28th April, 2022
Bernard Kong’s Perth-based licensed venue shows how a good business mind can strengthen creative enterprise and support local creatives.
The top-tier talent drawn to Perth’s The Ellington Jazz Club suggests Bernard Kong has always adored polyrhythms and mixed meters. But as it turns out, that isn’t quite the case.
It was only after being introduced to jazz pianist Graham Wood – who was dating his housemate at the time – that Bernard found someone who shared a dream of opening a club.
“Graham always wanted a jazz place,” Bernard says. “I liked music, but I wasn’t a musician by any stretch of the imagination.
“I just wanted somewhere pleasant to go.”
As the head of music at the Conservatorium at WAAPA (Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts) and one of Australia’s greatest jazz pianists, Bernard knew it was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
“From when we met to when we opened the club was a two-year process.
“We shook hands, found a place, and started the application for liquor licensing. It all happened so quickly.”
While he brought some business nous, Bernard soon realised there was a lot more to running a jazz club than managing the books.
His experience running his family’s food services distribution business nevertheless meant he and his business partner made a natural team.
“Being young at the time, I wanted to do something interesting and more on my own, and my confidence came from not knowing any better.”
“That was the symbiosis of the relationship Graham and I had – he’d take care of the creative side and I’d take care of the business side.”
Despite their different skillsets, Bernard and Graham were always united in their belief that consistency, quality, and passion should drive the business.
“When we started, Graham and I had a very clear mandate about sticking to our guns.
“A lot of the venues in Perth have daily identities; they’ll have a jazz night one day and rock the next.
“I think as a consumer it’d be frustrating.”
The pair set about bringing that vision to life by creating a space that perfectly represented their mutual passion.
“We wanted the performance area to be an extension of our lounge room. When you come in, you feel comfortable.
“We also spent a lot of time designing the sound profile to help with the fidelity of the performance onstage.
“Even if there’s a small audience, it still feels warm and intimate. At full capacity it just enhances that feeling.”
Opening a new venue is never easy, but The Ellington Jazz Club was an especially tough sell to Perth back in 2009.
“We modelled it off a few clubs in New York. They’ve been going for decades over there, but there was nothing like it in Perth.
“There’s always been a group of people that know their stuff, but our first years were spent educating Perth on how to how to enjoy this kind of club.”
It didn’t take long for the club to become a second home for local musicians, though.
“Graham wanted it to be really music centric. When you promote that as the priority of your venue, people respond.
“Perth’s jazz crowd are very generous, knowledgeable, and appreciative of the level of talent we bring on for them.
“We developed a reputation because of the strength of the music community.”
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Well-known acts help music venues draw in punters, but Bernard found this approach came at a big cost.
“At the time, there wasn’t anywhere for graduates of the con to go after WAAPA,” he says, referring to the Conservatorium by nickname.
“It was strange because it was widely regarded as one of the best musical programs in the Southern hemisphere.
“They’d become amazing performers but after they graduated, they’d have to leave Australia to find work.
Bernard’s pleased that Ellington’s focus on local also proved to be a boon during the pandemic.
“The initial two years of isolation were surprisingly manageable for us.
“Isolation breeds creativity. It goes back to how much how much talent there was in the first place.”
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As a word of advice for would-be creative business owners, Bernard offers a reminder that even creatively leaning businesses have ups and down.
He’s a firm believer that any business owner should be fully invested from the start.
“If you’re starting a business and running it yourself, you’ve got to find a way to make it your life,” says Bernard.
“You’re basically raising a child. If you don’t give it enough attention, it won’t prosper in the way you want or expect it to.”
In Bernard’s case, it’s proof that a little bit of love can go a long way.