The Primitif Coffee Shop: young, hip and gorgeous in 1950s Brisbane
By Dr Leah Cotterell, 2022 Letty Katts Fellow | 7 February 2023
This blog was written by 2022 Letty Katts Fellow, Dr Leah Cotterell.
In 2022 the State Library acquired scans of over 200 hundred evocative black and white photographs from The Primitif Coffee Lounge in the late 1950s. This unique cache came from the collection of Brisbane restaurateur and market owner Peter Hackworth.
Studio portrait of Peter Hackworth, nee Cox in the late 50s. 32929, Peter Hackworth photographs and ephemera, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Image number 32929-0001-0003.
Opened in March 1957, The Primitif was Peter’s first business. It was downstairs in the marble and glass Piccadilly Arcade across from the Brisbane GPO. With its bold modernist mural, informal décor and relaxed atmosphere, The Primitif offered something new on Queen Street. Peter’s innovations included the first espresso machine in Brisbane with two Italian baristas to drive it, suave Czech waiters, pretty waitresses dressed in Cheongsam frocks, and a simple menu of toasted sandwiches and spaghetti Bolognese prepared by a French chef in the pantry-sized kitchen. Through the week entertainment was supplied by jazz LPs on the record player and weekends brought floor shows and jazz combos, crowded into a corner around a white piano. Young people flocked to The Prim.
Patrons at The Prim. 32929, Peter Hackworth photographs and ephemera, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Image number 2929-0001-0217.
The young man who captured these images was Peter’s kitchen hand, Kevin Anderson. When he wasn’t washing dishes, Kevin focused his camera on the passing parade of talent - floor show acts, comics and fashion parades. But out of the hundreds of proofs and prints he gave Peter, most are of young people playing jazz. It’s almost certain that many of these photos were taken on Sunday nights during a weekly ‘Jazz Workshop’. Flamboyant in their Hawaiian print shirts, pegged slacks, clinging knits and flaring skirts, just think ‘Mad Men’ but set in the subtropics. In Kevin’s photos young musicians play piano, guitar, bass, drums, trumpet, saxophone and flute, and they sing. You can see they are deep into the music. The players are almost all men (of course, this is the late '50s) and most of the singers are women, but all of them are clearly excited about making music together.
Chet Clark Trio performing at the Primitif Coffee Lounge, Brisbane. 32929, Peter Hackworth photographs and ephemera, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Image number 32929-0001-0142
Handbill for the Sunday night Jazz Workshop, Primitif Coffee Lounge. 32929 Peter Hackworth photographs and ephemera, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland
Over the following decades, Peter would cut a swathe through Brisbane society, becoming an acknowledged leader in fashion and business, but in 1957 she was still experimenting to find her signature style. At 21 she was adventurous and fashion-forward and modern jazz was the latest thing - it was inevitable that The Primitif would become the home of modern jazz in Brisbane. Peter made a space for the music, and the musicians came. That symbiotic relationship between venue and music performance is one area of focus in my research for the 2023 Letty Katts Fellowship. The other is to understand how these young people came to play modern jazz.
This was the era of popular artists like Nat King Cole, Stan Kenton, Dave Brubeck, Chet Baker, Sarah Vaughn and Dinah Washington. In this generation of pop music, the swing feel was forward leaning, the harmony was sleek and shiny and contagious new rhythms were flowing in from Cuban bands in New York. Given Brisbane’s reputation as parochial and socially conservative how did these young people become immersed in this progressive international music style? With the support of the State Library I am seeking to understand how these young Queensland musicians learned to play. Reaching out to the musicians who are still available to interview, I’m going to ask them: How did you learn your skills? What repertoires were you playing and who were you learning from? Please comment below if you have anything to contribute.
Modern jazz is sophisticated, both in materials and execution. The ‘Great American Songbook’ is a melange of thousands of Broadway show tunes and hits from Tin Pan Alley. These songs revolutionised popular music with their fresh, playful approach to words, melody and harmony, and they provided the foundation for jazz to evolve. Jazz is essentially a musical method that asks the musician to use the ‘head’ (the song as originally written) as a jumping-off point. It asks the player to strive for excitement, drama and beauty through improvisation in dialogue with the underlying musical materials. Mastering jazz requires great confidence, knowledge and many hours of practice. Sunday night jazz workshops at The Primitif gave emerging players and singers the opportunity to accrue essential flying hours. Photos of musicians at The Primitif capture moments in this creative process.
Singer Wilma Reading and guitarist Darcy Kelly performing at the Primitif Coffee Lounge, Brisbane.. 32929 Peter Hackworth photographs and ephemera, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Image number 32929-0001-0204.
Singer, Barbara Faulds, performing at the Primitif Coffee Lounge, Brisbane. 32929 Peter Hackworth photographs and ephemera, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Image number 32929-0001-0011.
A singer myself, I have loved performing this same, now classic, repertoire with some incredible improvising musicians. So, I can’t help but see my own experience reflected in the photos. In fact, Peter gave me some of my first gigs in the 1980s at her restaurant, The Cat’s Tango. This research is informed by those experiences. But from the viewpoint of 2023, what these photos represent to me is the last vibrant wave of jazz as a mainstream popular music before every existing musical style was sidelined in the pop revolution of the 1960s. There is so much to know about how these young people found their way to play at The Primitif, and where they went after that wave had crashed.
Looking up the Primitif stairs to the Piccadilly Arcade. 32929 Peter Hackworth photographs and ephemera, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Image number 32929-0001-0326.
Dr Leah Cotterell, 2022 Letty Katts Fellow.
If you have any photographs, ephemera or other material related to The Primitif Cafe, please consider donating it to our John Oxley Library collection. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
- 32929 Peter Hackworth photographs and ephemera
- View the 198 black and white photographs and ephemera from this collection.
- 2017 John Oxley Library Fellow: Dr Lauren Istvandity. Research Reveals: Queensland Jazz Memories.
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