Kitchen, Saronno, Italy,  January 1990

I first heard Vince Jones sing in 1990, when his mellow voice came out of a crackly tape recorder in my kitchen in northern Italy. This was in a town called Saronno, a short train ride from Milan, where my Australian partner and I had just started living together.

Lynne and I occupied half of an apartment that was split down the middle. Our bit comprised a hall, bathroom, bedroom, tiny kitchen and a balcony that looked across the flat plain of Lombardy, its featureless expanse interrupted by furniture megastores.  Way off in the distance, a range of mountains provided a backdrop, only visible when the smog lifted. The air often smelled of chemicals, and I had a cold most of the time.

We had a bed, wardrobe, bits of wood and bricks for a bookshelf. A simple stove fuelled by a gas bottle (‘bombola’) and a fridge, hardly necessary in the freezing climate. The tape recorder perched on top of the fridge while I cooked spaghetti.

I introduced Lynne to the English indie bands that obsessed me at the time: The Smiths,  Echo and the Bunnymen, Prefab Sprout. In return she played me Australian bands:  Midnight Oil, The Church, Icehouse.  I wasn’t crazy about them but a new relationship is a good time to open your ears to new sounds.

I was working as an English teacher at a chewing gum factory, and Lynne had a job at a language school in Milan. We both had one-year contracts, and at the end of the year we’d have to decide where to go next. Another stop on the merry-go-round of international English teaching, or somewhere more long term?  If so, where? I was English. She was Australian. We were in between.

Lynne was keen to return to Melbourne. I’d never considered Australia, but she did a good job talking up the city. She mentioned arts festivals, comedy clubs, coffee houses, sunshine (if you don’t think Melbourne gets much sun, try Milan in winter) and music.  And she told me of a young musician called Vince Jones, whose gigs at the Tankerville Arms had built up a devoted audience.

Vince was unique on the Melbourne music scene. He was a cool young dude in a suit, with a swinging trumpet and a mellow voice. If people talked during his performance, he stopped playing and told them to be quiet. I liked the sound of that. Vince’s album, For All Colours, was on constant play on our fridge-top tape-deck, and I liked the sound of that, too.

Later I became a fan of Vince’s own compositions, but it was his standards that first hooked me. One of the best was All Or Nothing At All. It was made famous by Sinatra, but I didn’t know that then. As far as I was concerned, it was a Vince Jones song.

All or nothing at all
Half a love never appealed to me
If your heart never could yield to me
Then I’d rather have nothing at all
I said all, or nothing at all
If it’s love, there is no in between …

By the end of the year, Lynne and I had decided to go to Melbourne together.  If it’s love, there is no in between. It would be overstating it to say that we came to Melbourne because of Vince Jones. But it didn’t hurt that you can find performers of his calibre there.

We’ve seen Vince several times since then, most recently at a lounge bar in South Yarra in 2013.  He’s continued recording and performing, putting out another half-dozen albums of his own beautiful and complex compositions, often exploring non-traditional jazz topics like parenthood, power, and the environment.  Vince has always been his own man.

Maintaining a long-term career is hard enough for any artist, but especially in a niche genre like jazz in Australia.  He might have found it easier in New York or London. But he’s still here, performing in small clubs and selling his own CDs afterwards, like any hard-working muso.  We went up to him after the gig and bought a few CDs. Lynne said she remembered him playing the Tankerville Arms and telling the crowd to be quiet. “I was arrogant in those days,” Vince said, slightly abashed – but we said no, you were right. Beautiful music like yours deserves attention.

We’ll go to see him again, and we’ll keep listening to his music. For me, though, the definitive memory of Vince is of his voice coming out of a tinny tape recorder in Italy.  Playing that song evokes the smell of pasta sugo, the ice and smog of that winter in Lombardy.  Being in one city, and dreaming of another that you’ve never seen.  A new relationship and big decisions.  All, or nothing at all.

©  Nick Gadd.

Nick is a multi-award-winning novelist, essayist and blogger. He is the author of the crime novels Ghostlines (2008) and Death of a Typographer (2019), and the memoir Melbourne Circle (2020). His work has appeared in various publications including Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, Griffith Review and The Guardian.