On Tuesday this week, the Australian Jazz Museum took custodianship of the iconic and easily recognisable blue and yellow clarinet played by the late jazz musician Nick Polites OAM (1927-2022). It was donated to the museum by Nick’s niece Angela Lillis.

As an 11-year-old growing-up in Melbourne – in 1938 – Nick first listened to recordings of Louis Armstrong and immediately fell in love with jazz. So much so, it became his life-long passion.

Ten years later Nick was making his mark as a talented clarinettist on the Melbourne jazz scene. Although academically accomplished, in music he was self-taught learning to play by ear.

In 1951 Nick joined Melbourne’s preeminent traditional jazz band – Frank Johnson’s Fabulous Dixielanders and commenced a long career as a performing musician and recording artist. A decade later he was performing in what many regard as the holy grail of traditional jazz – alongside local greats like George Lewis – at Preservation Hall in the New Orleans French Quarter.

Nick at home in Ivanhoe with his blue and yellow clarinet in 2017. Photo: Supplied

Nick Polites went on to regularly tour in the United Kingdom and Europe with various jazz bands. He also played a leadership role in developing the jazz community in Melbourne and around Australia with the Victorian Jazz Club and the long-running annual Australian Jazz Convention (AJC). Nick performed at the very first AJC in 1946, and everyone since up to 2018 (except when he was away overseas on tour). This year, the 78th AJC will be held in Mildura from December 26th to 31st – it is the longest running event of its type in the world!

Many readers will remember Nick regularly performing with The Louisiana Shakers of a Sunday afternoon at Carlton’s Clyde Hotel in the years up to his retirement at the age of 90 in 2018. We lost Nick at the age of 94 in January 2022. The Louisiana Shakers continue to perform live at The Clyde every Sunday afternoon from 1-4pm.

AJM volunteers Con Pagonis and Mel Blachford with the museum’s latest acquisition – Nick Polites’ iconic blue and yellow clarinet (11 June 2024). Photo: Supplied

The Australian Jazz Museum (AJM) has an extensive collection of Nick Polites’ audio recordings, videos, interviews, and his related music career memorabilia. I had the privilege of digitizing 30 volumes of jazz career mementos collected by Nick and donated to the AJM. On completion, we rehoused all the contents into archival quality folders for future researchers and enthusiasts. All of this type of work at the AJM takes place under the watchful eye and patient guidance of the Collections Manager – Mel Blachford OAM.

AJM is run entirely by volunteers. It is located in Wantirna in Melbourne’s outer east and open to the public on Tuesdays from 10am to 3pm. Neos Kosmos readers can find out more by visiting the AJM’s website at www.ajm.org.au.

Con Pagonis is a volunteer at the Australian Jazz Museum.