Jack Varney – 1918 to 2008
Jack Varney Born on 15th January 1918 in Port Melbourne, Victoria. Jack was one of Australia’s most versatile and respected Musicians, who played the banjo, guitar, piano and the vibraphone. His music career was interrupted during the War years when he saw Service as a Pilot with the RAAF.
Jack Varney was a member of the internationally acclaimed Graeme Bell Australian Jazz Band which toured Europe, and appeared on the BBC and a several European Radio Networks. He played both Banjo & Electric Guitar with the Band as well as doubling on Piano for Graeme Bell.
During his 2-yrs in Europe Jack shared Billings with such Jazz Legends as Erroll Garner, Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Humphrey Lyttleton & The Dutch Swing College Band. At the time Jack was named as one of the top 4 banjo players in the world. On his return to Australia he played in Orchestras & Bands that accompanied such Star Artists that included Frank Sinatra & Drummer Gene Krupa.
Outside the Recording Studio Jack played in Television Studio Orchestras, and also in various groups at Melbourne’s top Night Spots
Jack’s extensive music career included 17-yrs as A & R Manager with Australia’s W & G Records, during which time he produced scores of recordings for some of the biggest names in the early days of the Australian Recording Industry. Included were 2 very successful groups that he formed – “The City Slickers” & “Happy Jack and the Bar Room Boys”– winners of 4 Gold Albums. He was also involved in writing Commercial Jingles. Jack Varney was a life member of the Musicians’ Union of Australia, and also a former President & Trustee of the Melbourne branch. Jack Carter Pianist died and his Widow Glenys Carter married Jazz Musician & Record Producer Jack Varney, one of the original members of the Graeme Bell Jazz Band which was the 1st Australian jazz Band to achieve international renown. Glenys an accomplished Pianist & Music Teacher, also had several Albums to her credit. The couple can be heard together on a “Cocktail Style” Album with Jack on Vibes & Glen on both piano & organ. Together they also formed a Keyboard Academy in Melbourne which was won a National award in 1981-82.
Last year the Victorian Jazz Archive released an excellent CD by the talented Jack Varney & his Quintette entitled “Australia’s Answer to the Benny Goodman Small Groups” featuring Jack on vibraphone. This recording, for the first time on Compact Disc, was originally released as “Sweet & Hot” on a 12 inch LP record in 1970 on the “W & G” label. (Jack was then Artist and Repertoire manager at W & G.)
Then, in August this year at the “Tribute to Graeme Bell” Memorial at the Clayton RSL, we caught up with Marie Varney, Jack’s former wife whom he had married in Czechoslovakia in 1947. Now in her 80s but still bright and chipper, I asked her at a more convenient time about her life with Jack and the early years of the Graeme Bell Band with which Jack had played banjo & guitar on that famous trip to Europe that had put Australian Jazz on the world map. Jack Varney was born in Port Melbourne in 1918 and learned to play guitar, banjo & vibes. (Although not his instrument of choice he also played piano.) Jack was active in his teens performing in local Dance Bands before War Service interrupted this activity. After the War he started playing with some well-known Musicians and their Bands such as Hadyn Britton, Cy Watts & Graeme Bell. He was chosen to play with the Bell Band on their famous 1947 Czechoslovakian trip and it was in Prague that he met young & pretty Marie Tǔcková who came from a little Village some 65km away. Marie, who was working & living in Prague at the time, remembers, “In the main square there was a café called Phoenix where you could have a cup of coffee and go dancing. The Graeme Bell Band was playing and Jack caught my eye and I caught his and he asked if they could play without him while he danced with me”. Fortunately, Marie could speak English (along with Czech, German & Spanish) which certainly assisted the romance which was to blossom very quickly into a marriage proposal. They were married in a Prague Registry Office on the 2nd December but there were many Technical & Language problems to be overcome at the Ceremony and the Magistrate actually had to be bribed. Immediately after the Ceremony the happy couple joined the rest of the Band who were waiting with their Instruments in the cold winter’s morning to give them a send-off in a nearby Café. The Band had almost finished their engagements so Jack & Marie left Czechoslovakia for London with the rest of the Group on the 12th December.
While the Band went Touring, Marie, now with a British Passport, got a full-time job earning £5 with a Czech Exporting Company. She said that she seldom saw the Band in action because of her job. Marie remembered, “In London, where we were always broke, Jack once said as Ade Monsbourgh (Valve Trombone), who had more money than we did, walked up, ‘Here comes £5!’, laughing of course. On another occasion, Ade was visiting some of his relations and they said, ‘Let’s go and see the Cathedral’, and Ade said, ‘Can’t you just show me a picture of it’.” Still, on the subject of Ade, Marie continued, “Coming back to Australia he brought an English Lady with him whom he had met onboard; Elizabeth was her name. They married in Melbourne and Jack and I picked them up and drove them to Traralgon in Victoria, Australia for their Honeymoon. They later had one daughter, Faye. Unfortunately, that marriage didn’t end very happily, but then he went to live with his former girlfriend, Joan, in Nathalia, Victoria and that’s where Ade eventually died.”
I asked Marie about the other members of the Band. “I don’t know much about Pixie Roberts (Clarinet)”, she said. “When e came back to Australia he lived close to us, in Oakleigh I think, but we didn’t see much of him”. Graeme [Bell] was great. He was married to Elizabeth, and Christina was born in England. I kept in touch with Elizabeth even after Graeme married Dorothy. Roger [Bell]! I didn’t know his 1st wife. He had, I think, three
children by her. I went to his Funeral, by which time Roger was married to Lorraine whom I had known since 1948”.
Soon after the Band had arrived in London from Czechoslovakia, Marie found that she was pregnant and Jack sent her off to Australia on the 13th August to be with his Family. “The Ship trip cost £75” Marie said, “which, because none of the Group had much money, had to be paid off £1 by £1 over a year.” I asked Marie what were her 1st impressions of Australia. “In Prague I had seen the Australian Film The Overlanders and all I could see was mud, mud everywhere, so I was surprised with what it was really like. Jack’s grandma and his sister looked after me and I stayed with them in Belgrave Heights. Jack came back later and [he & I] went to live in Gippsland, Victoria where Jack found work with the Victorian Banjo Club. We ran Classes in Maffra, Bairnsdale, Sale, Traralgon & Morwell. By this time I had a little baby, George.” Marie recalled that Jack was now only playing very occasional engagements with the Bell Band. She mentioned that Dennis Farrington, who was a good friend, was also able to arrange a few gigs for Jack, and later for Jack’s sons, George & John. Marie went on to say that Jack’s mother was very Musical and, when he was young, used to take him to all the Musical Concerts in Port Melbourne & surrounds. Although Jack had a daughter, Jacqueline (who became a Dancer), from a marriage prior to his marriage to Marie, he went on to have 4 children with Marie, all of whom were Musical. George (who studied Classical Guitar in Spain and became a Guitar Teacher), Lorraine (who became a Cello Teacher but died recently in Boston), John (who studied Classical Music, played with various Symphony Orchestras, and became a Doctor of Music and taught at a Columbian University), and Paul (who, after becoming a Music Teacher at Brighton High School, went to London to Teach for 18-yrs). Marie has 9 grandchildren. Jack, with the Family, later returned to Melbourne to live and continued playing on many engagements, on Television and at top Melbourne Jazz Venues. He even got to accompany musical greats like Frank Sinatra & Gene Krupa. He was Artist & Repertoire Manager for W & G records for 17-yrs during which time he produced many important Australian Recordings. Jack was once named one of the world’s top 4 banjo players. Although Marie’s marriage to Jack broke up in 1984, after which he married Glenys Carter, a Pianist & Music Teacher, she remained on friendly terms with Jack until his death in May 2008. “Jack was always just a boy,” Marie remembered fondly. – Ken Simpson-Bull
After a long battle with Parkinson’s disease Jack Varney passed away in his 91st year on 19th May 2008.
Dixieland Jazz Band 1947 & 1948 – Bilarm BAC 24
(a) Roger Bell – Cornet; Ade Monsborough – Valve Trombone / Clarinet; Geoff Kitchen – Clarinet; Graeme Bell – Piano; Lou Silberseisn – Bass; Russ Murphy – Drums.
Recorded 11th April 1947. (b) as (a) Don ‘Pixie’ Roberts – Clarinet replaces Kitchen, add Jack Varney – Banjo / Guitar,