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.
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.
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