Ansell Exihibition

HOW YA GONNA KEEP ‘EM DOWN ON THE FARM

John and Shirley Ansell: The Country Jazz Couple

An online exhibition by the Australian Jazz Museum


 

John Ansell

John Ansell, dubbed ‘Mr Country Jazz’, was one of country Australia’s best band leaders, multi-instrumentalists and jazz mentors. He formed and led some of the most significant jazz bands in regional Australia, the Cootamundra Jazz Band and Riverina Jazz Band.

Generous with time and instruction, he played a critical role in developing the talent of regional musicians such as Greg Gibson and John Costelloe.

John was born 21st June 1922 in Sydney, and grew up in Burrinjuck. He was the son of a former Royal Indian Naval Commander and Australian Nursing Sister.

Title: How Ya Gonna Keem ‘Em Down On the Farm

Band: Cootamundra Jazz Band
Date: c1960-1963
Musicians: John Ansell (t, as, v), David Kennedy (cl, ts, tw), Peter Ross (tb), Shirley Ansell (p), Rex Parsons (bj, g), John Dunkley (bb), George Ceely (d)
Accession Number: 31721

John Ansell as a young RAAF Flight Sergeant. Source: The Red Cross Was There! John Ansell: Father of Country Jazz, Keith Hampton.

 

Shirley Ansell

Shirley Ansell (née Wensor), known in the Australian Jazz community for her spirit, warmth, humour and talent, was the right hand to the famed Cootamundra Jazz Band and Riverina Jazz Band.

Born 16th July 1927 in Hay, New South Wales, Shirley was the oldest of four daughters to a banker and former stenographer. Shirley developed her love of music from an early age, and would have daily singalongs with her mother and sister.

Title: You Are My Sunshine

Band : Riverina Jazz Band
Date: c1960-1963
Band Musicians: John Ansell (t, as, v), David Kennedy (cl, ts, tw), Peter Ross (tb), Shirley Ansell (p), Rex Parsons (bj, g), John Dunkley (bb), George Ceely (d)
Accession Number: 31721

Shirley Ansell playing piano at a Riverina Jazz Band gig. Source: kindly donated to the Australian Jazz Museum by Shirley Ansell.

 

RESILIENCE

“It was a long march and in the snow. I pulled my piano accordion behind me on a sled, but had to leave it out in the snow at night when we were housed in barns…I brought it back to Australia on the troop ship.”

– John Ansell on being marched over 240km as a PoW in 1945. Source: Don’t Worry Baby, They’ll Swing Their Arses Off, John Sharpe

 

Images are pages from John Ansell’s diary kept as a PoW in Germany, 1944-1945. Source: The Red Cross Was There! John Ansell: Father of Country Jazz, Keith Hampton and donations to the Australian Jazz Museum from Shirley Ansell.



 

Shirley and John’s resilience and determination were critical factors in their survival, the development of their talent and careers, and our future enjoyment of their music.

Like many young men, John enlisted in World War II in 1941, serving as a wireless operator with the Lancaster crew from 460 Squadron RAAF. After 16 successful bombing raids his plane was shot down on 25th February 1944. He was picked up by the French Resistance, who treated his injuries and hid him in a dairy farm to protect him from capture.

The French Resistance planned to get John and 33 other airmen to safety in Spain. They walked across the Pyrenees mountain range in blizzard conditions to get to the Spanish border. Devastatingly, they were betrayed by their guides and captured one mile from the border.

John details his experience being captured in Don’t Worry Baby, They’ll Swing Their Arses Off by John Sharpe:

“We were treated as spies. We were taken out by the Gestapo separately and questioned…you got belt around quite a lot. Three of us, got really belted with truncheons.”

Image of prisoner of war (POW) identification photograph of 410615 Flight Sergeant (Flt Sgt) John Ansell, Wireless Operator RAAF. Source: Australian War Memorial.

Title: You Can’t Stop Me From Dreaming

Band: Cootamundra Jazz Band
Date: c1960-1963
Musicians: John Ansell (t, as, v), David Kennedy (cl, ts, tw), Peter Ross (tb), Shirley Ansell (p), Rex Parsons (bj, g), John Dunkley (bb), George Ceely (d)
Accession Number: 31721


 

Though life in the Stalags (PoW camps) was hard, John credited this time as crucial in the development of his career as an arranger and band leader. One Man’s Story, produced by the Canberra Jazz Club, details John’s experiences in WWII and the impact of that time on his music career.

Shirley was affected by tragedy from a young age. When she was in her first year in high school her sister Gwyneth died, followed shortly by her mother Eileen, and she and her two remaining sisters were raised by their father George. After graduating high school, Shirley lived in a hostel in Kirribilli while studying shorthand and typing. She continued to live there even after she got her first job. When money was short, she would walk from the hostel across Sydney Harbour Bridge and on towards her employment in Martin Place.

Ultimately, Shirley found she didn’t like city life, and moved to Leeton to work for the local council. In Leeton, she renewed her love of the country, met and married John, and moved on to the next stage of her life as a mother and semi-professional musician.

Title: Ain’t Gonna Give Nobody None of My Jellyroll

Band: John Ansell’s Jazz Band
Date: 10 April 1977
Musicians: John Ansell (t), Shirley Ansell (p), John Sheldon (tb), Ian Hill (d), Maurie Dann (bj), Terry Hillman (cl), P Brown (sb)
Accession Number: 10980

Title: Tin Roof Blues

Band: Cootamundra Jazz Band
Date: 1 December 1956
Musicians: Lloyd Jansson (t), Greg Gibson (cl), John Costelloe (tb), John Ansell (p), Bob Cowle (sb), Kevin McArthur (d)
Accession Number: 19012


 

COMMUNITY

   

Candid photos of the Riverina Jazz Band, having fun at a gig, year unknown. Source: kindly donated to the Australian Jazz Museum by Shirley Ansell.
John and Shirley Ansell posing at the piano, playing a concert for Senior Citizens Week at Wagga Police Boys Club. Source: The Daily Advertiser, 17th March 1989.

Shirley and John married in 1947 and began their life together in Cootamundra, New South Wales.

It was in Cootamundra that Shirley and John began building community through music. John played in a dance band with John and Eric Costelloe. His love of jazz was cemented when he began listening to jazz on the radio and 78 rpm records. When he and Shirley travelled to Melbourne on holiday, Frank Johnson took him to Collingwood Town Hall where his band Frank Johnson’s Fabulous Dixielanders played every Saturday night.

John and Shirley came home from their trip with a renewed love and enthusiasm for trad jazz, and John began writing arrangements and teaching the band jazz stylings. They became the Cootamundra Jazz Band.


 

The Cootamundra Jazz Band was made up of John, Greg Gibson, John Costelloe, Bob Cowle, Lloyd Jannsen and Kevin McArthur. They would travel hundreds of kilometres, playing up to six days a week all over regional New South Wales.

“We used to travel in one car…six of us and all our gear – drums, a little amplifier, and tuba…three in the front, three in the back, drum kit in the big boot. And then of course, we used to pile things in around us…”

John Ansell, as quoted in Don’t Worry Baby, They’ll Swing Their Arses Off, John Sharpe.

Title: Hello Lola

Band: Cootamundra Jazz Band
Date: 1 December 1956
Musicians: Lloyd Jansson (t), Greg Gibson (cl), John Costelloe (tb), John Ansell (p), Bob Cowle (sb), Kevin McArthur (d)
Accession Number: 19012

Title: My Old Man’s a Dustman

Band: The Riverina Jazz Band
Date: c1960-1963
Musicians: John Ansell (t, as, v), David Kennedy (cl, ts, tw), Peter Ross (tb), Shirley Ansell (p), Rex Parsons (bj, g), John Dunkley (bb), George Ceely (d)
Accession Number: 31721

Title: I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts

Band: The Riverina Jazz Band
Date: c1960-1963
Musicians: John Ansell (t, as, v), David Kennedy (cl, ts, tw), Peter Ross (tb), Shirley Ansell (p), Rex Parsons (bj, g), John Dunkley (bb), George Ceely (d)
Accession Number: 31721


 

Album cover of Country Barn Dance, the Cootamundra Jazz Band’s first LP record. Source: Australian Jazz Museum
Illustrated image of the Riverina Jazz Band. Source: Kindly donated to Australian Jazz Museum by Shirley Ansell. Artist unknown.

Though Shirley wasn’t formally involved in the Cootamundra Jazz Band, she was a key part of the jazz community. Alongside John she organised the first Australian Jazz Convention outside of a capital city in 1955 and 1959.

Family also recall that after a full day of practice, Shirley would serve up heart-warming bowls of spaghetti bolognaise to the band members.

The Cootamundra Jazz Band grew in success and popularity, and they released their first LP record in 1956.

“I owe John a tremendous amount because I learned about jazz from him. He set up the framework of my career in his type of music.”

– George Ceely, drums, Riverina Jazz Band. Source: The Red Cross Was There! John Ansell: Father of Country Jazz, Keith Hampton


 

Newspaper clipping featuring the Riverina Jazz Band in 1991. Source: The Daily Advertiser, 29th July 1991.
Riverina Jazz Band playing at a local David Jones store in Wagga Wagga, promoting and celebrating the release of Country Barn Dance Volume 2. Source: The Daily Advertiser, 14th October 1963.
Riverina Jazz Band at the Lions Club Christmas Parade. Source: The Daily Advertiser, 26th November 1976.

Title: Willie The Weeper

Band: John Ansell’s Jazz Band
Date: 10 April 1977
Musicians: John Ansell (t), Shirley Ansell (p), John Sheldon (tb), Ian Hill (d), Maurie Dann (bj), Terry Hillman (cl), P Brown (sb)
Accession Number: 10980

“I remember the very late nights of Les’s Pizza Parlour on top of the hill. Fans would arrive early in the night to get a seat, waiting for our band to arrive after playing on the night programme. They were “packed to the rafters” and Les kept the band supplied with pizzas and drinks until the early hours of Sunday morning. The first time we played for our supper for Les, we had no amplifying gear, a very small keyboard and Nyn sang through a megaphone she made from a cardboard poster!”

– Shirley Ansell, recalling fond memories of the Merimbula Jazz Festival in a letter to the event organisers. Source: Australian Jazz Museum


 

LEADERSHIP

“The band was without a doubt the best country traditional jazz band Australia has produced, and under the very efficient and sound musical leadership of pianist Johnny Ansell, several fine jazz musicians emerged.”

– Graeme Bell, as quoted in his autobiography Graeme Bell: Australian Jazzman

Title: Give My Regards to Broadway

Band: Cootamundra Jazz Band
Date: c1960-1963
Musicians: John Ansell (t, as, v), David Kennedy (cl, ts, tw), Peter Ross (tb), Shirley Ansell (p), Rex Parsons (bj, g), John Dunkley (bb), George Ceely (d)
Accession Number: 31721

‘The Modernists,’ an early version of the Cootamundra Jazz Band. L-R John Costelloe, Eric Costelloe, Nevi Gleuth, John Ansell, 1948. Source: kindly donated to the Australian Jazz Museum by Shirley Ansell.
L-R John Constello, John Ansell, unknown, Eric Constelloe, 1949. Likely an early version of the Cootamundra Jazz Band. Source: kindly donated to the Australian Jazz Museum by Shirley Ansell.
Letter from John Ansell offering musical services of the Mariners Dance Band. Source: kindly donated to the Australian Jazz Museum by Shirley Ansell.

 

Shirley and John loved jazz, and wanted to share and celebrate it wherever they went. John was an industrious band leader, and actively sought out performing opportunities for the Cootamundra Jazz Band, Riverina Jazz Band, and all his other bands. He was generous with his time and skill, and his drive for success set both bands up to be some of the best in regional Australia.

“This six-piece combination is a close-knit New Orleans style band, playing some most original and striking head arrangements in a distinctly different manner.”

– Review of the Cootamundra Jazz Band’s performance at a jazz festival in Tasmania by the publication MusicMaker, as quoted in the Cootamundra Herald, 1954.

Throughout their careers both Shirley and John were instrumental in organising a number of big and small jazz events. Notably, they brought the Australian Jazz Convention to Cootamundra in 1955 and 1959, the first time it was held outside a capital city. Shirley was the Secretary and John the President of the Committee that organised the Convention.

Certificate of registration of business name for “John Ansell’s Riverina Jazz Band,” 30 July 1970. Source: kindly donated to the Australian Jazz Museum by Shirley Ansell.

Title: James, Hold The Ladder Steady

Band: Riverina Jazz Band
Date: c1960-1963
Musicians: John Ansell (t, as, v), David Kennedy (cl, ts, tw), Peter Ross (tb), Shirley Ansell (p), Rex Parsons (bj, g), John Dunkley (bb), George Ceely (d), Gwyneth Ansell (v), Susan Ansell (v)
Accession Number: 31721

Christmas card from the Cootamundra Jazz Band, c1957. Source: kindly donated to the Australian Jazz Museum by Shirley Ansell.

 

John and Shirley continued to find friends and family in jazz wherever they went. In 1960, they moved to Wagga Wagga, disbanding the Cootamundra band and forming the Riverina Jazz Band. In Wagga Wagga, Shirley officially joined the band on piano.

The Riverina Jazz Band was as successful as the Cootamundra Jazz Band before it. They released Country Barn Dance Volume 1 with the Cootamundra Jazz Band and then Country Barn Dance Volume 2 in 1963.

Even after the Riverina Jazz Band disbanded, John and Shirley continued to play jazz and stay involved in the jazz community in Australia. In retirement, they travelled all around Australia attending jazz festivals, and often performing alongside their children and grandchildren. Sadly, John passed away in 1998. Shirley continued to perform for many years until her equally heartbreaking death in 2022.

Title: Darktown Strutter’s Ball

Band: John Ansell’s Jazz Band
Date: 10 April 1977
Musicians: John Ansell (t), Shirley Ansell (p), John Sheldon (tb), Ian Hill (d), Maurie Dann (bj), Terry Hillman (cl), P Brown (sb)
Accession Number: 10980

Country Barn Dance Volume 1, Cootamundra Jazz Band and Riverina Jazz Band, c1960-1963. Source: Australian Jazz Museum.
Country Barn Dance Volume 2, Riverina Jazz Band, 1963. Source: Australian Jazz Museum.

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS & SOURCES

How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm is proudly presented by the Australian Jazz Museum in celebration of the centenary of John Ansell’s birth and commemoration of Shirley Ansell’s death in 2022. Researched, written and curated by Jessie Tudor with assistance from Ralph Powell, Margaret Anderson and David Canterford. Audio files prepared by Ken Simpson-Bull and presentation by Robert Ayres.

Australian Jazz Museum are grateful to the late Shirley Ansell and her family for their donations to the AJM which enabled this exhibition’s publication, and also to Linda Wiese of the Canberra Jazz Club for sharing her research and video on John Ansell.

List of abbreviations:
alto saxophone (as), brass bass – tuba, sousaphone (bb), banjo (bj), clarinet (cl), drums (d), guitar (g), piano (p), string bass (sb), trumpet (t), trombone (tb), tenor saxophone (ts), vocals (v)

Additional sources:

  • Ansell, Shirley, excerpts from her unpublished memoirs, 2022.
  • Australian War Memorial, “Prisoner of war (POW) identification photograph of 410615 Flight Sergeant (Flt Sgt) John Ansell,” https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C385798, accessed 2022.
  • Bell, Graeme, Graeme Bell: Australian Jazzman, 1989.
  • Canberra Jazz Club, One Man’s Story – Red Cross – Bomber Command – John Ansell, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SFX_BEqVzSk&ab_channel=GarryOwen, 2014, accessed 2022.
  • Hampton, Keith, Red Cross was there! John Ansell: Father of Country Jazz, YEAR.
  • Sharpe, John, Don’t Worry Baby, They’ll Swing Their Arses Off: The Stories of Australian Jazz Musicians, 2001.
  • Unknown, John Ansell Memorial Pamphlet, 1998.
  • Virtual War Memorial Australia, “John Ansell,” https://vwma.org.au/explore/people/803807, accessed 2022.