Above: Contemporary Jim with the cornet given to him when he left the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders.
Above: Jim and the ASO trumpet section with Sergei Nakariakov.
Above: Jim during his ASO days thanking his lucky stars with a trumpet in each hand!!
Above: Jim during his days as conductor of Tanunda, seen here backstage at Melodienacht, kilted up and raring to go flanked by Eric and Janet Molenaar.
Above: Jim with the Elizabeth Band during it's heyday circa. 1989.
Above: Jim, Geoff Meikle, Geoff Snelling, Adrienne Meikle, Dave Griffiths,
Above: Jim, second from right with his Australian Youth Orchestra colleagues in the early 70's. Music and fashion was their passion!!
Above: On the bus to Queensland with Elizabeth Band 1989
Above: The Adelaide Brass Quintet quenching their collective thirst!
Above: Young Jim Dempsey holding his trophies in 1961. On his right is his sister Helen, also a fine player and on his left is Marian Campbell another bandmate from the Kirkintilloch Band days.
In 1974 Jim Dempsey auditioned for the job of 3rd trumpet in the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. The 24 year old trumpet gun blew his way into a substantial career as a professional musician in Adelaide. His music-making started Scotland, then moved to the other side of the world in Queensland where he continued his winning ways as a young brass bandsman and soloist. After serving his time in the Queensland and Australian Youth Orchestras and National Service in the Australian Army Band he flourished as a freelance. During this period Jim accompanied Andy Williams, Bob Hope, Burt Bacharach and a host of others before moving to Melbourne and leading the trumpet section of the Elizabethan Theatre Trust Orchestra. After the Adelaide audition he conscientiously practised his profession for 39 years in the City of Churches.
All this from a young lad from Kilsyth, who started in the same way as the rest of us when his Dad took him to band practice!
His South Australian brass band credits include conducting the Elizabeth “B” Band to a comprehensive win in the Australian D grade contest in 1985. He followed this with a five year stint at the helm of the Elizabeth “A” Band, which included a second place in the Nationals held in Ipswich, Queensland in 1989. Jim’s original move into brass band conducting started when he was encouraged by Galvin John, who was conducting Kensington and Norwood at the time and was in need of a suitable stand in for when he was unavailable. In an odd twist of fate he became, in the early 2000’s, MD of the Tanunda Town Band where he conducted five Melodienachts, an institution originally conceived and developed by Gal John. A life membership was bestowed on him during his tenure at Tanunda.
I met Jimbo in February 1980. A mere 40 years later we are good friends, I moved from being a sometimes-hard-to-take student to close personal friend, brass band colleague and now biographer.
Jim Dempsey is kind and charismatic, rich-toned and resolute in both his trumpet and speaking voice. He is everyone’s mate and a legendary story teller. When he tells his story you feel compelled to listen, his wit and charm win you over even when you sense a hint of the apocryphal in there.
On a personal level I am very, very grateful to Jimbo for “setting me straight” musically and even personally at times. To this day a compliment from him makes my day.
Jim and I recorded our conversation underneath our verandah at home. I now make available the transcript, 3611 words in total, to you the reader.
Geoff Meikle, 2020
Jim Dempsey Brass Band Profile
Interview Transcript, 3/4/2020
Geoff Meikle, “Okay, so I’m interviewing Mr James ‘Jimbo’ Dempsey for the South Australian Brass Band Profiles. Name, place and date of birth please James.”
Jim Dempsey, “ James Dempsey, born in Kilsyth Scotland 28th August 1950”.
GM, “Same year as Jeff Wescombe and Steve Eads”.
JD, “Ah really, I’m in good company then”.
GM, “...and what are your Mum and Dads names?”
JD, “Matt and Margaret”.
GM, “Matt and Margaret, what instruments do you play Jimbo?”
JD, “ Mainly trumpet, which I did professionally, but I started on the cornet, had piano lessons very early in my life, but mainly trumpet.
GM, “You still have a tinkle on the piano though don’t you?”
JD, “That’s right , since my retirement I’ve taken the piano up quite seriously, I practise every day now”.
GM, “ I reckon Des Blundell (former ASO colleague) did that too”.
JD, “ Yes that’s right, exactly the same thing”.
GM, “Who were you’re first influences and who gave you your first lessons?”
JD, “My brother Ray, my father picked up a trumpet as a result of going to the dump of all places. He had just won a two up game, we had just been to the dump after having a clean-up and we stopped at the Pub on the way home. There was an old guy there with a trumpet, I remember it really well, it was a Dallas and he bought it for two quid because the guy was broke. Took it home and told my brother Ray that he was learning the trumpet.
So that was how it all started”.
GM, “What bands have you played in?”
JD, “I started off in the Primary School, which was St Patricks in Kilsyth, and then because the Education Department had a fully qualified teacher etc. at the Kilsyth Academy my brother and I joined the Kilsyth Academy School Band and the teachers there……….the first one was Drake Rimmer, the second one was Gregor J Grant, so we both played in the school band and had lessons from Gregor.
GM, “So was the Kilsyth Academy a music school or just a high school?”
JD, “No, it was just the local high school. I should just add because you may find it interesting that St Patricks, of course, was the ‘Cath’ school and Kilsyth Academy was for ‘Protty Dogs’, so we had to get special permission being Caths, to go to the Protty Dog school...(laughter).
GM, “ Has there been a particular time in your life that has been important in shaping you as a musician?”
JD, “I would imagine that just joining the Academy school band was when I first got the real taste for it. But I also remember though, as children, we all had lessons, high quality music lessons at primary school. I remember I used to get the shivers up the spine singing in the school choir. I really had this thing about music, I was keen on sport but music was the thing that really turned me on.”
GM, “I’ve never heard of Gregor J Grant, but Drake Rimmer’s a famous name”.
JD, “Ah the Rimmer Family, there was Drake Rimmer, William Rimmer…..various Rimmers…..yes!”
GM, “Contesting, is it worth the effort?”
JD, “Yes, I certainly think so. It was the culture that I was brought up in……the contest. In fact at one stage in my family the four kids, this was before my youngest brother was born, we all played in brass bands and all different bands for quite good reasons. My father didn’t want us all playing in the same band and contest day was really one of the highlights of the year. So yes, contesting was important ………….and fun.”
GM, “When I talked to Greg (Frick), I voiced my opinion on contesting, and I don’t know if I’d do it all again, you know long tedious rehearsals, months of preparation and all that stuff……it raises the standard, that’s the thing you know…….I dunno!”
JD,” I just think it was part of the brass band culture, that’s how we were brought up (GM, ‘there was no escaping it really was there’), Oh no nothing like that.”(Laughter!)
GM, “What awards, prizes and achievements have made you glad that you made the effort in contesting?”
JD, “Well I won, two years in a row, a rather major contest in Scotland, that was the Scottish Coal Mining Championships, so I won that twice and then went on to (GM, ‘Is this as a soloist or in a band?’), as a soloist. As a band player the first time I contested was with the Kirkintilloch Band which I joined probably a year or so after playing in the school band. So I played with Kirkintilloch for a couple of years, it was great fun and then because they would pay for my lessons at the Royal Academy my father took me to the band of the 7th Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders.”
GM, “ That was going to be my next question, I’m sure I’ve heard you mention them before.”
JD, “ Yes, with the Argyles we won the Scottish ‘A’ grade, what is now the Championship section, so that then qualified us to go on the Albert Hall. So I played with the Argyles in London and that was probably a rather pivotal moment.”
GM, “So the lights came on?”
JD, “Well what happened is when I played with the Kirkintilloch Band the band secretary and treasurer decided they would drive to London, they asked me if I would go with them. So I was only, I can remember it, it was the first time I’d been to the Albert Hall, I would only have been eleven years old. I sat through sixteen performances of, I think it was the Force of Destiny was the test piece, and I found that quite amazing. Then later on that evening was the Gala concert, and I’ll never forget hearing the 1812 Overture for the first time, and really didn’t know much about it. When the cannons came in I nearly had an unfortunate accident.” (Laughter!)
GM, “So what about when you came to Australia, you played in bands then.”
JD, “Yes, when we arrived in Australia my sister Helen, who is a very fine player, we both joined Brisbane Excelsior and I played with Brisbane Excelsior for five or six years.”
GM, “ What are your preferred styles of music?”
JD, “I must admit I like various kinds of music, and depends on…..it’s a daily thing really. I listen to a lot of opera, I listen to a lot of symphonic music, but I really love jazz……..very much at the moment I’m into Celtic women and Celtic music, which I find…….maybe it’s a Scottish thing and something that I get a big kick out of.”
GM, “ Who are favourite musicians, bands and musical associates? So this is people that you listen to, bands that you listen to and people that you’ve played with, they don’t have to be famous people, just anybody that you’ve played with.”
JD, “Well I must say that I came up during a bit of a golden era in Scotland. We had all in the same….I played with the Scottish National Youth band, and for example we had players like (GM, ‘What year was that?’), would’ve been 1961/62. We had people like Jock Wallace, Phil McCann, Brian Rankine, Andy Duncan who all went on to have great careers in British orchestras. Except Phil McCann, he of course became principal cornet with Black Dyke, so it was one of those eras, and I really looked up to those guys. The best one of all was a bloke called Brian Rankine, who was just an amazing cornet player. I can remember listening to tape recordings of him until the tape wore out, and I found that quite inspiring.”
GM, “…..and during your professional career?”
JD, “Yes, well I was very lucky in that I did a formal degree at the Queensland Conservatorium, I really had some great teachers there, certainly my individual trumpet teacher was a man called Ron Milliner, Ron was much more of a jazz player than an orchestral player but he had amazing technique and really emphasized that you’ve got to practise page 11 of Arban, he insisted on that as much as anything else, so he was a major influence. And then I started playing as a casual with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, I always feel that, in many ways, I did an apprenticeship as well as a degree I learned a lot about orchestral behaviour and what’s expected from the players in the Queensland Symphony Orchestra.”
GM, “ What year would that have been?”
JD, “I started playing with the QSO in 1969.”
GM, “OK, I just watched recently a video of the Queensland Youth Orchestra touring and you were in there…..in 1972.”
JD, “It started off as the Queensland Secondary Schools Orchestra, I was the first principal trumpet there. It was started by a wonderful man called John Curro, who inspired so many young musicians and that became the Queensland Youth Orchestra. The last time I played with the Youth Orchestra was on a tour of Switzerland and Italy, I was the soloist, one of the soloists, I played the Haydn trumpet concerto in Switzerland and Italy.”
GM, “You played in that Cathedral in Lausanne.”
JD, “I played in the Lausanne Cathedral, that was with the Nancy Chamber Orchestra, I played principal trumpet for the Messiah, but the performances with the Youth Orchestra were at various places around Switzerland and Italy.”
GM, “ What would you do differently? Do you have any regrets?”
JD, “Yes, I think I certainly……….I can honestly say that it was only in the last ten years of my career that I really started practising. Whether it was because of nerves or whatever…..if I had the chance to do it again I would have practised, for example my colleague Glenn Madden was just so well prepared with everything he did……it was just through hard work. I don’t think I really worked hard enough when I was young. (GM, ‘As in setting up a routine’). Well I did practise enough to get by, but the likes of Glenn he never, ever stopped learning.”
GM, “I remember……it might have been Matthew (Madden) telling me that he (Glenn) would get up at 7.00 am and do a 40 minute routine.”
JD, “Oh yes, definitely.”
GM, “ What effect has banding had on your family life?”
JD, “Yes, it was so important. All of us played in……the four kids, my brother Ray, sisters Margaret and Helen and myself. We all played in different bands in Scotland, so the brass band was very much part of our family life. My father never played but he was a band fanatic and just insisted……well he didn’t insist, we all did it quite voluntarily. We all just played in the brass band.”
GM, “Beautiful! Has banding influenced your social life?”
JD, “Very much so, I’ve been retired now for 6 or 7 years. I still have friendships in the bands, people like David Griffiths and Kevin Joughin. We meet and we wax lyrical about the contests we won and the contests we were robbed in, which is more important than the ones we won!!”
GM, “……and how you went in the inspection and stuff like that!”
JD, “Oh yes the inspection was very important to me, I love marching.” (Derisive laughter!!).”
GM, “What are your other interests?”
JD, “I play golf, I fish quite regularly, I was always interested in sport in fact I played soccer to quite a high level as a kid.”
GM, “Didn’t you have to make a choice when you were about 19, soccer or ……”
JD, “Yes, yes I remember I was doing a gig, it was one of my first shall we call it ‘Jazz gigs’, it was at Cloudland and I’d played football in the afternoon and I’d got a ball in the lip. I remember the band leader saying to me ‘You’ve got to decide whether you play football or trumpet’. So it was quite an easy decision because I don’ t think I would have made it to the Australian team anyway.”
GM, “What lies ahead for you?”
JD, “Well, as you know just to put it into context, at the moment we’re going through this Corona virus thing and coincidentally I was asked to play trumpet about a month ago for a conducting workshop and I said yes I’d play, it was a Wagner piece, so I started practising. Also at this time of year I usually play the Last Post at Port Victoria, so you’ve got to do a bit of practice just to get through it. So I started practising probably about three weeks ago and I haven’t stopped, so I’m really quite enjoying playing again. It’s partly because we’ve got to do this isolation bit and it helps me get through the day, I play the piano for at least an hour every day and I started practising Clark and Arban and Collins and I’m sounding quite reasonable.”
GM, “Actually I dug out my Schlossberg yesterday because I’ve been struggling to practise myself, just get motivated, no gigs, nowhere to play. I’m practising ‘Zanette’, trying to resurrect that and maybe go into the solo contest as a gesture of support for the….”
JD, “ I have to tell you this story about Zanette, because we arrived in Australia in 1965 and I played in the Queensland Championships which are always at Easter and I played Zanette as my own choice in the cornet solo. There was a wonderful man called Norm Henstridge who took me aside and said ‘you’re the young lad who’s just arrived from Scotland, I’ve got to give you a tip. Don’t play the music of Percy Code. I was in Ballarat, Percy and I were having a drink and suddenly Percy started crying, so I asked him why he was crying. Percy replied “I’m crying for every Pommy cornet player who tries to play my music, it’s not in their blood”!!, I suggest that you play Bluebells of Scotland next year’……..I did and I came last!”
GM, “ Anything else, any thoughts and opinions?”
JD, “On what subject?”
GM, “ On banding, how it’s going and how you feel about it, where you reckon it’s going. We’re all a bit worried.”
JD, “Yes, in the context of what we’re going through with isolation. All of the bands I’ve been involved with, including the fact that next week I was supposed to be going to Kangaroo Island to conduct the Marion Band. But everything’s cancelled, so it’s going to be very interesting to see what happens when we get through this, as we will. It’ll be a bit like a carton of Corona, we will get through it!”
GM, “It could well be that Marion will be in for a big change post Veronica (Boulton).”
JD, “Well I went down to do their summer music camp at Aldinga and I really thought they were in pretty good shape, so I hope they carry on. It’s a really good organisation. (GM ‘that’s right, Darren and Elizabeth Mc Donald are very dedicated and competent’)……that’s absolutely right, you asked before about family. One of the things about brass bands is the number of families, you look at South Australia you can talk about the Johns, the Alderslades, the McDonalds….almost every band would have a family, we think of Hahndorf with the Paines you know, brass bands and the family just go together, it’s one of the things that keeps us going.”
GM, “Och-aye-tha-noo Jimbo! We’ve got a special thing here called the professional supplement. As a professional musician with a brass band background I would like you to address the following questions as part of your story. How would you characterize your approach to playing your instrument and music now, compared with your early brass band days? Now, as in when you were playing professionally.”
JD, “It’s a difficult question….I mean, the basics are absolutely the same, aren’t they. If you practise you can play quite well. I’ll give you an example, if you take someone like David Barker…..David Barker never turned up to a band rehearsal without having prepared everything, if he had a cadenza to play, he could play it before he came to the rehearsal. The professional players have to do that for every concert, you cannot learn a symphony during the rehearsals. Whereas in the brass band the majority of the players turn up and it’s their hobby, so they will learn the part at their Tuesday night or Thursday night rehearsal.”
GM, “ What about addressing the fundamentals of blowing the instrument?”
JD, “It’s exactly the same, if you listen to bands like Cory and everyone talks about Black Dyke and stuff like that, the standard of the playing is so high that 90% of those people could have been professional players if they’d chosen that as a career, they didn’t. Lots of them are doctors, dentists, motor mechanics, used car salesmen etc., they just happen to play music to a very high standard. That’s what the brass band is all about , especially the ‘A’ grade part of the situation……….. the standard just amazes me.”
GM, “That’s for sure. Is there a difference between the pressure you feel as pro compared with the pressure you feel on the brass band contest stage? Bearing in mind that I’ve already told the Geoff Payne story as part of the Greg Frick interview.”
JD, “Yes, Geoffrey (Payne) said that very thing to me. Glenn (Madden), I’m sure would say the same. I have two sides to it. If I had to play solo cornet in a brass band I would feel very much under pressure, (GM, ‘Exposed’), yes exposed. Every time I’ve had to play tenor horn with a brass band it’s a laugh! It’s not that it doesn’t mean as much to me, it’s just that I’ve never felt the pressure playing tenor horn, but yes playing a difficult test piece in the cornet section would have caused me a lot of stress!”
GM, “Which leads very neatly into my next question. Is there one particular quality that someone needs to become a pro, or do they need a cocktail of qualities to enable them to perform professionally?”
JD, “By cocktail, are you asking whether or not you should get ‘socially lubricated’ before playing!! The answer to that question is of course is that you shouldn’t, but I’d be telling lies if I didn’t say that often I’d have a ‘Highland Beta Blocker’ before playing, with the beta blocker being supplied by Johnny Walker!”
GM, “Ok, so what about the personal qualities that you need to become a professional player?”
JD, “Yes, I really think that you have to accept the fact that you’re doing it for a living, you cannot make as many mistakes as you can in an amateur situation…..you’re getting paid for it. The whole thing is you have to be better prepared and to be better prepared you’ve just got to practise.”
GM, “And putting up with conductors who maybe aren’t your favourite people in the world, you can’t just walk out and say ‘I’m leaving and going to K and N!”(Laughter)
JD, “One of the things I came to realise throughout my career was that the conductors weren’t always all that great. With some conductors you walk in and feel immediately that this man or woman really knows what they’re doing and then there are others who really shouldn’t be there, and it’s pretty obvious.”
GM, “How many cocktails would you advise someone to consume before they perform?”
JD, “Preferably none. “
GM, “Same answer as Glenn Madden! Greg Frick said you can have two, but if you’re only playing the Blue Danube Waltz you can have more!
This is a three part question. Do you play for free when asked to by a brass band? A) Yes, B) No, please explain C) Depends on whether they provide free cocktails.
JD, “In general I’d say no, except for the fact that when I joined the Argyles we were all paid. This is going back to 1962, I know it’s a different century.”
GM, “So you wouldn’t play with a brass band unless you were paid?”
JD, “ Oh no I’m not saying that, I’m just saying I was lucky that when I was with the Argyles we were all paid. When it comes to every other brass band I’ve been involved with I’ve always been paid as a conductor because I consider that to be part of my profession, but I’ve never accepted payment for playing in brass band and I never would.”
GM, “Do you still enjoy being part of the brass band scene? A) Yes, B) No, please explain C) Only if it involves a vast quantity of cocktails.” (Laughter)
JD, “ …….even when I started my professional life, which was with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, I still played with Excelsior and loved it. When I came to Adelaide I became close friends with Harold, the great Harold Walmsley, he organised for me to play with St Johns, which I did. I played in a contest once with the wonderful Ron Arthur, no I always played with brass bands. I cannot remember a year in my whole life when I did not play with a brass band!”
GM, “ Beautiful……Thanks mate!!”