Freeman Street's very own big band
Retired psychiatrist Barrie Kenny has hosted big band rehearsals at his Freeman Street home for over a decade
Words by Charlie Gill
Illustrations by Marnie Florence-McNeil
A warning to residents who often travel through Freeman Street: if, while strolling along on a Thursday night your ears are suddenly arrested by the joyous, old-fashioned jazz music of a bygone era, don’t panic. You haven’t been transported back in time à la Midnight in Paris; your Doc Martens haven’t been replaced by spats and your down jacket for a polka-dot dress.
You’re in 2021, your mask is still on and you just happen to be passing the residence of Barrie Kenny, patron of the Rathdowne Street Big Band. The band, which began
in the mid 1980s, has been rehearsing at his Freeman Street residence for the past 12 years. They used to rehearse at his house on Rathdowne Street, hence the name.
Barrie, a retired psychiatrist, decided to learn the baritone saxophone in his early 40s and started the band as a way to use his new skills.
“I didn’t know any music at all before that, I’m not one of the good players. But because I provide the venue, no matter how badly I play, they can’t get rid of me. It’s a good system.”
As modest as Barrie may be, he and his fellow band members are clearly talented - they've performed at weddings, public events and jazz festivals from Castlemaine to Halls Gap.
Their maiden performance “back in ’86 or in ’87”, was at this newspaper’s namesake. Saxophones, trombones, trumpets and drums were lugged up the Rotunda’s steps and the band, in those days known as the Rathdowne Street Remnants, played for fans gathered on the grass below.
“Mainly our friends and people like that, not a big crowd. We certainly weren’t all that good in those days.”
As a concert venue it has pros and cons. While it’s certainly a beautiful image – the merry melodies of Glenn Miller and Duke Ellington emanating from the Rotunda and a cheerful current flowing through the Edinburgh Gardens air – the venue has its limitations. “We’ve only played once in the Rotunda. Because it’s not very good for playing in, it’s too high. You’re cut off from the audience.”
A big band must make big sounds and to make those big sounds the big band must be big. (Try saying that five times quickly). Many moving parts are required.
“Usually, we aim at having say, five saxophones – that’s two altos, two tenors and a baritone. Three trombones and three or four trumpets. Drums, keyboard, string bass and a band leader. And sometimes a singer.”
The band’s numbers fluctuate between about 10 and 19. “We generally rehearse with about 14, I would think.”
“Sometimes we’re down to eight members. But people come and go … the quality of our performance varies considerably. Sometimes I reckon we’re pretty good and sometimes we’re not.”
So, other than Barrie the psychiatrist-saxophonist, what are some of the other band members’ former jobs?
“One was a general practitioner. One was an instrument technician, had his own business. One had his own cargo exporting business. We’ve had a couple of solicitors, couple of other doctors, a dentist at one stage.”
However, the band is not comprised entirely of retirees. “Of course, our average age is getting pretty high, probably close to 70. But we have a group of younger people too, from time to time.”
The rehearsal space at Barrie’s is a converted garage that’s been partly sound-proofed so they can practice until 10pm. The other group of which Barrie is a part, the Merri Creek Jazz Band founded about 25 years ago, also rehearses there.
After rehearsals puts on supper for all band members, some of whom have travelled from as far as Flinders – “and that helps tie it all together, I think”.
After a particularly dull day at school or work, locals can hold out hope of turning into Freeman Street to spy a bustling crowd gathered outside a random home. Edge closer. What are they doing? They’re jitterbugging. They’re jiving. They’re moving in time with the exuberant sounds of the Rathdowne Street Big Band.