Obituary: Johnny van Derrick

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The Independent Online
The jazz violinist Johnny van Derrick enjoyed a long and colourful career as a performer and recording artist. He is best known to the public as the violinist behind recent advertisements for the Renault Clio, and as a soloist on Mancini's soundtrack to The Pink Panther.

But van Derrick's fellow musicians will remember a maestro of daunting integrity, who stuck vehemently to jazz's routes in dance music and song. He maintained a dizzying round of engagements, whether teaching at the Royal Academy of Music, recording a television theme, or astonishing live audiences with his extraordinary technique and wicked charm.

In performance van Derrick was an incomparable showman, whether pretending to make pizzicato notes come from the top of his bald head, or swapping quotes from the classics with the guitarist Denny Wright. Van Derrick was compared to Stephane Grappelli, whom he knew and admired, but his style was cleverer, his swing more strident, and his playing perhaps more influenced by Joe Venuti. It remains a great sadness that his unique combination of a virtuoso technique and a devilish swing did not quite reach the large public it deserved.

Van Derrick was born in 1926 and was introduced to music by his father, who was a fine cornet player. As a young boy he was sent to the Brussels Conservatoire, where he was awarded a silver medal, but his classical studies ended with the outbreak of the Second World War. He found work back in London touring Stoll Moss theatres with Louis Mexano's Accordion Band ("eight tiny Italians with enormous instruments") before joining the Merchant Navy and spending the rest of the war on the British convoys to Russia.

In the early post-war years van Derrick played trumpet for dance bands like Maurice Winnick's ("the sweetest music this side of heaven") and Lou Preager's. He couldn't keep away from the fiddle for long, however, and undertook six years of study with his mentor Sascha Lasserson. He joined the Halle Orchestra, but he found the working conditions dispiriting and returned to freelancing.

In his subsequent career, which spanned almost 50 years of British jazz and commercial music, van Derrick played for everyone from the Beatles to Rod Stewart. He proved himself a master of all styles, from his bebop days with Roy Fox and Tubby Hayes to his jazz broadcasts with the Jack Togood Swingtet on BBC's Late Night Live. He was an excellent country fiddler and gave a televised performance from the Albert Hall of Mancini's country concerto Oklahoma Crude, a performance which won him a five-star invitation to Nashville. His own CDs, Always on the Fiddle and Gershwinning, demonstrate his phenomenal range, with his wistful, French-sounding compositions placed next to his electrifying swing duets with the guitarist Phil Bond.

But it was as a live performer and a teacher that he was in his element. He brought the same infectious joy to musicians as he did to audiences and he was unusually generous in passing on his knowledge. He imparted his love for all aspects of the violin literature to his pupils, and refused to take a proper fee.

When I approached him as a young hopeful trying to sus out the master's secrets, I was warmly invited to his house. The frail-looking man, who had had heart disease for 20 years, took me through a three-hour assault course of violin exercises and drills, virtuoso repertoire and concertos, followed by lectures on violin-making and trumpet playing. Johnny van Derrick always maintained that jazz violin was a delicate art, and I understood then that his own playing, which looked so effortless, had evolved out of a lifetime of loving dedication.

David Lasserson

Johnny van Derrick, violinist: born 1926; married (two sons); died Denham, Buckinghamshire 15 May 1995.

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