Jazz became a popular form of entertainment in Melbourne in the early 1920s, as the music became fashionable across the Western world. Melbourne has since remained an important (often the major) centre of jazz activity in Australia.
From the 1920s through to the 1940s 'jazz' bands (usually dance bands, with variable jazz content) were popular at cabarets and dance halls like the Palais Theatre and the Green Mill. There were some noted 'hot' jazz stylists, such as the multi-instrumentalist Benny Featherstone, and the trombonist-bandleader Frank Coughlan, who played at more length in informal, small-group sessions at venues like the Fawkner Park Kiosk.
In the 1940s a younger generation of jazz enthusiasts, inspired by records imported from the United States, formed jazz bands to play in the pre-Swing Era 'dixieland' style. Prominent among them were brothers Roger Bell (trumpet) and Graeme Bell (piano), and multi-instrumentalist Ade Monsbourgh. Their group, later known as Graeme Bell's Australian Jazz Band, developed a distinctive sound, and helped to popularise traditional jazz in Australia and Europe (where they toured twice between 1947 and 1952). They were also involved in the birth of the Australian Jazz Convention, which was first held in Melbourne in 1946 (and in other cities since 1950) and is recognised as the world's oldest annual jazz festival.
Traditional jazz was very popular in Melbourne throughout most of the 1950s and into the 1960s (until The Beatles established rock as the popular music of the day). Bands like Graeme Bell's, Tony Newstead's, Len Barnard's, Frank Johnson's - and later, Frank Traynor's, the Yarra Yarras and the Red Onions - drew large crowds to concerts and suburban dance halls. Most of these bands played in the dixieland style, although some championed the pure New Orleans style and repertoire.
Traditional jazz continues to command a loyal following, usually at a variety of suburban hotel venues. The Victorian Jazz Club (formed in 1968) provides important support. The VJC was initially based at the Prospect Hill Hotel, then at other venues such as the Manor House. Notable bands include the Society Syncopators, the Creole Bells, the New Orleans Rascals, The Louisiana Shakers, Fireworks Jazz Band, Virus and 'punk trad' band The Hoodangers. Some of these include a new generation of 'young traditionalists'.
'Modern jazz' (initially a style developed by American innovators like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, more suitable for listening than dancing) was adopted from the late 1940s by a handful of Melbourne musicians - many of them professionals, including pianist Don Banks, saxophonists Bob Limb and 'Splinter' Reeves, vibist Jack Brokensha and guitarist Bruce Clarke. Most modern bands in the 1950s leaned towards the 'cool school' style, but saxophonist Brian Brown led a band at Jazz Centre 44 that adopted the more aggressive 'hard bop' style of Art Blakey and Miles Davis. Other important venues included the Downbeat Club and The Embers, which featured such artists as The Three Out and Frank Smith, as well as American visitors like the Oscar Peterson Trio.
Through the 1960s and 1970s modern jazz was largely underground, rarely recorded, and usually heard only at small venues like coffee lounges. Some important experiments (inspired by, or at least parallel to, the avant-garde American jazz of the time) were conducted by the Brian Brown Quartet and a group led by trumpeter Barry McKimm, at the Fat Black Pussycat nightclub in Toorak (1963-66). Other notable groups in this period were led by drummer Ted Vining and vibist Alan Lee. Brown led later bands, playing distinctively original music, in the mid-1970s at venues like The Outpost Inn and The Commune.
In the 1980s and 1990s modern jazz (an increasingly nebulous term, covering everything from bebop to free improvisation) was heard, often alongside more mainstream jazz, at a succession of venues including the Victoria Hotel, the Limerick Arms Hotel, Jazz After Dark, Hot House, Doctor Jazz, Life Cafe and Bennetts Lane (the latter has presented modern jazz six or seven nights weekly since 1992).
The Melbourne Jazz Co-operative (formed in 1983) and the Improvisation course at the Victorian College of the Arts (established as a Jazz Studies course in 1978) have encouraged a proliferation of bands, most of which play original music. Notable figures have included pianists Paul Grabowsky (whose projects include the 18-piece Australian Art Orchestra), Andrea Keller, Bob Sedergreen, Jamie Fielding, Barney McAll, Mark Fitzgibbon, Tony Gould, Jex Saarelaht and Joe Chindamo; saxophonists Ian Chaplin, Julien Wilson, Jamie Oehlers, Brian Brown and Graeme Lyall; trumpeters Scott Tinkler and Stephen Grant; singers Judy Jacques, Shelley Scown, Nichaud Fitzgibbon, Michelle Nicolle, Vince Jones and Christine Sullivan; guitarists Doug De Vries and Ren Walters; bassist David Tolley; and drummers Ted Vining, Niko Schauble and Allan Browne.
There have been several attempts to establish an annual jazz festival in Melbourne; the most successful to date was that based at Montsalvat between 1988 and 1996.