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.

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