So, farewell then……Johnny Dankworth

Sir John Dankworth has died after a short illness aged 82. 

If anyone can claim to be the ‘Godfather of British Jazz’, it would be Dankworth, who, in the postwar years gave British Jazz a respectability and status it had never enjoyed previously, sharing the stage with the likes of Charlie Parker, Sidney Bechet and Duke Ellington and leading a series of British-based ensembles that acted as a tremendous nursery for local talent, nurturing  the likes of Kenny Wheeler, John Taylor, Dudley Moore, Mike Gibbs and Tony Coe, to name but a few.  He was a deft and skilful player on both clarinet and alto sax, where the influence of Johnny Hodges could often be heard in his playing.

Dankworth was, famously, married to the singer Cleo Laine, with whom he had a long and happy association.  They had two children, Alec and Jacqui, both of whom became  accomplished jazz musicians themselves. Dankworth wrote extensively for his own Big Band, formed initially in 1953.  They appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival and toured regularly in the UK , often backing big American stars such as Nat ‘King’ Cole and Sarah Vaughan.  He also found time to compose for TV and cinema as well, notably writing the theme tunes for ‘The Avengers’ and the BBC Popular Science programme, ‘Tomorrow’s World.’

John Dankworth leads his band at London’s  Marquee Club in 1960.  Dudley Moore is the piano player to the extreme left.

The Dankworths set up home in Wavendon, Buckinghamshire  and for many years ran successful concerts from the converted stables (‘The Stables’) at their own home.  Organising and promoting the Wavendon Stables events tended to occupy much of Dankworth’s time and ironically kept him out of the public  eye in the broader sense.  Meanwhile, Dankworth alumni like John Taylor, Kenny Wheeler, Dave Holland and John McLaughlin – to say nothing of Dudley Moore – were going on to world renown.

One only has to listen to large ensemble pieces such as those produced by the likes of Wheeler on his 1992 ‘Kayak’ album or to Holland’s Big Band Albums (2002’s ‘What goes around’ is a good example)  to hear the influence of  Dankworth in the cool, swinging arrangements.

It does seem a little odd that having been at the forefront of the growth of British jazz in the 50’s, Dankworth should end up as a rather remote figure, always honoured for his work, but never seeming to appear on many albums by his former sidemen; possibly that was his choice and he opted to remain focussed on the busy programme at Wavendon.

It is to be hoped that British Jazz finds a suitable way of honouring his profound contributions to the cause over the years.  Without his ground-breaking efforts back in the 1950’s, British Jazz would undoubtedly have struggled to achieve the relatively influential perch it currently occupies on the international jazz scene and a whole generation of British musicians might well have struggled to break through and establish careers of their own.

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