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Obituary: Ivor Mairants

IVOR MAIRANTS was one of the most distinguished survivors of the dance band tradition of the pre-war years. But he was much more than a guitarist in a dance band: his inquiring mind led him into authorship, teaching, journalism, commerce and, later, classical guitar composition.

He was born in Poland, and came with his parents to England on the eve of the Great War. His father was a Talmudic scholar who, in the words of his son, "meditated with God", leaving his wife to run a haberdashery shop in Poland and, after that, a sweets and tobacco shop in the East End of London.

After hearing the Savoy Orpheans in a broadcast received on a homemade crystal wireless set, Ivor Mairants made up his mind to become a musician, and duly saved pounds 3 to buy his first instrument, a banjo, from Ebblewhite's music shop in Aldgate. His first professional engagement, at the age of 15, earned him 7s 6d, sufficient encouragement to launch himself on a career in music.

Work in various dance bands followed: the Valencians, the Florentine Band, Fred Anderson's Cabaret Band, Al Starita. But the banjo was already losing its appeal, and it was as a guitarist that Mairants found work with the dance bands of Roy Fox, Ambrose, Lew Stone, Geraldo, Ted Heath and Mantovani, the household names of popular music before, during and after the Second World War. By then he had discovered Segovia's editions of Bach, a source of nourishment that made a lasting impact.

A period of freelancing followed. He formed his own guitar quintet, which broadcast regularly in the BBC's Guitar Club series. His recording of the Adagio from Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez sold over a million copies. He accompanied the tenor Beniamino Gigli in a recording of Neapolitan songs; and in the late Thirties he was engaged by Sir Thomas Beecham to play the mandolin for Ezio Pinza in a Covent Garden production of Don Giovanni - an experience he described in his autobiography (My Fifty Fretting Years, 1980) as "nerve-shattering". But Beecham smiled and said "Very nice" after the first rehearsal.

Mairants also appeared in two films, playing a beribboned period guitar in Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948), and a more modern instrument in The Battle of the River Plate (1956), in which, dressed in Latin American costume, he performed as a member of a night-club band in Montevideo.

In 1950 he started the Central School of Dance Music in London. Among his teaching staff were John (then Johnny) Dankworth, Jack Brymer, Kenny Baker, Bert Weedon, Ike Isaacs and Eric Gilder. His next venture was the opening of a guitar shop in 1958, the Ivor Mairants Musicentre. His stock of fine guitars, imported from Spain, Sweden, Germany and the United States, attracted guitarists from all over the world. Occasional visitors of the calibre of Julian Bream, Charlie Byrd and Narciso Yepes helped to create more of the atmosphere of a friendly club than of a retail shop.

Writing, arranging and teaching were other occupations. Two of his guitar pupils were Benny Hill and Eric Sykes. The latter, a flamenco aficionado, was sometimes given a lesson in his dressing room during a season at the London Palladium; it led to a guest appearance as straight man in Sykes's comic flamenco act on television. Not to be outdone, Benny Hill also used Mairants in his television show.

Mairants's technical manuals, embracing all guitar styles, met with varying degrees of success, but his flamenco tutor achieved world-wide fame, selling steadily over the years in various languages including Japanese. Yet well-meaning "experts" had advised him not to pursue the project; and the great Segovia even delivered a lofty snub with the words, "All my life I have striven to lift the guitar to higher musical levels, therefore I am not interested in a flamenco book and do not want to see it."

Throughout this time, Mairants developed and refined his jazz playing to impressive proportions. His frequent professional contact with the very best jazz guitarists such as Django Reinhardt, Joe Pass, Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis led, in 1995, to his monumental book The Great Jazz Guitarists, the product of many years' hard labour.

In later years, his fertile imagination turned more and more to composition. Determined to enlarge his range and improve his technique, he enrolled at Dartington Summer School at an age when most people are happy to retire. The encouragement he received from Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle, Witold Lutoslawski, Hans Keller and others resulted in some accomplished and attractive pieces for classical guitar.

In his late eighties, he composed Jazz Sonatas for Solo Guitar, classical in style but containing prominent elements of jazz. Two of the sonatas were set pieces in the first competition for the Ivor Mairants Guitar Award, held under the aegis of the Worshipful Company of Musicians last December. Mairants, a member of the company and a Freeman of the City of London, presided over the panel of judges with his usual imperturbability; it was to be his last public appearance before the cancer against which he had battled with fortitude finally overtook him, after a long life of unremitting work in the service of music and five months short of his 90th birthday.

Ivor Mairants, guitarist, composer, writer and teacher: born Rypin, Poland 8 July 1908; married 1931 Lily Schneider (one son, one daughter); died London 20 February 1998.