First knight of British jazz, Johnny Dankworth, dies

Sholto Byrnes bids farewell to a pioneer who shared the stage with Herbie Hancock and Ella Fitzgerald

Johnny Dankworth, who has died aged 82, was one of the few British musicians who not only were world-class but were recognised as such, taking to the stage on clarinet or sax with the proverbial Who's Who of jazz, from Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock to Gerry Mulligan, Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald.

On one occasion, dining with Duke Ellington at the house of the Queen's cousin, Gerald Lascelles, Dankworth even stepped in at the piano when the Duke found he'd forgotten one of his own tunes halfway through – not an act many would have been capable of, or dared to do.

With Dankworth's death we see the passing of a generation; men and women who enriched British musical life and wove jazz into the fabric of so many other art forms. One reason he will be so missed and remembered so fondly is for his commitment to share that passion. It was 40 years ago that he and his wife, Cleo Laine, established The Stables at Wavendon, a charity that has provided education and opportunities for generations of young musicians. Indeed, Cleo announced his death on Saturday evening at a gala celebrating The Stables' anniversary.

He also instigated the jazz course at the Royal Academy of Music, an area of study common in such institutions now, but highly controversial in classical circles at the time.

The coverage allotted to the passing of Johnny Dankworth may prove not quite so extensive as that after the deaths of his contemporaries, Ronnie Scott and Humphrey Lyttelton. Scott's famous Soho club and Lyttelton's hosting of radio programmes such as I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue earned them a continuing renown with a wider public which often had only a passing acquaintance with jazz.

The honours system, however, got it right for once in awarding Dankworth – actually Sir John – a knighthood in 2006. As he said at the time: "It's so nice for jazz to get something like this. As far as I know I'm the first from the jazz world to get a knighthood."

Genial, friendly and quick to smile, Dankworth was described by Philip Larkin as "dandyish, witty, occasionally tender" as far back as 1964. But the title of Dankworth's autobiography, Jazz in Revolution, points us to the fire beneath the charm.

He, Scott and others were the first British musicians to witness and then to explore the new avant-garde style of jazz, bebop, that emerged from New York after the Second World War. As Dankworth put it: "To say that jazz was divided about the validity and desirability of bebop would be seriously understating the case. It would be like saying the Americans were a tiny bit cross with the Japanese after Pearl Harbour, or that Hitler was unkind to the Jews." When Humphrey Lyttelton introduced an alto saxophonist into his line-up, a placard reading "Go home, dirty bopper" was waved at one of his gigs.

Dankworth didn't wish to be caught on either side of this divide. He always cherished the pre-war styles of clarinetists Jimmie Noone and Benny Goodman. But he was also invited to play alongside (and share a saxophone with) the high priest of bebop, Charlie Parker. Dankworth was capable of being a proper "dirty bopper" too, and did much to shake up the music scene of the Fifties where "jazz" was represented by the polite, formal stylings of the Ambrose or Ted Heath orchestras.

He, and the scat singing of his wife Cleo, were paid the compliment of being taken off in a 1983 Two Ronnies sketch – a level of recognition no jazz (as opposed to jazz/pop) musician in the country could dream of today.

The many film scores and the television themes (The Avengers, Tomorrow's World) were important in his life – the latter, in particular, a reminder that skill in composition and orchestration of these miniatures was once more highly valued than it is today, as was the employment of real musicians, rather than the synth-sampled horns and strings with which cheapskate production companies litter the soundtracks of so many contemporary shows.

But it was the jazz that really mattered. It may be hard to discern in the photographs of the distinguished-looking old gentleman in top hat and morning suit, off to be knighted by the Queen. But Sir Johnny Dankworth was also, in his own modest manner, a truly English revolutionary.

Sholto Byrnes is Contributing Editor of the New Statesman.

Sir Johnny Dankworth: A jazz great

*Born 1927. Won a place at the Royal Academy of Music aged 17, and was voted British Musician of the Year in 1949.

*Met Cleo Laine in 1950 while auditioning singers for his band. They married in 1958.

*Performed with jazz luminaries such as Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.

*Composed film scores including Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Servant and Modesty Blaise, as well as theme tunes to The Avengers, right, and Tomorrow's World.

*Founded the London Symphony Orchestra's Summer Pops in 1985,as artistic director. *Made a CBE in 1974 and knighted in 2006.

*The couple converted outbuildings at their Milton Keynes home into The Stables theatre, and ran music education programmes there.

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?