Sir John (“Johnny”) Dankworth, pioneering jazz composer, saxophonist and band leader, died on 6 February 2010. He was 82 years old.
He was born into a musical family in Woodford, and according to The Independent
attended Walthamstow Grammar School, during which time he took lessons on the violin and the piano. Hearing a record by the Benny Goodman Quartet when he was 16 persuaded him to switch to the clarinet. Consulted by Dankworth’s father, his headmaster reported that the boy had a “perverted taste for jazz. Already to my horror, he plays for dance bands.”
Having been bitten by the jazz bug, he then took a highly unusual step, as The Guardian describes:
[Dankworth] then went to the Royal Academy of Music to study the clarinet – his highly musical mother taking the view that if he was going to consider something as eccentric as playing jazz for a living, he might as well learn in a way that would prepare him for any kind of music. As a result, Dankworth was one of the few British jazz players of his generation to have had a formal musical education.
Receiving no encouragement from the Academy for his interest in jazz, Dankworth pursued it under his own steam – this is what The Times has to say:
Of much greater interest were the harmonic mysteries of bebop. Dankworth had become intrigued by this new form after hearing a recording of Charlie Parker’s version of Cherokee on the BBC. Hoping to emulate Parker’s frenetic style, Dankworth switched to the alto saxophone and signed up with a dance band on the liner Queen Mary, a job which gave him and his colleagues — who included Ronnie Scott — the opportunity to travel to New York to hear the bop pioneers in the clubs of 52nd Street.
The Independent quotes Dankworth’s own reminiscences about that time:
“On 52nd Street we would listen to [Charlie ‘Bird’] Parker for hours,” Dankworth recalled. “I remember one trip when Lester Young was playing next door to where Bird was playing. We listened to Lester for only 10 minutes and then we went back and heard Bird for about five hours.” Dankworth’s perspicacity gave him an early insight into the new music.
“At that time only a few of us realised that the new music was a complete alteration harmonically from what had gone before and not just a stylisation or way of phrasing. That’s where some British musicians fell down, for instance, the leading saxophonists of the time. They tried hard to assimilate Parker into their playing but fell into the trap of merely incorporating what you would call Bebop phrases, almost clichés.”
The Daily Telegraph describes how Dankworth became a band leader for the first time, aged just 22:
In 1950 Dankworth formed his first band, the Johnny Dankworth Seven, containing some of Britain’s leading young soloists. The style was neatly arranged bebop, inspired by Miles Davis’s band of the time. Although this enterprise almost collapsed in its early days, a modest growth in the audience for modern jazz allowed it to gain a foothold. Within a year, the Seven, and Dankworth himself, figured among the winners in the annual polls conducted by the music press.
It was at this time that Dankworth first met his future wife, Cleo Laine. The Independent describes it best:
Cleo and Johnny met in the summer of 1951 when Clementine Langridge, as she was then, came to audition for a job with the Seven.
“I think she’s got something, don’t you?” Dankworth asked his musicians after she had sung four songs with the band.
“Something? I think she’s got everything.” Trumpeter Jimmy Deuchar was convinced. He was right. And so between them Dankworth and his manager Les Perrin concocted the named [sic] Cleo Laine for the new singer.
There followed a foray into the world of big band, the Telegraph tells us:
Dankworth broke up the Seven in 1953 and launched his first big band, consisting of eight brass, five saxophones, rhythm section and three vocalists. It was the first serious and deliberate challenge to Ted Heath, Britain’s reigning bandleader, whose immaculately polished, bravura style had never been entirely satisfying to dedicated jazz listeners.
Although much of its time was spent in playing for ballroom dancing, Dankworth’s band was essentially a jazz orchestra, with a notable contingent of fine jazz soloists. But Dankworth was not happy with the conventional big band format. In 1956 he disbanded and redesigned the orchestra, with a mixed ensemble of soloists in place of the saxophone section.
But Dankworth thought of himself less and less as a performer and more as a composer. The Times quotes his remarks to his biographer Graham Collier:
“I have never looked like being in that incredible virtuoso class like, say, Stan Getz. I think people made a mistake and put me in that embryonic class when I was very young and thought that I was going to branch out to be a big instrumentalist in some way or another. But I always find that I very, very seldom get anywhere near what I consider a satisfactory standard. I would much rather be judged for my writing because writing is a thing that you can have second thoughts about and, if it isn’t right, you can’t blame somebody else but yourself.”
He was heavily in demand with the film and television industry in the Sixties. All the quality dailies list his successes – here’s The Guardian‘s list:
In 1958, the film director Karel Reisz hired Dankworth to write his first film score for We Are the Lambeth Boys, following which he provided memorable jazz scores for The Criminal (1960), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), The Servant (1963), Darling and Return from the Ashes (both 1965), Morgan and Modesty Blaise (both 1966) and Accident (1967)…Dankworth never lost his knack for a catchy melody – in the 1960s he wrote themes for TV series such as Tomorrow’s World and the original Avengers theme of 1961 (reworked by Laurie Johnson in 1965).
Towards the end of the decade, The Independent tells us, Dankworth’s co-operation with his wife (they married in 1958) became more intensive:
In the mid-Sixties Cleo Laine had become a soloist rather than a band singer and much of Dankworth’s time was taken in acting as her musical director, leading her backing quartet and providing magnificent material for her to sing – notably the unforgettable series of Shakespeare songs that the two performed together.
In 1969 the two created the Wavendon Allmusic Plan, a scheme to promote arts in general and musical education at The Stables in the garden of their Buckinghamshire home, Wavendon. They eventually added a 300-seat concert hall to draw in audiences and it was there last Saturday at an event designed to celebrate 40 years of the Plan that Cleo Laine announced to the audience that her husband had died.
Dankworth continued making music almost right up to the end, according to The Guardian:
Like Ellington – and out of much the same unquenchable enthusiasm for music-making – advancing years did not stop Dankworth and Laine being perpetually busy. Even when the saxophonist was well into his 70s, a journalist trying to catch up with him might find a hasty run-down of his availability left on the answering machine in the middle of the night, itemising an appearance on a breakfast radio show followed by a hop to New York for a Carnegie Hall concert, and an overnight return for a gig close on its heels.
We turn to the Daily Telegraph to sum up views of his style:
Dankworth’s care over the shaping and presentation of his music led occasionally to complaints that it was clever, lightweight stuff, lacking the rough passion which many regarded as the mark of authentic jazz, a view summed up by the critic Kitty Grime in the much-quoted phrase “couth, kempt and shevelled”. On the other hand, his admirers included such notable figures as Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie.
But the last word goes to The Guardian for its moving description of one of his last performances:
Late last November, Sir John Dankworth, who has died aged 82, elicited the most heartfelt standing ovation of his 60-year career in music for what was possibly his briefest and quietest performance. He had been taken to hospital during the run-up to the London Jazz Festival show for him and his singer wife, Cleo Laine, at the South Bank. But the frail Dankworth emerged in a wheelchair just before the interval. Laine, his daughter Jacqui, a singer-actress, his bassist son Alec and a good many of the big band looked as if they could hardly bear to watch the old star slowly bring the alto saxophone to his lips. Then the opening notes of the Duke Ellington ballad Tonight I Shall Sleep filled the hall, vibrating gently with Dankworth’s delicate, richly clarinet-like ballad sound and everybody breathed out.
(John Philip William Dankworth, born 20 September 1927 in Woodford, Essex, died 6 February 2010 in London)