Humphrey Lyttelton, broadcaster and jazz musician, dies aged 86

By Sadie Gray
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:59

Humphrey Lyttelton, the jazz musician, journalist and radio presenter, has died at the age of 86.

Humph, as he was affectionately known, was still working and planning a tour with his band right up to his admission to hospital on 16 April for surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm. He died at 7pm this evening in Barnet Hospital, north London.

His admission to hospital had forced the spring series of I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, the Radio 4 comedy show he presented for 30 years, to be cancelled earlier this week. In an email to members of the show's fan club, its producer, Jon Naismith, had said he was "otherwise fine and in good spirits".

Last month, Lyttelton had given up his role as presenter of BBC Radio 2's Best of Jazz, saying he was leaving to "clear a space for some of my other ambitions". He had been at the helm of the show since 1967, introducing thousands of listeners to many different styles of jazz.

At the time, the Radio 2 controller, Lesley Douglas, said: "Humphrey Lyttelton is not only a giant in the world of jazz, but has also remained a giant of music broadcasting for the past 40 years. The world of music broadcasting will be poorer without his weekly show."

He was still touring with his eight-piece band, performing sell-out shows around the country, although his forthcoming tour had been cancelled due to his illness.

Lyttelton was born on 23 May 1921 at Eton College, where his father was a housemaster, and where he duly became a pupil. He first picked up a trumpet in 1936 and, after spending the Second World War as an officer in the Grenadier Guards, became a pioneering figure in the British jazz scene. On being demobbed from the Guards he spent two years at Camberwell Art School, an experience he later called upon when he joined the Daily Mail as a cartoonist in 1949. He went on to work as a journalist for Punch, The Field, and the British Airways magazine, Highlife.

Lyttelton formed his first band in 1948 after spending a year with George Webb's Dixielanders, a band that pioneered New Orleans-style jazz in the UK. The Humphrey Lyttelton Band quickly became Britain's leading traditional jazz group, and continental tours gave them a following in Europe.

In 1949, he signed a recording contract with EMI which led to a string of records in the Parlophone Super Rhythm Style series and which have become highly sought after.

1956 was a good year for Humph. Eight years earlier, at the Nice International Jazz Festival, Louis Armstrong had said of him: "That boy's comin' on," and now the King of Jazz asked Humphrey Lyttelton and his Band to open a series of shows in London for him. The same year, Lyttelton became the first musician to enter the top 20 with a British jazz record, "Bad Penny Blues", which stayed in the charts for six weeks.

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By the late 1950s he was branching out, enlarging his band and experimenting with mainstream and non-traditional material, and shocking his established fans in the process. In 1959, the band made a successful tour of the United States.

He was a keen amateur calligrapher and birdwatcher, and in 1984 formed his own record label, Calligraph. He composed more than 120 original songs during his career. In 1993 he won the radio industry's highest honour, a Sony Gold Award. He also won lifetime achievement awards at the Post Office British Jazz Awards in 2000, and the inaugural BBC Jazz Awards the following year.

Lyttelton played for the younger generation too: he performed on Radiohead's track "Life in a GlassHouse" in 2000, later joining the band on stage for a concert in Oxford. He said it was one of the most moving experiences of his musical career.

Throughout his life, keeping a sense of humour remained a priority. On announcing his death, his website carried his words: "As we journey through life, discarding baggage along the way, we should keep an iron grip, to the very end, on the capacity for silliness. It preserves the soul from dessication."

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