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Henry MacKenzie

Clarinettist with Ted Heath's band

Tuesday 09 October 2007 00:00 BST

Henry MacKenzie, clarinettist and tenor saxophone player: born Edinburgh 15 February 1923; married 1976 Barbara Holton; died Carshalton, Surrey 2 September 2007.

Henry MacKenzie, who became famous with the Ted Heath band, was a virtuoso and a perfectionist. Although he was one of the top three jazz clarinet players in Britain for more than half a century, he didn't think he was any good.

"In all the years we were married, I never heard him say that he was pleased with one of his performances," said his wife, Barbara. "When he'd come home after a job I'd ask him how it went and he'd always say something like 'I came in too soon' or 'It didn't sound the way they wanted it'."

Starting on accordion when he was 11, MacKenzie played euphonium in a local Boys' Brigade band. He didn't take up the clarinet and saxophone until his late teens. During the Thirties he worked in Edinburgh in a band led by the violinist George Adam. He played in an Army band during the Second World War when he was in the Royal Army Service Corps. He was a founder member of the legendary Tommy Sampson band in 1947, staying till 1948, and with it toured Britain, Italy and Germany. Briefly with Paul Fenoulhet in 1949, he joined Ted Heath in September of that year and stayed for 18 years until Heath's death.

MacKenzie got the job in the Ted Heath band because Heath, a disciplinarian, had fired his tenor player Johnny Gray for wearing a shirt without a button at the collar while on the bandstand. "After the Tommy Sampson band it was a bit strict," he told Sheila Tracy, the writer and broadcaster.

With Tommy if you got to the coach half an hour late it didn't matter, but when I first joined the Heath band I noticed the difference because I got there 10 minutes late and the coach had gone. I got a train and made it in time. You could never be late for rehearsal, death was the only excuse.

One memory I have of Carnegie Hall, apart from being petrified because everyone in New

York was there that night, was I'd broken my mouthpiece and I had to play with a borrowed one. You hear so much about Carnegie Hall and when you find yourself actually there it's a bit frightening, but I think you reach a point where you say, "To hang with it, I don't care if they like it or not, just go on and play",' and it was a big success.

I suppose if you were speaking to him you would call him Ted, but if you were speaking to someone else you would refer to him as Mr Heath, although I don't think I ever called him Ted.

MacKenzie's solo playing with the band had the fine combination of symphonic technique and jazz fire that epitomised the work of clarinettist Jimmy Hamilton with the Duke Ellington band. Five years ago I asked him to join me in a broadcast where I planned to play his recording of "Henry IX", the track written for him by the arranger Johnny Keating, and tracks by peers of his like Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. The idea was that MacKenzie would talk about the music between the records. We had three telephone conversations throughout which he agonised about the idea before declining with "Who wants to know what I think, anyway?"

Fellow members of the Heath band recall MacKenzie's dour sense of humour. After Heath's death the band was reassembled by his trombonist Don Lusher and on occasion by one of the trumpets, the distinguished Stan Reynolds. "There goes Stan, putting the band together again. Doomed to failure . . ." said MacKenzie lugubriously.

"Henry was so shy that he'd never ever begin a conversation," Lita Roza, singer with the Heath band, told me. "You'd always have to be the one to speak first. The boys had a joke thing going accusing Henry and Ted Heath's secretary Margaret of being in love with each other. All imagined, of course, but Henry would blush furiously when they pulled his leg about it."

Such a good clarinet player was never going to be short of work, and when Heath died MacKenzie became a busy freelancer, working for big names like Henry Mancini, Nelson Riddle and Billy May. He often played with the trombonist George Chisholm and with Stan Reynolds and of course with Don Lusher's version of the Heath band. He backed Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis and Shirley Bassey amongst many others. Throughout the Nineties he led his own quintet.

Although he was 86, MacKenzie had never been in hospital in his life until two weeks before his death.

Steve Voce

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