The late Sir John Dankworth was my “Pocket Legend” on Jazz House the other week, to commemorate his birthday. His daughter Jaquie is on radio a great deal promoting her new album, and so he and his music have been in my thoughts a lot of late.
Johnny Dankworth, as he is remembered as by the public, was a figure writ large in my early jazz life. He was one of those entertainers who was always on the radio and tv when I was a wee boy, and as such his music had a great effect on me; to me it was entertaining, exhilarating and exciting even before I new it was called jazz. I had the great pleasure of meeting and interviewing him and wife Dame Cleo Laine a few times; I found him to be urbane and witty, and he made a great cup of tea.
He was born in Woodford, Essex, in 1927 and fell under the spell of Jazz as a teenager. He studied the clarinet at the Royal Academy of Music, but he had to smuggle his saxophone in to the building. He took the pragmatic view that if he was going to consider something as frowned upon by the establishment as playing jazz for a living, he might as well learn enough about music to prepare him for any kind of gig. He was wise beyond his years.
By the mid 1940’s he was an established professional and under the spell of Charlie Parker and bebop – in fact he played alongside Parker at the Paris Jazz Festival in 1949, and was the best known modern jazz soloist in Britain. As the 1940’s turned into the 50’s, the young Dankworth formed one of British jazz scene’s most celebrated groups, the Johnny Dankworth Seven
He was the enfant terrible of British jazz, and his seven, which included one of Scotland’s top exports trumpeter Jimmy Deuchar, quickly became the top bebop band in the UK. But in 1953, amid cries of bafflement and that no good would come of it, he announced that he was disbanding the seven, and that he was going to start a big band, and so the Johnny Dankworth Orchestra was born. As well as being a fabulous soloist, John was already an accomplished arranger, and had contributed some brilliant arrangements to the library of Britain’s top big band, Ted Heath And His Music, whose polished musicianship John was taking on full square. Even though one of its main functions was to play for dancing, John’s band was from the off an out and out jazz orchestra, playing adventurous and hard-swinging music.
He was Britain’s first internationally renowned jazz soloist, and an arranger and composer of real quality and originality. Here’s a wonderful example of his playing and arranging, and get a load of that wonderfully unique brass section!