Adelaide’s home of original music

You may not have heard of COMA, but this volunteer-run organisation is one of Adelaide’s biggest supporters of original music, with an 18-year history of fostering and showcasing Australian talent.

May 05, 2023, updated May 08, 2023
Adelaide ensemble Golden Boy perform at a COMA gig at the Wheatsheaf Hotel. Photo supplied

Adelaide ensemble Golden Boy perform at a COMA gig at the Wheatsheaf Hotel. Photo supplied

Many people associate cities like Melbourne or Sydney with a vibrant music scene, but Adelaide is also fortunate to have a thriving music community with regular gigs and opportunities for upcoming original artists. After all, it is a UNESCO City of Music – Australia’s only city to be designated so.

Creative Original Music Adelaide (COMA) is one of Adelaide’s long-standing performance and development organisations that works towards supporting upcoming musicians and providing them with opportunities for performance, recording and mentorship. As a volunteer-run, not-for-profit organisation supported by Arts SA, it is driven by the commitment and passion of those involved, most of whom are artists and musicians themselves and understand the value of the platform.

Since 2005, COMA has held regular Monday night performances by jazz, new classical, improvised music and electronic artists at Thebarton’s Wheatsheaf Hotel. It aims to present two sets of contrasting music at each event, with the aim of introducing new artists and genres.

“That’s always been a really core part of the way we operate,” says funding director and long-time COMA committee member Emily Tulloch.

She says the crossing of genres has enabled the organisation to “build a community who are really open to different things and who are receptive and supportive of artists coming in and trying what is often new work”.

“It was about taking contemporary jazz, contemporary classical, sonic arts or experimental electronic music into an atmosphere where we could encourage audiences to experience something new in a really relaxed and safe environment.”

Angus Mason and Lyndon Gray perform in the COMA Committee Ensemble. Photo supplied

Alongside offering regular performance opportunities over the past 18 years, COMA has also created several awards and programs for musicians, composers/writers and sound engineers to develop Adelaide’s musical talent.

Among these is the Emerging Jazz Writer’s Award, which aims to celebrate and support a female, non-binary or gender-diverse jazz artist in their career. At the close of the inaugural Adelaide Jazz Festival this past weekend, COMA announced bassist Enne Rignanese as the third recipient of the award. This accomplished composer, arranger and musician from Mount Gambier will receive two days of recording at Adelaide’s Wizard Tone Studios, mentorship opportunities with leading Australian jazz artists, a paid performance with COMA as part of its regular series, a one-year membership with the organisation, and a paid commission to be featured in its end-of-year concert.

Tulloch says jazz was chosen as a focus for this award because there were not many initiatives in South Australia that work to counter a historically entrenched gender imbalance that exists in jazz music.

“We’re really proud of this recognition of the fact that women and, even more so, non-binary or gender-non-conforming people have been… significantly under-represented,” says Tulloch.

“It was partly, also, the recognition of jazz composition, which perhaps is not as recognised as a compositional art as classical composition.”

A wall of gig posters celebrating COMA’s 16th birthday. Photo supplied

Last year’s winner of the Emerging Jazz Writer’s Award, trombonist Jasmine Ferguson, says that the jazz scene still tends to be a “boys’ club”.

“Often, as a female or non-binary person, you can feel a little bit on the edge, because there aren’t as many [of us],” she says.

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Her frequent experience of being the only woman on the bandstand has been uncomfortable for her as a young musician.

“A few years ago, I was doing more big band gigs with different people, and I was the only girl for a lot of it. It was all just older males.

“The way I got talked to, I was very, very much on my own as ‘the beautiful lady in the corner’.”

With COMA’s support, Ferguson was able to foster her own musical environment and gain confidence as a musician and leader. The award supported her to write and record an album for her ensemble, minnie little big band, called falling into your eyes. Thanks to COMA, she says, she was able to grow as an artist and push herself further.

“What I’d done before was lyrics-based and heading down to more of a pop route, but this helped me come back to the jazz side of stuff. It got me to work with amazing musicians that I wouldn’t be able to work with normally. Twenty really cool musicians at the same time.”

Like many Adelaide musicians, Ferguson’s relationship with COMA started while she was a high school student going to the Monday night gigs and it continued as she was studying jazz at the Elder Conservatorium of Music. Her interest in the organisation grew to the point where she recently became a member of COMA’s committee.

“It was really encouraging seeing lots of different people being there from uni and watching that and seeing this is what we’re studying, and this is what we can do,” she says.

COMA’s partnership with the Wheatsheaf Hotel has been key to its success since the beginning. Tulloch says COMA was always envisaged to be at the Wheaty, and that the reciprocal relationship between the organisation and the pub is “absolutely fundamental”.

The fact that multi-instrumentalist Adam Page and many other seasoned members of Adelaide’s music scene keep returning to perform and listen to COMA gigs demonstrates the value the community sees in the organisation, Tulloch adds.

“It’s this lovely, interconnected community around the committee, the pub, the artists, and the audiences that come. That’s why we all do it. It’s very special.”

Read more about COMA and see its autumn line-up of events here.

Shannon Pearce is the third recipient of the Helpmann Academy InReview Mentorship. She is working with experienced writers Graham Strahle and Samela Harris to write a series of articles for publication in InReview.

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