Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Frank James Coughlan (1904–1979)

by Andrew Bisset

This article was published:

Frank James Coughlan (1904-1979), jazz musician, was born on 7 June 1904 at Emmaville, New South Wales, third son of native-born parents William Kershaw Coughlan, tin-miner, and his wife Elizabeth, née Parr. William became master of the Glen Innes and District band in 1912 and taught his five sons to play brass instruments. Educated at local public schools, in 1922 Frank went to Sydney where he heard recordings of the White-American trombonist 'Miff' Mole which revolutionized his approach to music.

Having found work in 1923, playing in Will James's dance band at the Bondi Casino, two years later Coughlan joined 'The Californians' at J. C. Bendrodt's Palais Royal, and gained valuable experience in style, feel, arranging and instrumental configuration. The band performed extensively in Sydney and Melbourne. On 20 November 1926 Coughlan married Agnes Helen Waddington at St Martin's Anglican Church, Kensington, Sydney; they were to be divorced in 1938. He went abroad in December 1928, toured Europe with Jack Hylton and joined Fred Elizalde's group at the Savoy Hotel, London. Returning home next year, he played in restaurant and 'palais' bands in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.

In April 1936 Coughlan led the thirteen-piece orchestra at the opening of the Trocadero, Sydney. This 'palais' band was one of the finest in Australia and the public looked to him for the latest styles in jazz and dance music. With his trim physique and pencil-thin moustache, he cut a dashing figure in formal attire. The band's formation coincided with the advent of swing music: it played swing, as well as commercial favourites, and, from September 1938, some of its members gave renditions of traditional or Dixieland jazz. A feature film, The Flying Doctor (1936), had included the Trocadero band in a nightclub sequence, and the band made several records. Elected president of the Sydney Swing Music Club in March 1936, Coughlan wrote articles (1936-37) on the history of Australian jazz in the Australian Music Maker and Dance Band News. He married a professional vocalist Margaret Rose Grimshaw on 18 March 1939 at St John's Anglican Church, Darlinghurst.

From August 1939 Coughlan appeared with smaller ensembles in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, before taking over the Melbourne Trocadero band. He played in Sunday afternoon jam sessions at Fawkner Park Kiosk, South Yarra, a key venue for contemporary jazz. Mobilized in the Militia in November 1942, he transferred to the Australian Imperial Force on 26 September 1943. He performed with the 9th Division Concert Party in Queensland in 1944 and with the 10th Entertainment Unit on Bougainville in 1945-46. Promoted sergeant on 30 August 1945, he was discharged on 25 March 1946. Coughlan went back to the Sydney Trocadero in October and directed the band until July 1951. After two years at its Melbourne namesake, he was maestro at the Sydney Trocadero from September 1954 until the nightclub closed on 31 December 1970. He then retired.

One of the most influential musicians in the development of jazz in Australia, Coughlan was an outstanding trombonist—in traditional and mainstream styles—a trumpet-player and an arranger. He advanced the careers of many spirited young performers and was an indefatigable advocate of jazz. Survived by his wife and their son, and by the daughter of his first marriage, he died on 6 April 1979 at Randwick and was cremated with Catholic rites.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Bisset, Black Roots, White Flowers (Syd, 1979)
  • B. Johnson, The Oxford Companion to Australian Jazz (Melb, 1987)
  • J. Mitchell, Australian Jazz on Record, 1925-80 (Canb, 1988).

Citation details

Andrew Bisset, 'Coughlan, Frank James (1904–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 29 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


7 June, 1904
Emmaville, New South Wales, Australia


6 April, 1979 (aged 74)
Randwick, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.