The Wizard of Oz

‘The Remarkable Mr. Morrison’ is the title of a new book about James Morrison - multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire, aviator, one-time presenter of Top Gear Australia, composer and educationalist. BBW’s Editor, David Childs, charts the fascinating life-story of this virtuosic and versatile musician. 

I was nine years old when my Dad returned home from a ‘Childs Brothers’ tour of Australia and told me all about the ‘Wizard of Oz’. His story was a little different from the conventional tale, and at the time seemed more unrealistic too! There was no mention of a singing lion, or a talking scarecrow – instead the story centered on an Australian jazz wizard he’d met, magical in his abilities to play any instrument better than anyone else. This was my introduction to the inspirational James Morrison.

Having since had the pleasure of spending time with James on many occasions, I recently caught up with him via Skype and charted his journey as a boy from the Australian out-back, to stardom as his country’s most prolific musician.

Born in Boorowa in 1962, Morrison’s family moved to Sydney when he was seven years old. “That’s when I first saw a brass instrument. My Dad was a Preacher, and up until then all I’d seen was my Mum playing the organ or piano in church, but when I got to Sydney, there was a brass band at school, and I was fascinated by it. I couldn’t understand how the trombones worked; I thought they were swallowing that long tube! Eventually I was old enough to join the band and wanted to play the trombone, but I was too small to reach the positions, so I started on cornet. Later I started playing trombone in the church band, and played the mellophone too; I loved the sound it made! In fact, each time I heard an instrument I loved the sound of, I thought I’ve got to play that too! The first time for me to hear euphonium was on a recording of Rich Matteson with Harvey Phillips and their Tuba Jazz Consort and I knew I had to play one of those! Then I took up the saxophone and the bass when I was ten or eleven, and had been playing the piano the whole time.”

At that time the internet didn’t exist and iTunes, Spotify or YouTube hadn’t even been thought of. Instead James used to listen to as many different records as he could to spark his enthusiasm. “Older guys, friends of the family, would come over and say, ‘you like music, listen to this’ and I was lucky that my Dad’s church had a gospel band. Fortunately the brass band at school had a number of instruments in this big store room; more instruments than players, so I was able to take instruments home to try them. The idea of being a multi-instrumentalist never occurred to me, I just liked playing different instruments and thought it was normal. No one told me it wasn’t!”

By the time James was 13 he was making “quite good money” playing in nightclubs, which is when he started to buy his own instruments. I was curious to know whether there was ever anyone telling him he should be focusing on one instrument, rather than having fun playing them all?

“I didn’t have a teacher to keep me on the straight and narrow; at school I was just playing in the band enjoying myself. The conductor of the school brass band was a clarinetist, he had no idea about brass instruments and we never learned to read music with him; I learned to do that at church. His method was to write the fingerings in for us, play us a record of how the tune should go, and then say, ‘ok – now play what you just heard.’ It was incredibly great training for a jazz musician. I was learning to use my ears to decipher what was going on!” Although he was unaware at the time, this method of hearing, playing, then ‘learning’ would be James’s key to success and a methodology he would take with him throughout his career.

Having played in bands throughout his childhood, James couldn’t wait to leave school at the earliest opportunity, aged fifteen at the end of year ten. However, rather than pursue an apprenticeship, as was the norm for those not going on to sixth form, he decided to...

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