The Con Artists
In 1995 John Hoffman was employed by Griffith University to lecture in jazz studies and more specifically to establish a new Conservatorium big band - which is essentially a large number of musicians performing on varied instruments as a group. This big band began with around seventeen members and spent much of 1995 and half of 1996 composing music and rehearsing. The band was originally called The John Hoffman Big Band but was listed as the Queensland Conservatorium of Music Big Band in programs leading up to the group's first live performance in June of 1996. By the time of the Westpac Gala Ball held on the 19th September 1996, the name Con Artists had been chosen and remains the name of the band until this day.
Public Performances Begin
The Con Artists (and its earlier incarnations) remains in essence a long-term project providing students with an opportunity to develop their musical skills while also experiencing working and performing in a band. The Westpac Gala Ball - which began as an event at the Conservatorium in 1988 - provided the new band with their first truly public performance opportunity. The band took to the stage with the current Provost and Director of the Conservatorium, Simone de Haan, playing trombone and founder John Hoffman conducting. Internationally renowned performer and Griffith alumna, Katie Noonan, also performed at this same concert singing with the Conservatorium's Vocal Department Chorus group. The Westpac Gala Ball ran until 2001 and the Con Artists were a mainstay performance at this event. After the success of their foundation year, 1997 saw the Con Artists commit to performing in a number of lunchtime (at the Conservatorium) and evening (various venues) public performances.
As this reincarnation of a Conservatorium big band gained momentum, the Con Artist's embarked upon a bold performance initiative in early September of of 1997. Jazz Train to the Tropics would see the group travel (by train) and perform regionally along Queensland's coastline - venturing as far as Cairns in Far North Queensland. This novel tour also included spontaneous performances at train stations along the journey. With the Con Artists now in the ascendancy, membership to this group became much coveted by students from across the Conservatorium and positions in the band became much sort after. The Con Artists would continue their momentum into 1998.
First Album Released
1998 saw the band take another long trip as they continued to raise their profile with life performance and novel community engagements. This time it was a bus south towards Sydney - with impromptu public performances a feature at various locations along the way. The end of the trip was marked by a performance at The Basement - an iconic jazz bar. They were joined by Australian trumpeter Scott Tinkler and the performance was recorded. This would prove to be a 'watershed moment' for the band as this live recording would eventually be released as the group's first CD.
Con Artists Profile - John Hoffman (Foundation Director)
"Wherever John is - wonderful things happen" (Jim Pugh - Internationally acclaimed trombonist).
American John Hoffman established himself as a world class trumpet player, performing with the likes of Glenn Miller, Buddy Rich, and Woody Herman before moving to Australia. He took up the position of sessional lecturer in Jazz Brass and Ensemble at the Conservatorium in 1993 and founded the Con Artists in 1996, remaining the band director until 2013. John's seventeen year direction saw him mentoring countless students, arranging dozens of performances, and overseeing various recordings. Tony Gould, head of music at the Victorian College of the Arts, described John as having "the imagination, the creative force, and the extraordinary musical talent to bring it all together".
Innovation - A Blueprint for the Band's Success
After a number of successful years growing the Con Artists' brand, providing numerous student musicians with an opportunity to play in the band and releasing a number of CD's - 2005 saw the group asked to contribute to the Stockland Art Life Auction. This initiative was another opportunity for the group to enhance its innovative approach to community engagement and public performance. The concept would see the Con Artists and students from Griffith's Queensland College of Art provide a series of performances and artworks around Brisbane's South Bank precinct to showcase talent from both the Conservatorium and the College. The band produced another CD - Concerto #1 (under the direction of former band member now Director Stephen Newcomb) from the resulting performances. The proceeds from the initiative were donated to the Mater Children's Hospital for developing their Music and Art Therapy program involving the treatment of children.
The Con Artists have not only performed and recorded with many notable Australian and international musicians/singers. The group has also had a number of ex-students that have become well known musicians and performers in their own right. Ex-Con Artists include:
- Katie Noonan - Vocalist - Winner of three ARIA awards and the lead singer of Australian bands George and Elixir
- Megan Washington - Vocalist, Pianist, Guitarist - Winner of ARIA, APRA, and Australian Jazz Bell awards.
- Isaac Hurren - Saxophonist, Composer - Member of Australian band Elixir
- Kristin Berardi - Vocalist - Winner Montreux Jazz Festival's International Vocal Competition and two Australian Jazz Bell Awards
- Elly Hoyt - Vocalist - Winner of the Generation in Jazz Vocal Scholarship and Australian Jazz Bell Award
Changing of the Guard
After seventeen years directing and mentoring the Con Artists - a changing of the guard took place. In 2013, foundation Con Artists band member and former Griffith student, Steve Newcomb took over John's position as director of the group. Currently, the Queensland Conservatorium's Head of Jazz, Steve was an obvious choice to continue John Hoffman's inspired work as he had been involved since the beginning with arranging music and later conducting. In 2014, Hoffman and Newcomb spoke about their long association with the Con Artists and the journey they had experienced from nearly two decades of involvement with the band.
The Con Artists today
After twenty years of performing, the Con Artists are still a strong force on the Australian jazz music scene. And it is not just impressive performance credentials that are a legacy of Hoffman's inspired work with this group. The band, under Hoffman and more recently Stephen Newcomb, has been a platform for members to go on and forge successful careers as singers, musicans, composers, teachers and academics. This ongoing project continues to this day to provide an environment where students can have their first major public performance, their first musical collaborations, and even their first album recording.