The public face of Bennetts Lane Jazz Club

By Mindy Gill

Megg Evans is the public face and creative inspiration behind Melbourne’s longest standing jazz club – Bennetts Lane.

With a petite frame and sweet, husky voice, Ms Evans is a central player in shaping its impact on the jazz scene.

“Although we’re only open about five or so hours a night, the work that we do requires a life-long devotion,” Ms Evans said.

Waking up every morning with thoughts about the day ahead – which bands are coming in for rehearsal, what times the rehearsals are scheduled, making sure the rooms are cleared.

“I think, to a certain degree, living what it is you do is a part of identifying who you are,” Ms Evans said.

Growing up listening to The Beatles, Chris de Burgh, Tchaikovsky and Mozart, she gravitated towards jazz with a streak of rebellion.

“I had a mother who said saxophones are only for big, black American men. So being white, female, young and Australian didn’t really cut it for her.”

Set to prove her mother wrong, Ms Evans was strikingly independent from an early age and resolutely learnt how to play the saxophone through school.

Following that, she started performing at gigs at 14, moved out of home at 15 and, at 17, left Perth for Melbourne in search of new horizons.

By the end of the year, she was the 18-year-old manager of Bennetts Lane Jazz Club.

Reflecting on her relationship with the venue, Ms Evans said she was as deeply connected to the iconic Bennetts Lane Jazz Club as it was to her.

“Perhaps it was from an original misplacement of security that I built my security into Bennetts Lane,” she said.

And after 20 odd years in the job, Ms Evans said the club had became her identity.

“In my early years I used to be called the ‘blow-up barmaid’ because I only existed in Bennetts,” she said. “Outside of Bennett’s, I didn’t know who I was.”

To the shock of Ms Evans, staff and the local jazz community, the venue closed its doors, apparently for the last time, in June 2015, following the sale of the real estate by owner and founder Michael Tortoni.

“I think that’s why it was so shocking when it closed, this idea that my security could just be sold like that,” Ms Evans said. “That Bennetts was just bricks and mortar.”

Purchased by the Marriner group, which operates the Forum, Regent and Princess theatres, it continues to operate and is Melbourne’s longest running jazz club with the distinct reputation of a space where the music comes first and the venue second.

With humble beginnings in the early 90s, patrons were often uncertain where they were heading before the lane had any lighting.

“People used to walk up a dead-end alley, with no street lights, with a curious fascination for what might be there, but with a very real fear that something might happen to them on the way there. And the shock was that they would come into this beautiful oasis with these beautiful enchanting musicians talking about music and how it can save their soul.”

Ms Evans said Bennetts Lane changed the music industry for jazz musicians.

“No longer was a band put in a venue to draw people – i.e. here’s a light, let’s get all the insects in – it became actually the reverse. We put on a band to play what it was that they wanted to play – to develop an art form – and, in so doing, helped find their audience.”

Developing this concept over the first five years, Ms Evans said she had to educate patrons who thought they had just come to a space to drink, smoke and casually listen to some music.

With endorsement by the City of Melbourne for its cultural contribution to the arts scene, it meaningfully engages audiences, hosting jazz every single night of the week and enforcing the rule that all patrons remain quiet while music is playing.

After completing a masters degree in interior design in 2006, Ms Evans became critical of the privatisation of public space.

“To deposit ourselves in our urban environment is the best way people can feel connected to it,” she said. “And on that point, the club offers a public space for patrons to share in a semi-private experience.”

And shifting between living in one room or another within the club itself, Ms Evans said she felt safer and more integrated within Melbourne CBD than in a house in the suburbs.

“In the suburbs you get more of a castle concept: this is my land, this is my space. We don’t come off the sidewalk to walk into somebody else’s front yard. We do in the CBD. There’s a lot more public space.”

Bennett’s Lane embodies a shift from entertainment into art and Ms Evans continues to nurture the club as a space that respects and cares for the musicians as well as the audience.

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