematic; and secondly, the venue manager needed to pay for the services of the club, which contributed to its running costs. In Cairns, the Cape York Hotel has provided the local CJC with an outdoor beer garden as a venue for their regular Sunday performances since 2015. The president of the CJC commented on the struggle for the club to find a suitable venue for their musicians and patrons. The club has had residencies in multiple venues over the last thirty years with varying success. It appears that the club has had to endure these conditions in order to provide their musicians and audiences an outlet for jazz performance. This dedication to their art form and sense of resilience appears to be a regular theme for these Northern jazz musicians.

Minor et al. (7) recommended that live music organisers needed to consider offering different physical environments for different events (7). For example, a venue that caters for a swing band might include a dance floor for potential dancers or if a venue catered for a sit down jazz show, the venue might like to choose the best acoustic environment to best support the sound of the ensemble.  The research showed that customers have different reasons for attending events, and in relation to the Cape York Hotel, the majority of the customers were the CJC members who simply wanted to enjoy their jazz club performances in an air conditioned environment with optimal acoustics as the priority. Although not ideal, the majority of the CJC members still attended during the summer months and endured the high temperatures due to a lack of venue suitability.

Parochial Mindsets

One of the challenging issues faced by many of the participants in both regions was the perceived cultural divide between jazz aficionados and general patrons at many venues. While larger centres in Australia have enjoyed an international reputation as creative hubs for jazz such as Melbourne and Sydney (Shand), the majority of participants in this study believed that a significant portion of the general public is quite parochial in their views on various musical styles including jazz. Coined the ‘bogan factor’, one participant explained, “I call it the bogan factor. Do you think that's an academic term? It is now” (interviewee 5, 17 Feb. 2016). They also commented on dominant cultural choices of residents in these regions: “It's North Queensland, it's a sport orientated, 4WD dominated place. Culturally they are the main things that people are attracted to” (interviewee 5, 17 Feb. 2016). These cultural preferences appear to affect the performance opportunities for the participants in Cairns and Mackay.

Waitt and Gibson explored how the Wollongong region was chosen as an area for investigation to see if city size mattered for creativity and creativity-led regeneration (1224). With the ‘Creative Class’ framework in mind (Florida), the researchers found that Wollongong’s primarily blue-collar industrial identity was a complex mixture of cultural pursuits including the arts, sport and working class ideals (Waitt and Gibson 1241). This finding is consistent with the comments of study participants from Cairns and Mackay who believed that the identities of their regions were strongly influenced by sport and industries like mining and farming. One Mackay participant added, “I think our culture, in itself, would need to change to turn more people to jazz. I can’t see that happening. That’s Australia. You’re fighting against 200 years of sport” (interviewee 6, 12 Feb. 2016). Performing in Mackay or Cairns in venues that attract various demographics can make it difficult for musicians playing jazz. A Cairns participant added, “As Ingrid James once told me, ‘It's North Queensland, you’ve got an audience of tradesman, they don't get it’. It's silly to think it's going to ever change” (interviewee 7, 26 Aug. 2016). One Mackay participant believed that the lack of appreciation for jazz in regional areas was largely due to a lack of exposure to the art form. Most people grow up listening to other styles of music in their households.

Another participant made the point that regardless of the region’s cultural and leisure-time preferences, if a jazz band is playing in a football club, you must expect it to be unpopular. Many of the research participants emphasised that playing in a suitable venue is paramount for developing a consistent and attentive audience. Choosing a venue that values and promotes the style of jazz music that the musicians are performing could help to attract more jazz fans and therefore build a sustainable jazz community.

Refreshingly, this study revealed that musicians in both regions showed considerable resilience in dealing with the issue of parochial mindsets, and they have implemented methods to help educate their audiences. The audience plays a significant part in the development and future of a jazz community (Becker; Martin). For the Central Queensland Conservatorium of Music in Mackay, part of the ethos of the institution is to provide music performance and educational opportunities to the region. One of the lecturers who made a significant contribution to the design of the ensemble program had a clear vision to combine jazz and popular music styles in order to connect with a regional audience. He explained, “The popular music strand of the jazz program and what we called the commercial ensembles was very much birthed out of that concept of creating a connection with the community and making us more accessible in the shortest amount of time, which then enabled us to expose people to jazz” (interviewee 8, 20 Mar. 2016).

In a similar vein, several Cairns musicians commented on how they engaged with their audiences through education. Some musicians attempted to converse with the patrons on the comparative elements of jazz and non-jazz styles, which helped to instil some appreciation in patrons with little jazz knowledge. One participant cited that although not all patrons were interested in an education at a pub, some became regular attendees and showed greater appreciation for the different jazz styles. These findings align with other studies (Radbourne and Arthurs; Kubacki; Kubacki et al.), who found that audiences tend to return to arts organizations or events more regularly if they feel connected to the experience (Kubacki et al. 409).


The Cairns and Mackay jazz musicians who were interviewed in this study revealed some innovative approaches for sustaining their art form in North Queensland. The participants discussed creative solutions for minimising the influence of a transient musician population as well as overcoming some of the parochial mindsets in the community through education. The North Queensland summer months proved to be a struggle for musicians and audience members alike in Cairns in particular, but resilience and commitment to the music and the social network of jazz performers seemed to override this obstacle. Although this article presents just a subset of the findings from a study of the development and sustainability of the jazz communities in Mackay and Cairns, it opens the way for further investigation into the unique issues faced. Deeper understanding of these issues could contribute to the ongoing development and sustainability of jazz communities in regional Australia.


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Author Biography

Peter McKenzie, CQUniversity

Lecturer, Music

Peter McKenzie teaches saxophone, ensemble, improvisation, theory as well as coordinating the Principal Music Studios one-one tuition program within the Bachelor of Music (Jazz and Popular) degree at CQUniversity. Peter holds a Bachelor of Jazz Studies, a Grad Dip. Ed and a Master of Learning Management degree from CQUniversity. Peter is currently undertaking a Doctor of Philosophy degree specialising in regional jazz communities. Peter's other research interests are in the area of beginner jazz improvisation.