Obituary: Bruce Turner

Bruce Turner, clarinettist, saxophonist and band leader: born Saltburn-by-the- Sea, Yorkshire 5 July 1922; died Newport Pagnall, Buckinghamshire 28 November 1993.

THE saxophone had much the same effect on the purist jazz fans of the Fifties in their war with the 'modernists' as a crucifix has on a vampire. So when Bruce Turner joined the until then traditional Humphrey Lyttelton band in 1953 and played his first concert with the band on alto saxophone at Birmingham Town Hall a group of the band's more extreme fans unfurled a banner reading 'Go Home Dirty Bopper]' This was a risible comment on a man who stuck to the tradition in jazz and in the process made a world-wide reputation as one of the music's great soloists.

Turner, a genuine eccentric, was fortunate to spend 22 years working for a collector and protector of eccentrics. When Turner left the Lyttelton band (he returned later) in May 1957 he was replaced by Tony Coe, another world-class saxophonist. Lyttelton wrote that Coe 'like Bruce . . . speaks in a normal conversational voice which can, on a clear day, be heard two inches away. Like Bruce he has an almost studied incapacity for coping with the irrelevant practicalities of life, like catching trains or remembering where he last saw his saxophone.'

Turner's soft voice meant that it was futile for him to try to speak to Lyttelton while they were on stage with the band. Perhaps this led to Turner's claim when he finally left Lyttelton in 1988 that in the last years of his stay with the band Lyttelton was always so busy that he could only contact him by letter. (Lyttelton refuted this and recalled the hours which the two of them, as the band's nondrinkers, spent talking in the dressing rooms while the rest of the band was in the pub.) When Turner went to Heathrow to deputise for his successor in the band on a brief trip abroad, Lyttelton handed him a letter which read 'Dear Bruce, Hello, Humph.'

Even by 1953 Turner had gained an international reputation and had until then invariably been the outstanding soloist in any group he played with. He admired the alto saxophonists Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter, but later came to regard Tab Smith as his favourite player of the instrument. (Less than two weeks ago in a BBC radio programme, I played records to him by Smith and Hodges and his comments were so lucid and revealing that we planned to devote another programme to our discussions. He was looking forward eagerly to this, but died the day before it was to be transmitted.)

Because he was skilled at recreating the sounds of Hodges and Carter he was sometimes regarded as a copyist, but this was not the case, for the ideas he improvised were uniquely his own and he never borrowed from another player. His integrity meant that he would not be fenced in by musical boundaries as he had played accomplished bebop in the post-war years before deciding that swing and mainstream jazz were his idioms.

Turner taught himself the clarinet at school and took up the alto in 1943 while in the RAF. Afte the war he played dixieland with Freddy Randall's band for periods between 1948 and 1953. During this time he joined the stream of British musicians who 'played the boats', working with the pianist Dill Jones and the bassist Peter Ind in a quartet on board the Queen Mary. This was an invaluable chance for those musicians to hear the most modern jazz at source and, whilst in New York, Turner studied with the then avant-garde alto player Lee Konitz.

In the late Fifties the Lyttelton band toured with Eddie Condon's All Stars, where Turner met another of his influences, the clarinet and later soprano sax player Bob Wilber. Turner surprised the Americans with his prowess when he deputised for Wilber and this further enhanced his reputation.

In 1957 he left Lyttelton to form the Bruce Turner Jump Band, playing in the style of the small swing bands of the Thirties. The band was a huge artistic success but, in the commercial waters of the traditional revival, it stood little chance financially, despite touring with the American musicians Ben Webster, Don Byas and Bill Coleman. When the group broke up Turner joined Acker Bilk's band for four successful years before returning to Lyttelton.

Turner described himself as 'the Jack Benny of jazz' and cultivated a reputation for carefulness which was not entirely justified. Soon after the drummer Adrian Macintosh had joined he found himself in Monte Carlo with the Lyttelton band. He asked Turner if he was buying presents to take home for the kids. 'Kids] Kids]' Turner said. 'They haven't finished paying for their Christmas presents yet.' Surreptitiously he sent money to help the Vietnamese boat people and to other causes, but kept his contributions secret because 'it would damage my reputation'. His conversation was coded - only Lyttelton understood it fully - and peppered with phrases from the Bunteresque comics of the Thirties: 'Some fun, I'd say,' and 'This is the life for a chap, life for a chap.' A long-forgotten American film comic called Hugh Herbert had instilled in him early the habit of saying everything twice.

He published his autobiography, Hot Air, Cool Music, in 1984 and for a time contributed a column on jazz to the Daily Worker. He was a Communist and, when it had ceased to be fashionable, a Stalinist.

'You can always tell when Bruce is angry,' Lyttelton said. 'He only says things once.'

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Have you been doing a brilliant job in an admi...

Surrey County Council: Senior Project Officer (Fixed Term to Feb 2019)

£26,498 - £31,556: Surrey County Council: We are looking for an outgoing, conf...

Recruitment Genius: Interim Head of HR

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an innovative, senior H...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources and Payroll Administrator

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client, a very well respect...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003