In the three years since it was established, the James Morrison Academy of Music has brought about a cultural shift in the city of Mount Gambier, SA.

Story Ken Eastwood

When Australian jazz legend James Morrison decided he wanted to set up a jazz academy in Mount Gambier, SA, he had his eye on the Old Town Hall as the best place for it. The grand old 1882 building had big rooms with high ceilings perfect for acoustic performances. But there was a problem – the building had been turned into offices, some of which were occupied by the Regional Development Authority.

“So you can imagine it was a bit of a tongue-in-cheek conversation,” James says with a smile. “I said to them, ‘I’ve come here to do some regional development, can you help me? Perhaps the first thing you can do is move offices for me’.”

James says that not only the regional development authority, but everyone in the city from the council down has been very supportive of the venture, which started with almost 50 students in 2015 and now has 80–90 students studying jazz, making it pretty much the largest tertiary student jazz cohort in the country. 

“All the cafes and restaurants have jazz bands now on the weekends and at various times during the week. It really has changed the whole culture,” James says. “And socially, suddenly there’s a whole bunch of young people in the town and it’s really changed the feel of the town. It’s wonderful.”

Because some of the world’s greatest contemporary jazz names come to spend time at the academy, citizens in Mount Gambier can run into famous musicians such as Gordon Goodwin or Wycliffe Gordon. They’ve even started a jazz club.

“The community’s really embraced it – they’re doing up houses for the students, they’re giving garages over for students to practice in,” James says. “They’ve really welcomed and embraced them. The local taco place even has a discount for our students.”

The academy is in partnership with the University of South Australia, and attendees complete a one-year diploma, three-year Bachelor of Music or Bachelor of Arts Honours. Students pay around $6500 a year for their tuition, and the emphasis is making music and being creative, rather than sitting in a classroom just learning theory. Bands from the academy regularly tour Australia and overseas, and they have an exchange program with the esteemed Julliard School conservatory in New York. 

James says even before he settled on Mount Gambier as the location for the academy he was determined to set it up in a regional centre, not a capital city. “Many of the great music schools in the world are in regional areas, and that’s no coincidence,” he says. “The experience that the students have in a regional centre is quite different to being in a city. Part of that is their life can centre more around their studies. In Sydney and Melbourne, for example, you’d finish studies for the day and go outside and you’re overwhelmed by the city. It’s hard to focus on what you’re there for.

“Also, if we had set up in Sydney, say, many of the students would come from Sydney, which means at the end of the day they go home, so they don’t form a cohort. Here, they hang around as groups of students in shared houses, and they talk about what they played today, they have jams, they form bands. It’s much easier to get a community feel. They’re taking the time to talk to each other. They get together and play cricket by the lake.”

James also loves the fact that in a regional centre the students really are part of the wider community. “We have a student recital here at the end of the semester and the local butcher will be there and he’ll wave to the students and knows them. You wouldn’t get that in Sydney.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #116

Outback Magazine: December/January 2018