Culture forsooth! Albert, get my gun
John Litweiler

                                                                                                                                           © Sid Nolan

These are poems by my late brother Ern, wrote Ms. Malley to the editor of the literary mag Angry Penguins. Are they any good? If they are, you have my permission to publish them.

The editor was overjoyed when he read Ern Malley’s poems. They were colorful, vital, surreal, with vivid images:

Come, we will dance sedate quadrilles,
A pallid polka or a yelping shimmy
Over these sunken sodden breeding-grounds!
We will be wraiths and wreaths of tissue-paper
To clog the Town Council in their plans.
Culture forsooth! Albert, get my gun.

It was 1943 and those who dug modern poetry in Australia felt downright lonely back then. And now here was an unknown but terrific poet, an Australian no less, who embodied the virtues the Adelaide-based Angry Penguins circle advocated. They were young, they’d attended the University of Adelaide, they were avant-garde, sexually liberated, politically inclined to socialism or communism, and they loved to bug the bourgeoisie. Max Harris was that editor, and he published all of the poems, the work of Ern’s lifetime titled “The Darkening Ecliptic,” in one issue of Angry Penguins along with a painting by Sid Nolan (who later became Sir Sidney Nolan) that illustrated one of the poems. Along, presumably, with a few tears for Ern, who had lived passionately and died at age 25.

Long story short: the Ern Malley issue of Angry Penguins was accused of obscenity, the trial of dirty young man Max Harris became a national scandal in Oz, and worse, lines of Ern’s poem “Sybilline” were proven true:

And now out of life, permanent revenant
I assert: the caterpillar feet
Of these predictions lead nowhere,
It is necessary to understand
That a poet may not exist, that his writings
Are the incomplete circle and straight drop
Of a question mark
And yet I know I shall be raised up
On the vertical banners of praise.

The alleged life’s work of tempestuous poet Ern Malley was in fact written in a day by two academics who seized lines from all kinds of stuff from Shakespeare to an article on malaria and jammed them into the worst possible poems they could imagine. The objective of the Ern Malley hoax was to show the world that modern poetry was a fraud and its advocates were suckers. They succeeded. Harris was found guilty, Angry Penguins perished, and modern poetry ceased to be written in Oz for decades to come.

The Adelaide-based painter, art teacher, and jazz artist Dave Dallwitz was one of the Angry Penguins. Southern Australia is a planet away from the mainstream of jazz in America. The traditional jazz revival began down there about the same time it began up here, with differences. For one thing, American trad jazz musicians stuck to the classic Chicago-period King Oliver-Jelly Roll Morton-Armstrong Hot Five and Seven-et al style and repertoire, whereas some Australians, most notably Dallwitz, composed new music in the 1920s idiom. In the 1940s and 1950s, when he led the Southern Jazz Group, he played trombone, then after 1950 piano, and in the 1970s pianist Dallwitz began recording his suites based on Australian themes.

In 1975 he recorded his major composition, the Ern Malley Jazz Suite, with his veteran ensemble. The Dave Dallwitz Jazz Band had a very early jazz sound: two trumpets, trombone, two reeds, and a pre-microphone rhythm section of piano, tuba, banjo, and a drummer playing woodblocks and cowbells. Especially with the tuba invariably playing on one and three, the songs all sounded like they were in 2/2 meter. Graeme Eames played trumpet and flugelhorn in a clean-sounding post-Bix near-swing era style. The 4 other horns were more expressive players, more like early musicians who came up from New Orleans.

Of the four instrumentals, three are musical portraits. The opener is the fast “Portrait of Ern Malley,” in the New Orleans style. Dallwitz liked to compose pieces with built-in tension and release, like this one’s trumpet fanfare that introduces the hot-jazz ensemble. If Dallwitz’s portrait is accurate, Ern must have been a jolly fellow. Two other portraits sound more modern. “Sid Nolan” is a very slow ballad led by the flugelhorn. Nolan painted the wonderful vision of Ern Malley on the LP cover. Was Nolan really as unhappy as this minor-key song suggests, with its defeated melody and chord changes that descend a whole-step every two bars, to growing sadness?

“Max Harris” is the biggest departure. Darius Milhaud almost could have composed it, with its up tempo, strange minor-key chord changes, abrupt mood changes, quick-changing instrument combinations – quite a bright, nervous piece. The fourth instrumental is “Obscene Unforgiveable Rag,” which is as contrary as its title: Half-strains don’t follow logically, so the interjection of a hot chorus is a perfect secondary theme. It’s all an illustration of Ern’s lines

And I must go with stone feet
Down the staircase of flesh
To where in a shuddering embrace
My toppling opposites commit
The obscene, the unforgivable rape.

The rest of the suite is settings of passages from Ern’s poems to trad-jazz accompaniment. That setting compounds the surrealism of those poems and singer Penny Eames completes the surrealism as a unique foreground figure. She can’t help but sing with a small Billie Holiday voice, as opposed to the red-hot mamas that typically sing with trad bands. The medium-tempo “Boult Upright” introduces her and piano accompaniment in 2/2 over the rest of the band’s bright 2/4 ricky-tick. Two faster pieces are “Stagnant Fragment,” singer and bawdy trombone replies over busy piano riffing, and “Patterns for Slatterns.” An especially clever aspect of the songs is the way Dallwitz’s melodies break up or repeat Ern’s lines, adding new emphasis, even new meanings (if that’s the correct word), to the poems.

Two slow songs bring out the best of Penny Eames’s singing. “Chiaroscuro” opens with the rich sound of Tas Brown’s clarinet beautifully stating the lovely melody over lacy piano. She begins the second chorus far, far behind the beat. Her small inflections and liberties with the theme now add warmth and intimacy to her style. These qualities are evident again in “I Shall Be Raised Up,” with a rubato verse and a 12-bar blues chorus. A minute later, when she begins scatting, the full band joins, first to accompany, then gradually over three choruses to increasingly provide counterpoint; by the end it’s a full trad band. It’s a grand finale, Ern Malley riding out high as those banners of praise.

There are solos in most songs, enough to show that these musicians aren’t studio players but artists with real personalities. As mentioned, trumpeter-flugelhornist Graeme Eames was a comparative modernist while trumpeter Bill Munro and trombonist Deryck Bentley project a rough, post-King Oliver fire and expressiveness, including mutes; the rich sound of Tas Brown’s clarinet is heard most often; the wobbly, pretty melodies of Rod Porter’s alto sax are pure pre-Captain John Handy. Most original is Dallwitz’s own piano, which sounds almost like the Storytone electric piano Earl Hines played in 1940. Dallwitz plays it with an unvirtuosic melodism that is energetic at up tempos, delicate elsewhere, and really enhances his scores.

The Dave Dallwitz band were not only devoted to their archaism, they grew strength and integrity from it. The surrealism of Ern Malley Jazz Suite is a one-time phenomenon while the originality, the melodies, the variety of emotion and style, and the attention to detail in this and other works makes me agree with Larry Kart that Dallwitz was the most original trad-style composer since the originals like Morton and Johnson showed the trad revival how to. But then who has there been to compare to Dallwitz in the last 80 years?

There’s a good Wikipedia article about Ern Malley; all Ern’s poems were published in Issue 17 of Jacket (readable online); best of all, the Ern Malley Jazz Suite is now on CD from the South Australian Jazz Archive and on downloads from several sources. Earl Hines and Bob Barnard have recorded especially notable albums of Dallwitz’s compositions. Ern’s poetry is so full of energy and striking imagery that I doubt the official story that two obscure hacks really wrote them. In fact, I believe Nolan’s painting of Ern is a portrait from life. It’s far more likely that the villains somehow stole the poems from him and that he changed his name, left Oz, became a fringe revolutionist or clerk in an anarchist bookstore somewhere, an author of radical left-wing and free-love manifestoes and of rock and rap songs, and now, at over 100 years old, he continues to write poetry and show it to nobody.


Critic-archivist Terry Martin, now based in Chicago, was at the 1975 Adelaide sessions that produced the Ern Malley Jazz Suite and I’m grateful to him for much of the information in this article.

> back to contents