Obituary: Kenny Graham

When asked if football was a matter of life and death for him, Bill Shankly famously growled "It's much more important than that." Kenny Graham felt the same way about jazz music and he seems, at the time of the lonely death he chose for himself, to judge from the compact discs found with him, to have been listening to it to the end.

He was a man of uncompromised integrity in both his musical and personal life and hated insincerity and crassness. In 1954 when the singer Billie Holiday visited Britain she sang informally to a handful of people at the Downbeat Club. While she was singing someone less sensitive than most of the audience decided to use the payphone by the bandstand. Graham had to be physically restrained from assaulting him.

Fired throughout his life by the music of Duke Ellington, Graham became the most original and effective of British composers, and in 1960 was paid a unique tribute when he was commissioned to write a collection of compositions for the musicians from Ellington's band. These were then recorded by the saxophonists Harry Carney and Paul Gonsalves, the trumpeter Ray Nance and Duke's drummer Sam Woodyard amongst others. Graham also wrote outstanding compositions for the Ted Heath Orchestra and Humphrey Lyttelton.

The writer and musician Steve Race wrote of Graham in 1953: "Kenny is the nearest thing we have to a real composer . . . in embryo perhaps a great one. If only he, too, will remember that fact he may well make an international mark on jazz before very long."

In an unlikely beginning Graham was taught from the age of six by his father, a keen amateur, to play the banjo. "I could read music before I could read letters," he said. Soon switching to the C Melody sax, his father's second instrument, and then the alto, he had settled on the tenor by the time he became a professional musician in 1940. Drawn early to jazz, he nevertheless worked mainly as a dance-band musician for his first decade. Volunteering for the Army in 1942, Graham hoped to be enrolled in a service band, but the Army had other ideas. So did Graham. He dyed his flaming red hair black and went absent without leave, assuming the name of "Tax Kershaw" and working for the trumpeter Johnny Claes's Claepigeons. Cornered eventually, he was eventually demobbed after four miserable years.

The "name" bands Graham worked in included those of Nat Temple, Nat Gonella, Ambrose, Leslie "Jiver" Hutchinson, Eric Winstone and Jack Parnell. He also worked for small jazz groups like the Harry Klein Quintet, Victor Feldman's Sextet and the Feldman Club band before forming his own band, Kenny Graham's Afro-Cubists, in April 1952. An eclectic leader years ahead of his time, Graham chose to mix elements of what would today be known as World Music with the Bebop style into which his band naturally gravitated. Through acquaintances he made in the West Indian community in London in the Forties, Graham met visiting African percussionists who toured Britain with dance troupes, and he blended their rhythms with those of his Caribbean friends to shape the music of his new band. In the band he had a new and inventive trumpeter, Jo Hunter, and a dazzlingly fast drummer, Dickie Devere.

Contemporary listeners were agreed that the band was one of the most artistically successful of all British groups but despite concerts, broadcasts and recording dates it was a financial disaster and after two years Graham broke it up. He occasionally re-formed the band and kept the exotic rhythms in his playing, but, freed of the millstone of band-leading, he was able to concentrate on his writing. Some of the works he wrote for the Ted Heath Orchestra had Ellingtonian proportions and his Beaulieu Festival Suite, recorded in 1959, was a masterpiece. Ellington himself would have been proud to have created "The Abbey", an atmospheric piece of writing unmatched by a British composer until Michael Gibbs came along a couple of decades later.

Graham became ill in 1958 and gave up regular saxophone playing. But happily he then formed an unlikely alliance with the trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton, who had graduated from being a traditional jazz player into leading his finest ever band, an octet which included some of the most gifted modern players of the day. The friendship between the two men lasted until Graham's death, and some of his finest work, written for Lyttelton, deserves an essay on its own. At a time when it seemed that Arts Council grants were being handed out like dolly mixtures, Lyttelton tried without success to arrange one for Graham, who would no doubt have used it to create immortal music.

"One Day I Met an African" was his best-known contribution to the band. It was another atmospheric piece which, again, Ellington would have been proud to have written. Lyttelton first recorded it in 1959, but it had a life of its own. First abandoned when the octet broke up, it became in demand on a BBC World Service request programme in 1980, and Lyttelton was compelled to record another version which Graham rearranged for his current band. It was in 1980 that Graham contributed two more of his most potent works to the band, deeply felt ballads written for specific musicians, "Adagio For David" for John Barnes, and "Ladyless and Lachrymose" for Roy Williams.

Graham composed music for film and later experimented with electronic keyboards. His most inspired work included an orchestral suite, The Labours of Heracles, commissioned by the BBC and given one performance on radio before disappearing for ever.

Graham had many gifts, and was an expert in electronics, working at one time maintaining ticket machines on the London Underground. He was also a skilled amateur watch- and clock-maker.

I met Kenny Graham once, in 1979, through my friendship with Lyttelton. Thereafter we kept in regular touch by letter and by phone. By now he was working as caretaker in a block of flats in Putney and had become reclusive. He had to a large extent lost his inspiration and wrote music only rarely and then only at Lyttelton's instigation. I wonder how many postmen have lost their innocence while delivering to my home the postcards which Graham constructed. When he collected the newspapers and magazines abandoned from the apartments in his charge, he went through them, selected appropriate pictures and then assembled them on postcards and captioned them. He had perhaps the most outrageous sense of humour I have ever encountered.

Steve Voce

Kenneth Thomas Skingle (Kenny Graham), saxophonist, keyboard player, composer, bandleader: born London 19 July 1924; married (two sons, one daughter); died London 17 February 1997.

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

HR Assistant / Human Resources Assistant

£Neg + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: An HR Assistant / Human Resources Ass...

Talent Community Coordinator

£Neg + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: A Talent Community Coordinator is nee...

Business Support - Banking - Halifax - £250 pd

£150 - £250 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - HR - Halifax - £150 - £250...

Geography Teacher

£24000 - £33600 per annum + pre 12 week AWR : Randstad Education Manchester Se...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform