Sir John Dankworth, who died today aged 82, was one of the totemic figures of British jazz, the first major jazz musician and the first British bebopper to be knighted, a leading musician, who with his wife Dame Cleo Laine, became known to the broader public beyond the jazz world and to an international audience particularly in America.
Sir John had been in poor health for same time and back in November, before the London Jazz Festival where he was due to appear, was hospitalised with some fears that he would not make the concert. But made it he did even sitting on the stage in a wheelchair for the duration of the concert.
Born in Essex in 1927, Dankworth grew up in Walthamstow in a family of musicians and began to play clarinet after gaining a liking for the music of Benny Goodman. He later took up saxophone and studied at the Royal Academy of Music before national service. A high flier soon on the jazz scene in the UK he became a favourite with readers of Melody Maker in the late-1940s and was voted musician of the year, touring further afield with Sidney Bechet and even played with Charlie Parker in Paris. His group the Dankworth Seven became a favourite on the local scene in the 1950s and later his big band extended the scope for his writing activities and ambitions and played at the Newport Jazz Festival in the States. Cleo Laine’s singing was a feature of his band’s performances and the pair married in 1958.
Dankworth began a parallel career as a film and TV composer and became known to a wider public for the music he wrote for The Avengers, Tomorrow’s World and Modesty Blaise. He made the charts with ‘African Waltz’ and became a frequent presence on radio and TV.
Aside from his musical career he developed a theatre, The Stables, in the garden of his home at Wavendon in Buckinghamshire which flourishes to this day and he became heavily involved in jazz education and as an ambassador for jazz. For his services to the music he was made a knight bachelor in the 2006 New Year’s Honours List.
- Stephen Graham