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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sangster, John Grant (Johnny) (1928–1995)

by Bruce Johnson

This article was published online in 2020

John Grant Sangster (1928–1995), musician and composer, was born on 17 November 1928 in Melbourne, only child of Scottish-born parents John Sangster, stock-keeper, and his wife Isabella Dunn, formerly Pringle, née Davidson. Grant, as he was then known, attended Sandringham and Vermont primary schools, and Box Hill High School, completing the Leaving certificate in 1945. He taught himself to play the trombone and cornet, learning with his friend Sid Bridle from recordings; the two formed a band. At Melbourne Technical School in 1946 he began, but did not complete, a diploma of civil engineering. Isabella’s hostility towards Grant and his jazz activities came to a head on 21 September 1946, when she withdrew permission for him to attend a jazz event; in the ensuing confrontation he killed her with an axe but, after more than two months on remand, was acquitted of both murder and manslaughter.

In December 1946 Sangster—by this time known as Johnny—attended the first Australian Jazz Convention in Melbourne, and at the third in 1948 he won an award from Graeme Bell for being ‘the most promising player’ (Linehan 1981). He first recorded on 30 December that year, and participated in the traditional jazz scene, including through the community centred on the house of Alan Watson in Rockley Road, South Yarra. On 18 November 1949 at the Church of Christ, Malvern, he married Shirley Drew, a calculating-machine operator. In 1950, playing drums, he recorded with Roger, and then Graeme, Bell, and was invited to join Graeme’s band as drummer for its second international tour from October 1950 to April 1952. During this tour he recorded his first composition, and encountered Kenny Graham’s Afro-Cubists and the British composer and instrumentalist Johnny Dankworth, which broadened his stylistic interests.

With Graeme he toured Korea and Japan in 1954 and 1955, and then the two worked in Brisbane, where Sangster began playing the vibraphone. Shirley filed for divorce in 1957; the decree absolute would be granted in September 1959. Bell and Sangster relocated to Sydney from February 1957 for a residency at the Hotel Bennelong. Playing little jazz, their band recorded current skiffle hits, with Sangster on washboard; one of these, ‘Freight Train,’ made the top ten, leading to radio and television exposure, and to their engagement as supporting performers for Johnnie Ray’s 1957 Australian tour.

Freelancing from 1959, Sangster also joined Ray Price, Don Burrows, and Judy Bailey, and became active in music for film and television. By 1962 he was living with his partner, Janice Patricia Byrnes (d. 1980), nicknamed ‘Bo Diddley.’ Their apartment was above the El Rocco Jazz Cellar, where he was central to experiments in the genre. The visiting American pianist Bob James introduced him to the avant-gardists Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, and Cecil Taylor, expanding his music to a degree then unequalled in Australia. On a 1966 Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) airing his trio freely improvised over pre-recorded percussion. He was one of a few composers ‘who used electronic sound before the 1970s’ (Riddell and Whiteoak 2003, 249) in Australia. His participation in Donald Westlake’s 1966 ‘Best of Both Worlds’ concerts, combining the Don Burrows’ Quartet with the New Sydney Woodwind Quintet, included his own compositions.

The interest in fusions, which informed Sangster’s experiments with non-Western forms, extended to the psychedelic counterculture. He played in the pit band for the rock opera Hair from 1969 and at Australia’s first rock festival, at Ourimbah, New South Wales, in 1970. His film music ranged from the experimental (Albie Thoms’s 1969 Marinetti) to children’s animation (Hanna-Barbera’s The Funky Phantom in 1971 and 1972), while his music for the ABC television series In the Wild with Harry Butler (1976–81) displayed his fascination with the musical representation of Australian landscape. Moving to Narrabeen in 1971, he began composing suites based on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Between 1973 and 1978 he produced more than eight hours of recorded music, spanning ragtime to avant-garde. The instrumentation expanded from the standard traditional jazz line-up to include woodwinds, brass, strings, electric guitars, vocals, synthesiser, and studio-produced effects.

In 1988 Sangster was entered on the Montsalvat Jazz Honour Roll. He moved to Brisbane in 1992, where he met Petra Schnese, a Berlin-born musician, and the two began living together. In spite of ill health he continued performing. His final gig was at the Noosa Jazz Party in September 1995. He died of liver cancer on 26 October that year at Red Hill, with Petra at his side, and was cremated.

Sangster was prominent in several major developments in Australian music. Bell’s band was seminal in the formation of an Australian jazz sound. Sangster was also at the forefront of progressive jazz movements in this country: experimental, free-form, electronic, and fusions. He had the broadest palette of any Australian performer/composer, with influences ranging from the classic jazz corpus to jazz/pop avant-gardists and art music composers, notably Maurice Ravel. Mick Kenny described his music as ‘cosmic Dixieland’ (Myers 1982, 21). His life and music disclose a far more complex sensibility than the ocker/hobbit persona that he cultivated on stage and in his memoir Seeing the Rafters: The Life and Times of an Australian Jazz Musician (1988). He was ‘possibly the most talented of all the musicians who inhabit[ed] the jazz world of Australia’ and ‘one of the most intuitive musicians Australia has produced in any idiom’ (Williams 1981, 53).

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Music Centre, Sydney. John Sangster files, including full list of compositions and discography
  • Bell, Graeme. Graeme Bell, Australian Jazzman: His Autobiography. Frenchs Forest, NSW: Child & Associates Publishing, 1988
  • Johnson, Bruce. The Oxford Companion to Australian Jazz. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1987
  • Linehan, Norman. Bob Barnard, Graeme Bell, Bill Haesler, John Sangster on the Australian Jazz Convention. Sydney: The Australian Jazz Convention Trust Fund, 1981
  • Myers, Eric. ‘John Sangster: Music for Fluteman.’ Jazz: The Australasian Contemporary Music Magazine 2, no. 12 (November/December 1982): 21
  • Riddell, Alistair, and John Whiteoak. ‘Electroacoustic Music.’ In Currency Companion to Music and Dance in Australia, edited by John Whiteoak and Aline Scott-Maxwell, 248–50. Strawberry Hills, NSW: Currency House in association with Currency Press, 2003
  • Sangster, John. Interview by Bruce Johnson, c. 1989, transcribed by Timothy Stevens
  • Sangster, John. Interview by Roger Beilby, 28 January c. 1994, transcribed by Timothy Stevens
  • Schnese-Kleist-Sangster, Petra. Personal communication
  • Stevens, Timothy. ‘The Death of Isabella Dunn Sangster.’ 28 November 2013. Accessed 5 June 2015. http://timstevens.com.au/the-death-of-isabella-dunn-sangster/. Copy held on ADB file
  • Stevens, Timothy. ‘Early Ensembles and Recordings of John Grant Sangster.’ Context: Journal of Music Research, no. 34 (2009): 35–42
  • Williams, Mike. The Australian Jazz Explosion. London: Angus & Robertson Publishers, 1981

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Bruce Johnson, 'Sangster, John Grant (Johnny) (1928–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sangster-john-grant-johnny-21819/text31916, published online 2020, accessed online 23 October 2020.

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