Talking Jazz

This week, Channel 4 carried off a major prize at the Banff World Television Festival for Not Only But Always, Terry Johnson's dramatisation of the lives of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. The film, which showed here earlier in the year, was almost painful in its exploration of the vicissitudes of the relationship between the pair, and lovingly reproduced some of their most celebrated sketches.

You could, however, have come away with the impression that Moore's ability as a pianist was reflected in Cook's cruel description of his comedy partner as "a club-footed dwarf whose only talent is to play chopsticks in the manner of Debussy". The music was incidental, with the pair either hamming it up round the piano while they sang "Goodbye" at the end of their TV shows, or "Cuddly" Dudley using his musical skills to attract women.

But the truth is that Moore was a considerable musician and a fine jazz pianist who could have made a very good living without ever opening his mouth on stage. As a student, Moore was the organ scholar at Magdalen College, Oxford, and his credentials in classical music were already well established. He had a stack of Errol Garner albums, but his musical activities were largely confined to the organ loft and the composition of string quartets.

All that changed, however, when he met the trumpeter John Bassett, a fellow student. "I was asked to play some of Dudley's music with him in the college chapel," he tells me. Bassett was a jazzer, though, whose sight reading was not up to much. Understanding his difficulty, Moore asked Bassett to start playing "anything", saying that he'd follow on. So impressed was the trumpeter that he invited Moore to sit in with his jazz group.

According to Bassett, Moore had never played jazz in public before. "He picked it up in 30 seconds," he recalls, "and soon he was putting in substitute chords and playing great solos. I am certain that it was the first time he was applauded as a musician, because you don't get applause in chapel, and even if you do a recital, as an organist you're two floors above everyone else."

Bassett, who was later responsible for bringing Moore, Cook, Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett together to form the Beyond the Fringe team, thinks that Moore's later career was built on those foundations. "After he'd do a solo he'd get applause. Then he started to do little jokes and he'd get applause. And I'm convinced that it was jazz that sparked off in him this ability to perform and interact with an audience."

It is debatable whether recordings of the Dudley Moore Trio confirm Bassett's assessment of Moore's pianistic abilities - that he "wasn't far off" the standard of the great Oscar Peterson - but they certainly reveal a first-rate player who sounds uncannily similar, at times, to Peterson. He shares Peterson's lyricism in ballads and his penchant for bluesy licks in uptempo numbers. Listen to Peterson on "We Take Requests", for instance, and then to one of Moore's recordings, and Bassett's claim doesn't appear too far-fetched.

Moore's music is not easy to find (the Martine label recently released Jazz Jubilee, a compilation of live performances, and two volumes of Authentic Dud were reissued on Harkit Records), but it's well worth the search. Some of his compositions are of their time; others are perfectly good set-fillers that wouldn't shame much bigger names. The occasional arrangement is truly original, as in his Latinised version of "Autumn Leaves", which removes all traces of sugar. And then there are some outstanding tunes, such as his hilarious "Strictly for the Birds", in which his falsetto harmonises with the piano.

By the time Moore appeared in Beyond the Fringe in 1960, he had already been performing regularly with his own trio, in the US with Vic Lewis's group, and as part of Johnny Dankworth's big band. He wasn't bothered about trying to break new ground harmonically, but he was concerned with perfecting his time and rhythm, and later went on to perform with musicians such as the saxophonist Tony Coe, and in venues including the Village Vanguard in New York.

"My ideal of jazz," he said in a 1966 interview, "is a very heavy beat going on, with very relaxed, melodic work on top. Which makes the beat both heavy and light at the same time. When you get that kind of combination of tremendous heaviness and tremendous lightness, I think you get real swing. Stomping - but not in the sense that it's just banging your foot through the floorboards. It's a sort of incredible floating feeling."

If Moore had stuck to music, there's no reason to assume he wouldn't be as familiar a name as Humphrey Lyttleton, and perhaps even garlanded with a knighthood. What Cook's reaction would have been to that, one dreads to think.