Humphrey Lyttelton: Obituary

Trumpeter and bandleader who bestrode the British jazz scene for more than half a century and later became the chairman of ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’

Sunday 23 October 2011 07:59

Humphrey Lyttelton excelled at everything that he chose to do. He was a trumpeter, bandleader, calligrapher, cartoonist, writer, journalist and broadcaster. Well, not quite everything. He admitted to being no good at ice-skating, but attributed his lack of success to the failure of anyone to make size 13½ skating boots to suit his feet.

His career began when he gained fame for his declamatory trumpet style and he ended up contributing more to the British jazz scene than anyone else, bestriding it for more than half a century. His unique humour permeated a long radio career which was capped by his chairmanship of the Radio 4 panel game I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, where he became exalted for the finest dead-pan in radio since Jack Benny.

Lyttelton came from a respected family, filled with eccentrics, that had distinguished itself over the centuries. It was, he said, “a long line of land-owning, political, military, clerical, scholastic and literary forebears. Not a musician amongst them”. His ancestor Humphrey Littleton was notorious for having been, after an atypically bad career move, hanged, drawn and quartered for his part in the Gunpowder Plot.

Lyttelton liked to claim that Littleton was subsequently buried in Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire and Buckinghamshire. Sadly, or perhaps happily, the account of the original Humphrey’s fate has subsequently been discredited.Lyttelton was born and educated in Eton College, where his father George was an illustrious housemaster.

“My father often said that his decision to call me Humphrey – a name eschewed in the family since my namesake let the side down in the 17th century – was regarded by my grandparents as a rather perverse joke. But it later emerged that there had been more than one. The 17th century was actually peppered with Humphrey Littletons.”

When the family attended the Eton and Harrow cricket match at Lord’s in 1936, the 15-year-old Humphrey and his mother slipped away from the game to the Charing Cross Road and bought the boy his first trumpet. His interest in jazz had begun a few years before and, though an early failure at piano lessons, Humphrey already had a “band” at Eton, which he led on mouth organ.

The change to trumpet was a matter of moment. He already worshipped the playing of Louis Armstrong and one of the first records he loved was Armstrong’s “Basin Street Blues”: “I had discovered that the chorus of ‘Basin Street Blues’ can be played, without too much drastic alteration, on the bottom three notes of the scale of C. So we played ‘Basin Street Blues’ for a week or two. As my trumpeting became more ambitious we added new tunes – of four, five and even six notes – until I began to acquire some fluency.”

Humphrey Lyttelton’s first interest had been in military band music and at Eton he had been surrounded by it, with the Guards stationed nearby at Windsor and the Eton Officers’ Training Corps regularly marching up and down behind a band. The boy took lessons in military drumming from an ex-Coldstream Guards drum major and was soon appearing as a percussionist at school concerts. His early gift for cartooning also took him to the school stage drawing “Lightning Caricatures”.

On 6 June 1941 Lyttelton enlisted in the Brigade of Guards at Caterham and took his commission at Sandhurst. He landed on the beach at Salerno as a signals officer with a pistol in one hand and his trumpet in the other. He saw some savage fighting before being invalided first to Africa and finally home. He travelled to London for the celebrations on VE Day where he was pushed about in front of Buckingham Palace in a wheelbarrow whilst playing his trumpet. His inelegant blaring on “Roll Out The Barrel” can be faintly heard through the crowd on the BBC recordings of the event.

He finally broke with family tradition in 1946. “When I got out of the army I was 25 and didn’t feel like going back to anything very academic, so I went to Camberwell School of Art for a couple of years and round about the same time started playing jazz in various low dives,” he recalled. “I’m sure there was a buzz in the family going round about me, but I was oblivious, sloping off to places like the Nuthouse on Regent Street with my trumpet and a dirty mac over my uniform.”He soon found the required subjects at the School of Art tiresome and concentrated on the comic drawings that came so naturally to him. But his devotion to the trumpet grew ever stronger.

Wearing his army battledress, now dyed navy-blue, and sporting a beard and sandals, he played at jam sessions with professional dance-band musicians and began to travel to the Red Barn, a pub in Bexley in Kent, where the pianist George Webb’s band played every Monday night.

“The music played by the George Webb Dixielanders was rough and ready, and by the best standards today it was undoubtedly primitive,” he recalled. “Yet it had the spirit of real jazz, which was lacking from the music of the professional dance musicians.” Lyttleton joined the Webb band in March 1947, cementing a life-long friendship and musical partnership with its clarinet player, Wally Fawkes, himself a brilliant cartoonist who worked under the name of “Trog”.

Fawkes was employed by the Daily Mail to draw column-breakers, humorous or decorative drawings that were inserted in the text. When the paper promoted him to produce a full-size strip cartoon, Lyttelton inherited the column-breakers job and, working under the name of “Humph”, was eventually put on the staff. When the demand for cartoons slackened he reviewed jazz and eventually, after having invested in the six volumes of Grove’s Dictionary, classical records, for the paper.

The paper eventually divested itself of the reviews as being “frivolous” and Lyttelton took on the job of providing the storyline for a strip cartoon that chronicled the adventures of a small animal called “Flook”, which was already being drawn by Fawkes. This job lasted until 1953.

Lyttelton left the Webb band and formed his own band in January 1948, taking Fawkes and eventually Webb himself with him. The following month Lyttelton joined briefly Derek Neville’s band to appear at the Nice Jazz Festival, where, for the first time, he was able to hear Louis Armstrong and to play with some leading American jazz musicians like Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines and Rex Stewart. A year later the classic front-line of the new Lyttelton band was completed by the arrival of two brothers from Blackpool, Keith and Ian Christie, who played trombone and clarinet respectively, and the group soon became famous as Europe’s leading traditional jazz band.

“It seems incredible now that we used to play the Royal Festival Hall, just with my band, and sell out within hours of the box office opening,” said Lyttelton.“The first time I really grasped the full extent of my own notoriety,” he wrote in the austere days of meat rationing, “was when I heard that my cousin Charles, 10th Viscount Cobham and lord of Hagley Hall in Worcestershire, had received an under-the-counter portion of steak in a Birmingham restaurant on the strength of being Humphrey Lyttelton’s first cousin.”

In late 1947, the Graeme Bell band, a group of itinerant Australians, came to Europe to look for work. They came to Britain on their way home in early 1948 and stayed for some time. Their music was less hidebound than the British jazz. They used popular songs from outside the jazz repertoire and, to the horror of the local jazz buffs, encouraged dancing to their music in the jazz clubs. Lyttelton found a musical soul-mate in Bell and the bands not only worked together but the Australians, with typical antipodean informality, moved uninvited into Lyttelton’s home. “I had Australians the way other people had mice,” he said.

Keith Christie was the first of a long line of musical giants who matured in the ranks of the Lyttelton band. It also included the saxophonists Tony Coe, Danny Moss, Alan Barnes, Joe Temperley, John Barnes and Karen Sharp, the trombonists Roy Williams, Pete Strange and John Picard and similar lists of pianists, bass players and drummers. Lyttelton treated his musicians well and showed them great loyalty.

As his music moved ahead and outgrew some of them, they left on good terms and returned often as guests. He also welcomed established veteran musicians like Kathy Stobart and Jimmy Hastings into his ranks.After recording for several small companies the band was granted a recording session by the major Parlophone label in November 1949. The resultant 78rpm records, in the label’s “Super Rhythm Style” series, sold so well that a new one was issued each month from then until the advent of the long-playing record a few years later.

The multitude of records the band made for Parlophone remain classics and they sound fresh to this day, with the sublime partnership of Lyttelton and Fawkes presenting a jazz parallel to that of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres in Liverpool’s football team.

In 1949, despite a ban on American jazz musicians playing in Britain, the jazz giant Sidney Bechet, accompanied by the Lyttelton band, played at a London concert and subsequent recording session for the Melodisc label. The line-up persisted for some time until 1951 when the two Christies left to form the Christie Brothers Stompers. From that point onwards Lyttelton himself took up the clarinet and began a gradual movement from traditional jazz to the mainstream style.

“People wrote in and accused us of going commercial when we wore uniforms for the first time rather than moth-eaten turtle-necked sweaters.”The alto player Bruce Turner joined the band in 1955, bringing in the first saxophone to the front line and giving outrage to the “purist” traditionalists upon whom the instrument had the same effect as a crucifix on a vampire. At a concert in Birmingham Town Hall they waved a banner emblazoned “Go Home Dirty Bopper”. “I got fed up with continually being accused of being a traitor, so I just left the whole trad thing behind,” said Lyttelton.

In 1956 his simple riff composition “Bad Penny Blues” became the first jazz record to reach the Top 20. “It climbed to number 19 and then fell back exhausted,” he said. Early on Lyttelton’s skills as a composer became apparent. He wrote well over 200 tunes and was never given proper recognition for this substantial one of his talents.

The band made trips throughout Europe, the Middle East and, in 1959, the United States, where it toured with Thelonious Monk and Anita O’Day and was welcomed with enthusiastic reviews by the New York critics. The British Council sponsored several of the trips.

Lyttelton was now successful enough to begin bringing over American stars to work with his band. They included the gospel singer Marie Knight, blues singers Jimmy Rushing and Joe Turner, tenor man Buddy Tate and trumpeter Buck Clayton. Several were ex-Count Basie musicians, and Lyttelton established a special affinity with Clayton, who made several tours and recordings with the band. The two men became close personal friends and on-stage rivals in trumpet battles.

Although the band never had a regular vocalist, Lyttelton toured with several singers from time to time, including Neva Raphaello, Elkie Brooks, Helen Shapiro and Stacey Kent, all of whom recorded with the band. In 1977 Lyttelton toured as a soloist in the “Salute to Satchmo” package and appeared as a guest with the Alex Welsh band when the show toured Australia.

A spell as the writer of the restaurant guide for Harpers & Queen caused him much unease. “I was never a proper gourmet. I’d come home starving after travelling on a gig with the band and go straight to the kitchen where I’d mash up powdered potato and fish fingers and scoff it, all the time looking guiltily over my shoulder in case someone should see me.

”Unlikely, since Lyttelton, obsessive about his privacy, had built his house in Barnet, Hertfordshire, around a square. The outside walls were blank and the windows faced into the square. No one was supposed to know his home telephone number. At one stage in the late Fifties I rang him on it and he immediately had the number changed. Some years later he explained to me why he liked to use other means of communication. “If you phone me it means that you’ve decided that what you want to talk to me about is more important than what I’m doing at the time. I’d rather keep that decision to myself.”

No matter, for the masterpieces of calligraphy that popped regularly through my letterbox were compensation enough. I was saddened when, much later, our correspondence switched to the more facile but less momentous e-mail and indeed, when he outgrew his grumpy bear stage and became a delightful old buffer, we were all allowed to make free with his mobile phone number.

Lyttelton was famously reticent and guarded about his personal life. One asked at one’s peril if he had ever been approached to accept an honour (he had, by Prime Ministers Callaghan and Major but turned them both down). In 2007, when an edition of The South Bank Show was devoted to him, it was absorbing and colourful but as always it contained little detail about him and less about his family.

His many books, like his radio programmes, have, amongst everything else, explained jazz to the non-musical listener. They include I Play as I Please (1954), Second Chorus (1958), Take It From the Top (1975), The Best of Jazz 1 (1978), The Best of Jazz 2 (1981), Why No Beethoven (1984) and It Just Occurred to Me. . . (2006). Honorary doctorates were awarded from the universities of Warwick (1987), Loughborough (1988), Durham (1989), Keele (1992), Hertford (1995) and de Montfort (1997).

In 1983 he formed his own record label, Calligraph, and commissioned recordings from many of his musical associates, British and American. He continued to record his own bands whilst rounding up as many as he could of his early recordings for reissue on the new label. The Parlophones from the Forties and Fifties form the diadem of the catalogue, providing relief to collectors who had sought complete collections and great pleasure to younger followers who enjoyed them for the first time. During the Fifties Lyttelton was BBC Radio’s main jazz presenter and he broke new ground when he compered BBC 2’s Jazz 625, a remarkably consistent series featuring the best American jazz musicians of the time. He was the leading light on Radio 2’s Jazz Score, a panel game that also featured George Melly and guests including a newly eloquent Acker Bilk.

“I wasn’t fond of doing that programme,” Lyttelton said. “In the quite early stage I discovered that they gave every contestant the answers to the questions in advance except me, believing that I knew too much about jazz and that it wasn’t fair. The result was that all the other members of the panel were able to come up with carefully prepared or plagiarised stories, while I was left to say something amusing about Fud Livingston or Jimmy Giuffre in a moment’s notice. I wonder if anyone knows anything amusing about Jimmy Giuffre.”

His Radio 4 programme The Best of Jazz began in 1967 and ran continuously for more than 40 years, guiding and profoundly influencing the musical tastes of his listeners, most of whom had been listening to him for half their lives. He had the same producers, Keith Stewart and Terry Carter, consecutively throughout that time.

In the early days with Stewart the BBC atmosphere was more congenial and the programme flourished happily. But Lyttelton was frustrated by the non-jazz trails that he was later forced by the system to make room for each week. He first cut the broadcasts to two 12-week series a year and earlier this year decided to give them up altogether.

It was in 1972 that, against his better judgement, he took on the chairmanship of Radio 4’s I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. Nobody imagined that his role, somewhat like a naïve and despairing schoolmaster who was forced to read out double entendres that he never understood, would last for the rest of his life. His sharp humour was hilarious and yet without malice.

Ian Pattinson wrote his scripts for him, but they came alive only with the application of Lyttelton’s superb deadpan and his perfect timing. I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue went touring Britain, playing to vast, sell-out audiences, with one London date having an audience of more than three thousand.

“Nowadays when people say to me ‘I enjoy your show’, they’re more likely to mean I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue than the Monday night record programme that I’ve presented for so many years,” he said. “If it wasn’t for the fact that I took out my trumpet and played at the end of each gig, thousands of people would have thought of me as the chairman of I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue without knowing that I was a trumpet player.”

He professed to be eternally harassed by the members of the team. “If you hear this noise,” he said at one recording whilst waving a hooter, “it means I’ve lost the will to live.” But the years dropped away from him when he was on air or leading his band. When my daughter moved to live in Barnet he wrote, “If she’s in or near High Barnet, she may well see me one day in Waitrose – I’m the stooping, shuffling human wreck clearly wishing he was dead. That’s what shopping does to me. When people say to me, as they often do, ‘Can I ask you a personal question – how old are you?’ I answer ‘Forty on a bandstand, 120 in Waitrose.’”

In 2002 he played with Radiohead before a crowd of 50,000 and also appeared on one of the band’s records. He continued to develop his band, bringing in new talent like the saxophonists Karen Sharp, Robert Fowler and Jo Fooks, and to tour and record new albums.

The continuing success of I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue and his devotion to the band meant that he had little free time. What he had he devoted to his writing, latterly working on a book on calligraphy, which, along with bird watching, was a lifelong hobby. The book was to be called “Delivered By Hand”. “It’s written from the shop floor, so to speak,” he said, “from the point of view of someone who enjoys the hobby and is still learning.” The book will include many pieces from his collection of italic writing. He had been elected President of the Society for Italic Handwriting in 1990.

When I told him that I was preparing his obituary in advance, with typical generosity, since he was at the time writing yet another book and arranging the recording of more new CDs for his band, he agreed to help me with it. I read some of it out over the phone to him. “I do wish I could be there to read it when it’s published,” he said wistfully.

Steve Voce

An aspect of Humphrey Lyttelton not fully covered by Steve Voce's excellent obituary was his unobtrusive contribution to causes he felt were worthwhile, writes John C. Griffiths.

When I launched the Arts Channel, the first satellite arts channel, in 1985, Humph immediately came on board as a director and adviser on all matters to do with jazz. His guidance was invaluable and helped to launch the now perennial Young Jazz Player of the Year competition, which has done so much to encourage new jazz players.

I attended lectures by Humphrey Lyttelton during his time as Visiting Professor of Music at Keele University, writes Professor Andor Gomme. They were models for any lecturer – lucid, clearly argued throughout, showing an exceptional knowledge of all kinds of music, and delivered without stumbling and without a single note.

Humphrey Richard Adeane Lyttelton, trumpeter, clarinettist, bandleader, broadcaster, writer, journalist and calligrapher: born Eton, Berkshire 23 May 1921; cartoonist, Daily Mail 1949-53; chairman, I’m Sorry I Haven’t Clue 1972-2008; married 1948 Pat Braithwaite (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1952), 1952 Jill Richardson (died 2006; two sons, one daughter); died Barnet, Hertfordshire 25 April 2008.

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