The torch carriers

Interview: John Walsh meets Cleo Laine and John Dankworth
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Milton Keynes is not the obvious place to look for exotic flowers or musical geniuses. Its flat, concrete landscape, the dismal corporate architecture that flanks its soul-destroying motorways, its pointless roundabouts... really, the 10-minute drive to the village of Wavendon, even with my chatty Indian taxi driver, is enough to lower one's spirits to a groan. But then you turn into the village with its sweet church, and think, Maybe this isn't too bad after all. Down a lane past the Leathern Bottel pub, you find a driveway, then a handsome Victorian house, its religious provenance suggested by the symbol of a bishop's mitre carved in the stone entrance. Through the trees, you can make out the Wavendon Stables Theatre, where the musical events get produced, but you can't concentrate on that now. All you're aware of is that you're on the threshhold of Cleo Laine's kingdom.

Ms Laine is an icon of the Fifties generation of jazz-lovers, but her uniquely gorgeous voice has cooed and sauntered through the lives of many fortysomething rock 'n' roll fans who managed to stifle their prejudices long enough to listen to her. And when you hear her singing old Duke Ellington or Gershwin classics ("I'm Beginning to See the Light", Porgy and Bess) or newer songs by Sondheim and Carole King, you wonder why anyone else bothers. It's not just the famous four-octave range, moving from a Barry White basso growl to a fluting, vertiginous soprano (she can hit E flat above top C, which is coloratura level); it's not just her promiscuous shifts of tempo, from achingly croony ballads (like "Creole Love Call") to prancingly flippant, scat-sung tours-de-force like "Birdsong", in which her voice accompanies the frantic racing line of a jazz guitar as if stitched on to it. It's another quality that's always alive in her singing, a kind of regal amusement, a cooing fatale superiority. Half Jamaican, half Middlesex and mostly from Paradise, she neither looks nor sounds like anyone else.

But look where she comes. Ms Laine does not mind that I'm half an hour late - true Bohemians do not concern themselves with mere matters of Time, only timing. Her speaking voice is a slight shock - a perfect EastEnders demotic, with undertones of musk and malt whisky. She leads me through the hallway of the Old Rectory - about the size of Milton Keynes station, only with more chairs - to her inner sanctum, a living room into which you could comfortably fit the Centre Court at Wimbledon, with a grand piano, a table crammed with magazines, a lot of glass cases and an air of indolent luxury. Ms Laine in person is short and plump, in a grey jacket with an expensive silver bee on her lapel. But all you really register is her colossal head, with its famous frizz of crimped ringlettes, her fathomless brown eyes and her huge mouth, a fleshy cappuccino splash outlined in brown lip-pencil like a sexy tide-mark. It crosses your mind that kissing Ms Laine, now or 40 years ago, must be an extraordinarily intense, enveloping experience.

John Dankworth appears. Ms Laine's husband of 39 years (and musical Svengali for rather more) is wearing a cool, black patterned shirt like a genial fascist, his long grey hair tied in a rakish ponytail. He is a card and a charmer - wayward when she is sensible, pedantic when she is nostalgic, an indulgent but not uncritical consort to this uncompromising diva. He talks with exquisite cod-formality and likes to deliver ad hoc lecturettes. In the space of an hour, I learned about the compositional tics of whoever wrote "Tea for Two", about microwave ovens, Shakespeare's sonnets, Malcolm Arnold's reputation and what ought to be played in the Millennium Dome.

"We're very undomesticated now, since the children buzzed off," said Cleo. "But John has never really needed me to iron or cook for him." "Let's say I've never expected any ironing from her," said Dankworth with a sigh. "My wife is an ironing genius, an incredible ironer. Completely missed her vocation. She never burns anything. Never double-creases anything. I've never seen such ironing..." Cleo smiles at this mystifying riff. Although she has been made a Dame of the British Empire, she has not, she says, installed a butler, footmen and parlourmaids to do her imperious bidding. She and John have two secretaries, who screen the phone-calls, make the tea and fend off Dankworth's twinkly charm. "Happily, someone comes in to do the boring dusting. And I just chuck the washing in the washing machine," said Cleo. Her lack of interest in housework she attributes to growing up in Southall, Middlesex. "My childhood was very nomadic. We were always moving around all the time, avoiding debts. I'm really happy to go on just floating about. I haven't made any roots." She glanced around the cavernous living-room. "Except here - maybe just one root. But if I lost it, I know I wouldn't cry."

Ms Laine's unghosted memoirs, Cleo (Simon & Shuster, pounds 16.99), evoke an unknown time and place - the west end of Greater London in the late Twenties and early Thirties - when her parents scratched a living selling things door to door, "on the knocker". Her father, Alexander Sylvan Campbell, left Jamaica after a family row, was gassed in the First World War and used to harangue Hyde Park promenaders from a soap box at Speakers' Corner. Cleo (who started life as Clementine Campbell) adored him. Her mother, Minnie Blanche, was a bigamist who ran a boarding house for Irish labourers. She is less fondly remembered, because of her tendency to ignore the young Clementine in favour of her brother, Alex Jnr. Is that why Cleo has never been maternal? "Well I certainly never had a home-maker streak. But I'm very maternal. When John and I got married, I wanted to have seven children - seven boys, so I could tell 'em off."

She started singing with one Madame De Councey, who also taught dancing and piano. Her debut, at three, was with a number called "Let's All Sing the Barmaid's Song" at a Southall working man's club, with her weird fuzz of hair tied up in a red bow. She was 12 when war broke out. "We weren't evacuated because my father had a sister living in New York and we were supposed to be shipped over there. But then a ship full of evacuees went down and my mother wouldn't let us go. There were air raids every night, buzz-bombs, firebombs, the lot." Curiously, it was one of the few times she became self-conscious about her colour. "The one time I realised it might be a problem having a black father was during the war. I got it into my not-very-bright head that Hitler, if he came over, wouldn't like me, because I wasn't Aryan. I wondered where to hide myself if he did come to get me..."

Dankworth grew up in the East End, his mother and sister enthusiastic pianists, his father a singer. A career in the classical repertoire lay waiting for him. Then, with his first earnings from a paper round, he bought his first record, a 78 rpm double burst of Bix Beiderbecke and Duke Ellington. "After that I bought nothing but Duke Ellington records. He was just streets ahead of everyone at the time." His parents sent him to the Royal Academy of Music. "It was a last-ditch attempt to stop the rot. They said, 'If you want to play this awful jazz stuff, you'd better go and learn an instrument properly'." His real training came while playing gigs across the Atlantic on the Queen Mary with a band composed of friends equally besotted with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Every two weeks for a year, they "played awful Micky Mouse dance music on the voyage, then spent two days in New York, going around buying reeds and mouthpieces for our instruments, and ties for our friends, and shirts and suits, and spent afternoons, evenings and nights in nightclubs, listening to the greats".

Since they married in 1958, their lives have been a square-dance of concerts, tours, trips, encounters and sunderings with everyone who ever sang or played a decent note. The Dankworth archives are full of photos of Cleo 'n' John with their arms round the great and famous - Frank, Sammy, Kiri, John Williams, Chick Corea, Dudley Moore (who was in John's band in the late Fifties), James Galway, Sondheim. Ms Laine's heroine is Ella Fitzgerald, who told her she admired her legs in 1959, and sent her a note when she won a Grammy award, saying "Congratulations, girl, it's about time".

They are currently in the midst of a protracted and gruelling tour. Last night they were in Scarborough. "It hasn't changed at all," said Ms Laine. "We sat on the promenade and looked at the people. I looked at the way they were dressed and thought, If you took a photo now, and compared it with one taken in the Thirties, it'd be hard to tell them apart." Next stop is Toronto, then New York, then New Zealand and Hong Kong. A score of transatlantic dates hence, they'll be appearing together at the Proms on 29 August. What will they be performing? "Come on Dankworth," said Cleo (her habitual mode of address to her life partner), "You're the musical director..." But beyond a expressing a whim to do some stuff from their bestselling Shakespeare and All That Jazz album, they haven't a clue about the playlist. "We're jazz musicians," said Cleo shortly. "You can't expect us to do everything by the book".

No indeed. According to the book, jazz singers don't divert abruptly from their career path to become leading ladies in experimental theatre, as Cleo did at the Royal Court in the Fifties, under Tony Richardson and George Devine. She was required less for her acting skills than for her status as an authentic black girl with presence and beauty. Dankworth also kept a foothold in the smart avant-garde world, writing the music for, amongst other movies, Joseph Losey's The Servant, scripted by a hero of the new wave. "Yeah, I wrote a song with Harold Pinter," he said proudly. "In The Servant, though, it wasn't much of a song. The first line is, 'Leave it alone, it's all gone'. And the second line is, 'Leave it alone, it's all gone'..." We were quite friendly at the time, and I said to him, that could be a very good song, can you make it a standard lyric? And he just said, 'No, no, I don't see any reason to change it'. And he never did."

Did I mention that they will both turn 70 this autumn? I asked how they kept touring, at an age when most hard-living singer-musicians would be canted over plastic trays in the dayroom of some anonymous nursing home. Did they have a special health regimen? "I have been, from time to timer, a fanatic about exercise," said Cleo, "and I still do it, though not to the same degree. I don't smoke. I don't eat meat. Since I'm working almost every day, I don't need to exercise the vocal cords. Sleep is the most important thing for a singer." Could she still stay up to the small hours, drinking the band under the table? "Oh I go to bed around 3am most nights," she said. "I'm a night bird. But I only have a glass of red wine or two these days." She reconsidered. "Well sometimes I have a binge, but I regret it the next day and go off drink for a year..."

That voice of yours, I said, had it actually improved by hanging out in smoky clubs all these years? She looked at me. "Improved?" Dankworth diplomatically stepped in. "It always makes jazz people bristle," he explained, "this idea that you can't have a jazz club without smoke. In New York now, jazz clubs are almost devoid of smoke." "I wish they were in blinking Europe," said Cleo with feeling. "'Cos I simply hate it." Extraordinary to hear such a thing from the queen of torch singers, a woman whose voice has most regularly been described as "smoky". "Either that or 'coffee- coloured'," said Dankworth.

Was it true that she could sing only one octave when Dankworth got to work on her? "I guess I'm a natural contralto. That's where my real voice lays." There was a silence. "Perhaps you mean lies, my dear," said John. "That's where my voice is," said Cleo firmly. How had she trained it up to the high Cs? "I did it myself. The low register came naturally, but the high notes I had to acquire. I found the sounding-boards within this very large head." Sounding boards? "Every head's got them - in the chest, in the jaw, in the bone structure, all the little places here and here [she indicated the pouches of her cheeks] where you can find a a way of singing either a higher note, or a better note or a clearer note. A lot of people don't bother using them. I know singers in America who say they have all the top notes but didn't want to use them because they weren't fashionable. Until they heard me, that is..."

Dankworth once told an interviewer, "What binds us most is music - that and the fact that we have nothing in common." Did he mean it? "It's just instinctive," said John. "When we're threading our way across a restaurant, I'll think the best way is round this table, and she'll think it's that table. We just think differently in lots of ways. She's much more sensible and practical than I am." "I'm just a typical wife," said Cleo. "But we both have our moments. We can be sensible, then start behaving like a five-year-old." "More a seven-year-old," said John. "We keep each other on our toes," said Cleo, ignoring him.

The last question is about her new status as a Dame. After a lifetime of plaudits, awards, recognition, fame and the friendship of the great, would it change her? Cleo considered it, raising her queenly head. "My daughter asked me that the other day. I told her, 'It might make me a little more ... assertive'. You should have seen her face." "It'll make a nice change," said John, "from the wimpy, negative person she was before." Cleo delivered her best barmaid laugh: "So hard done by..." she said, through giggles. "All I can says is," said her husband, "is, if she's a Dame, I'm proud to be Buttons. Or am I thinking of Widow Twankey?"