By Gretel Sneath
Mount Gambier may be famous for its iconic Blue Lake, but the popular tourist drawcard is being upstaged by a jazz wave.
It began with a ripple about 30 years ago, when a handful of musical locals invited jazz virtuoso James Morrison to the Limestone Coast for a jam session.
He embraced their vision for a Generations in Jazz festival designed to foster young talent, and the annual event hasn’t missed a beat.
“There’s been enormous growth; every year we break records, but we really surged ahead this year with 261 bands and vocal ensembles representing 107 schools who travelled from as far away as Perth, Rockhampton and even Auckland,” James Morrison says.
“There are plenty of big festivals, but not with 4500 people actually playing in the festival – that’s a big festival.”
The 90 x 40-metre tent housing this year’s 6000-strong crowd was the largest big top South Australia has ever seen.
Dubbed the ‘Disneyland of Jazz’ by one of the school participants, it was also the largest seated pavilion ever to be constructed in Australia.
US jazz sensation, Wycliffe Gordon, and Australian singer, Kate Ceberano, were among the guest artists overwhelmed by the incredible vibe inside.
“I don’t think I’ve ever done anything quite like this before because although I’ve been in stadiums with 18,000-plus people, when you have 4-5,000 kids who are completely going crazy for jazz, you have to pinch yourself,” Kate says.
“I wonder if Mount Gambier could become an Oxford – a real music destination which creates some of the most important music in the world. We’ve never had a stronger, more vibrant music community and with James Morrison at the helm, he’s going to take it into hyperdrive.”
Oxford was firmly established as an academic centre by the 13th century and the idea of Mount Gambier becoming a modern-day musical counterpart is already in motion.
Students from around the nation now study at the James Morrison Academy of Music @UniSA, which opened last year in the Old Town Hall.
The Academy is injecting culture and colour into the city centre, and has also created a mini housing boom. James Morrison and his wife, Judi, are among the new-look locals singing the praises of country living.
“We absolutely love it here; we can walk to work, the airport is two minutes away, the shops are all so close together, but most importantly, the people are just fantastic,” Judi says. “The welcome and ongoing support that this community has given us all has been simply incredible.”