Sir John Dankworth: Saxophonist who pioneered modern jazz in Britain and became a patron of music education

One of the first British musicians to grasp the fundamentals of "modern" (post swing) jazz, the saxophonist Johnny Dankworth eventually surpassed his bandleading days to become a skilled composer of film music, a prominent patron of the arts and head of a burgeoning musical dynasty. It is unlikely that there was ever such a splendid husband and wife partnership in jazz as that engendered when Cleo Laine joined the Johnny Dankworth Seven in 1951 for £7 a week and which was reinforced when they eventually married in 1958.

The pair soared to the top of the jazz scene and beyond as success piled on success and they became able to devote their huge talents to supporting and financing the music education of others. They gave their lives to the music and to the founding of a musical dynasty – their son Alec is one of the country's leading bassists and their daughter Jacqui, like her mother, is an eminent vocalist and actress, while Emily, their granddaughter and daughter of Alec Dankworth, has worked and recorded as a singer with their extraordinarily gifted family.

Cleo and Johnny met in the summer of 1951 when Clementine Langridge, as she was then, came to audition for a job with the Seven.

"I think she's got something, don't you?" Dankworth asked his musicians after she had sung four songs with the band.

"Something? I think she's got everything." Trumpeter Jimmy Deuchar was convinced. He was right. And so between them Dankworth and his manager Les Perrin concocted the named Cleo Laine for the new singer.

Born into a musical family in Woodford, Essex, Dankworth attended Walthamstow Grammar School, during which time he took lessons on the violin and the piano. Hearing a record by the Benny Goodman Quartet when he was 16 persuaded him to switch to the clarinet. Consulted by Dank-worth's father, his headmaster reported that the boy had a "perverted taste for jazz. Already to my horror, he plays for dance bands."

A brush with the records of Johnny Hodges a little later led Dankworth to add the alto saxophone to his clarinet. Inspiration from Charlie Parker led to him concentrating on the alto sax, although he was eventually to become as much renowned as a composer, orchestrator and bandleader as he was as an instrumentalist, his earlier soloing in particular having an insipid dimension to it.

Dankworth first worked professionally touring music halls with the novelty band Freddy Mirfield's Garbage Men. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music from 1944 to July 1946 when he joined the Royal Army Service Corps, playing with an army dance band in Cirencester. Released in June 1947, Dankworth then joined Geraldo's Navy.

After the Second World War the bandleader Geraldo had been made musical director for Cunard's luxury liners sailing between Britain and the States. Places in the bands in what became known as Geraldo's Navy were much sought after by young jazz musicians eager to hear the newly emerged modern jazz known as Bebop in its home city of New York. Dankworth and Ronnie Scott were in their vanguard and joined Geraldo to play on the Queen Mary in 1947. To be paid to travel to New York once a fortnight and to hear their idols there was a miraculous windfall.

"On 52nd Street we would listen to [Charlie 'Bird'] Parker for hours," Dankworth recalled. "I remember one trip when Lester Young was playing next door to where Bird was playing. We listened to Lester for only 10 minutes and then we went back and heard Bird for about five hours." Dankworth's perspicacity gave him an early insight into the new music.

"At that time only a few of us realised that the new music was a complete alteration harmonically from what had gone before and not just a stylisation or way of phrasing. That's where some British musicians fell down, for instance, the leading saxophonists of the time. They tried hard to assimilate Parker into their playing but fell into the trap of merely incorporating what you would call Bebop phrases, almost clichés.

"In the end our fortnightly trips to America became routine and in lots of ways rather boring routine, since our work on the ship, which mainly involved playing for dancing, held few musical kicks for us."

Along with two of his friends in the band, Dankworth was fired from the shipboard band for playing practical jokes on their fellow musicians. He joined Bert Ambrose's band in 1948 and when he left in July 1949 to join the Skyrockets, one of his first jobs was to accompany the visiting Benny Goodman. Dankworth had been a founder member in December 1948 of London's Club Eleven, famed as the birthplace of British Bebop. But the fact was that the musicians, including Dankworth and Scott, had already been playing the new music for some time at sessions in the Fullado Club in New Crompton Street.

By December 1949 Dankworth, who had been chosen as Musician of the Year by Melody Maker readers, was sufficiently au fait with Bebop to be able to form the Johnny Dankworth Seven, a co-operative band that was broadly based on the work of the legendary Miles Davis band of that year. This was a brave move, for the acceptance among the public of Bebop was at that time very small. The Seven included lions of British jazz: Bill Le Sage (who became its manager), trumpeter Jimmy Deuchar, tenor saxophonist Don Rendell, trombonist Eddie Harvey and drummer Tony Kinsey. An early date was at the 400 Ballroom in Torquay.

"To us the offer of 90 per cent of the box-office takings for a week sounded like riches indeed," Dankworth said, "until our opening night attracted about a dozen customers. We dealt with early complaints from dance promoters – that it was impossible to dance to our music – by producing a clutch of versions of popular tunes and standards arranged with reference to the style of Victor Sylvester, the leading ballroom dance band of the day."

The Seven disbanded in July 1953 and Dankworth formed his first big band, which was to last until 1964. Cleo Laine, who Dankworth had married in 1958, was the band's vocalist. A quite astonishing list of top musicians played in the band over those years, among them Rendell, Le Sage, Harvey, Keith Christie, Danny Moss, Kenny Wheeler, Dickie Hawdon, Dudley Moore, Kenny Napper, Alan Ganley and Kenny Clare. Dankworth managed with the band to stay true to his musical ideals and at the same time provide music for ballroom dancing, where it earned its keep.

Unhappy with the conventional big band line-up of instruments, he redesigned the orchestra in 1956 and with his arranger Dave Lindup created an original voicing for the revised instrumentation. The new style was light and flexible and gave Dankworth a hit record in that year with "Experiments With Mice", an imaginative reworking of "Three Blind Mice" that parodied the styles of several well-known bands. Another hit record followed in 1960 with Dankworth's reworking of the eccentric jazz composition "African Waltz".

The band toured in the US in 1959, sharing the bill for a week with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and playing at the Newport Festival. At this time Dankworth also worked for Nat "King" Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson and Sophie Tucker. An interest in the author's work produced the album What The Dickens in 1963, while an early manifestation of Dankworth's desire to combine music from across the world came with the 1965 Zodiac Suite, recorded in London and New York with later over-dubbing by some American soloists.

In 1960 Dankworth gave up leading the big band so that he could concentrate on the opportunities for composition which were now presenting themselves to him. Works were commissioned by the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. As well as writing for television commercials he was soon revealed to be a master of creating music for films and over the next few years there was a rush of commissions which resulted in him writing the scores for We Are The Lambeth Boys (1959), Saturday Night And Sunday Morning (1960), The Criminal (1960), The Servant (1963), Darling (1965), Modesty Blaise (1966) and Morgan, A Suitable Case For Treatment (1966). He composed television themes including Danger Man (1960), The Avengers (1961) and Tomorrow's World (1966).

In the mid-Sixties Cleo Laine had become a soloist rather than a band singer and much of Dankworth's time was taken in acting as her musical director, leading her backing quartet and providing magnificent material for her to sing – notably the unforgettable series of Shakespeare songs that the two performed together.

In 1969 the two created the Wavendon Allmusic Plan, a scheme to promote arts in general and musical education at The Stables in the garden of their Buckinghamshire home, Wavendon. They eventually added a 300-seat concert hall to draw in audiences and it was there last Saturday at an event designed to celebrate 40 years of the Plan that Cleo Laine announced to the audience that her husband had died.

Appointed CBE in 1974, Dankworth founded the London Symphony Orchestra Summer Pops in 1985 and formed the Dankworth Generation Band with his son Alec in 1993. In addition to many honorary degrees he received the Freedom of the City of London in 1994. Dankworth, who was knighted in 2006, made his last public appearance at the London Jazz Festival in December, playing on stage from his wheelchair.

Steve Voce

John Philip William Dankworth, alto saxophonist, bandleader, orchestrator, composer: born Woodford, Essex 20 September 1927; CBE, 1974; Kt 2006; married 1958 Clementine Laine (Cleo Laine), (one son, one daughter); died London 6 February 2010.

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