RIP Sir John Dankworth

I awoke this morning to news of the death of Sir John Dankworth (on Saturday 6th February) at the age of 82. I won’t write a long post about him today as the newspapers and television have been filled with glowing detailed tributes that do greater justice to his many achievements than I could possibly do. However, there is a special place in my heart for Jazz musicians, do I couldn’t let this sad event pass without paying a small tribute here.

John Dankworth was born in 1927 and started playing Jazz clarinet as a teenager in the 1940s, largely inspired by Benny Goodman. However, he soon came under the spell of Charlie Parker who was leading the way towards a new, “modern” kind of Jazz called bebop. In the early 1950s, the British jazz scene was split in two hostile camps, the traditionalists (exemplified at that time by Humphrey Lyttelton‘s band) and the modernists (exemplified by the lovely band that John Dankworth put together in 1952). The mutual loathing of the fans of these two kinds of music often erupted in the form of pitched battles which prefigured the fights between “mods” and “rockers” in the 1960s.  You can find a fine example of John Dankworth with his  7-piece band (vintage 1950) here, playing a Charlie Parker tune called Marmaduke and showing the Parker influence clearly during his alto sax solo.

As I’ve often mentioned on this blog, my Dad played the drums with various jazz bands over the years but was firmly rooted in the traditionalist camp. I remember him telling me how furious he and his friends were when Humphrey Lyttelton’s marvellous trombonist Keith Christie defected to John Dankworth’s band in the 50s. It was like a Newcastle player signing for Sunderland. However, despite this treason, even diehard traddies like my Dad never had personal animosity towards John Dankworth, who was universally admired for his technical playing ability, encyclopedic knowledge of music and, above all, kindly and warm personality. But then musicians rarely think the same way that their fans do. Humph was a great admirer of John Dankworth’s music as, incidentally, was Benny Goodman of Charlie Parker’s…

Everyone who got to meet John Dankworth – which I did only once, and only very briefly – immediately came to the conclusion that he was a class act. A few days ago I quipped about how few remaining National Treasures we have in Britain. How could I have forgotten John Dankworth? Now he’s gone too.

He broke up his small group around 1952 or so to concentrate on running a big band, which gave him the opportunity to develop his talents as an arranger. During the 60s and 70s he became a prolific writer of TV and film music, including the original theme tune  for Tomorrow’s World. However, it’s his partnership with Cleo Laine that I guess people will remember best. He hired her as a singer for his small band in 1951. . They married in 1958 and remained together for over 50 years, until separated by John’s death. She was (and is) a feisty lady, but you could tell whenever you saw them together at any time that John loved her very much.

Anyway, let’s go out on a high note with this lovely version of George Gershwin’s great tune Lady be Good. John Dankworth takes a back seat – as he often did when Cleo was singing – but the band is in great form. And if you didn’t realise what a terrific vocalist Cleo Laine was, then pin back your lugholes around 2 minutes in where she demonstrates a range and level of control that would put many opera singers to shame.

6 Responses to “RIP Sir John Dankworth”

  1. Pierre Gel Says:

    I was lucky enough to hear John Dankworth at Harrogate with Cleo Laine and on another occasion with NYJO . He came out front and signed my copy of the record I purchased. A remarkable family – I managed to see Jackie and Alec playing ( Sands Gainsborough I think). a gentleman of Jazz who will be missed.

  2. telescoper Says:

    Thanks for reminding us of Alec and Jacquie – both talented performers in their own right – who I’m sure will carry on the family tradition for many years to come.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    What is most interesting about the ‘jazz wars’ you mention is why the issue elicited feeling strong enough to have pitched battles. This was in the 1950s when there was little street violence and when people remembered all too well from just a decade earlier what was and was not worth fighting over.


    • telescoper Says:

      Beats me. If you don’t like a certain type of music, just don’t listen to it…

      Sadly, tribal conflict like this seems to be part of human nature. Perhaps it’s like football violence?

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter, Phillip: Football violence and mods/rockers violence is about assertion of an identity and/or about growing up. Trad/modern jazz violence in the 1950s seems to be different, which is why I find it interesting. It’s more like the riots after the premieres of pieces of music by Stravinsky or Bunuel’s early films, or the furious reaction of crowds to Rodin’s sculpture of Balzac. It’s something to do with feeling that a culture to which you are committed is under threat at a very deep level.

    • telescoper Says:

      The term “mod” is a direct descendant of “modernist”, a term applied to the modern jazz fans of the 50s, but it doesn’t appear to have been entirely about music. The modernists also had a distinctive way of dressing – sharp Italian suits and berets were de rigeur. That sounds pretty tribal to me. Everyone has to belong to something, I guess.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: