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John Dankworth

John Dankworth performing at Buxton Opera House, 4th Nov 2002
Background information
Birth name Sir John Phillip William Dankworth
Born 20 September 1927 (1927-09-20) (age 82)
Origin Woodford, Essex, England
Genres Cool jazz
Instruments Clarinet
Years active 1950s – Today

Sir John Phillip William Dankworth, CBE (born 20 September 1927), known in his early career as Johnny Dankworth, is an English jazz composer, saxophonist and clarinetist.


Life and music

Born in Woodford, Essex he grew up in Walthamstow in its suburb of Highams Park and attended Sir George Monoux Grammar School in Walthamstow. He was brought up in a family of musicians. He had violin and piano lessons before settling eventually on the clarinet at the age of 16, after hearing a record of the Benny Goodman Quartet. Soon after that, inspired by Johnny Hodges, he added the alto saxophone to his armoury.

After a period at London’s Royal Academy of Music, and national service in the army, he began a career on the British jazz scene, being voted Musician of the Year in 1949. During that year he attended the Paris Jazz Festival and played with Charlie Parker. Parker's comments about Dankworth led to the engagement of the young British jazzman for a short tour of Sweden with the soprano-saxophonist Sidney Bechet.

In 1950, Dankworth formed a small group known as the Dankworth Seven as a vehicle for his writing activities as well as a showcase for several young jazz soloists, including himself (alto sax), Jimmy Deuchar (trumpet), Eddie Harvey (trombone), Don Rendell (tenor sax), Bill Le Sage (piano), Eric Dawson (bass) and Tony Kinsey (drums). After three successful years, the group was wound up, although it re-formed for several reunions over the years. Dankworth formed his big band in 1953. The band was soon earning plaudits from the critics and was invited to the 1959 Newport Jazz Festival. The New York Times critic said of this appearance ".... Mr. Dankworth’s group .... showed the underlying merit that made big bands successful many years ago - the swinging drive, the harmonic colour and the support in depth for soloists that is possible when a disciplined, imaginatively directed band has worked together for a long time. This English group has a flowing, unforced, rhythmic drive that has virtually disappeared from American bands." The band went on to perform at the New York jazz club Birdland and shortly afterwards shared the stage with the Duke Ellington Orchestra for a number of concerts. Dankworth’s band also performed at a jazz event at New York’s Lewisohn stadium where Louis Armstrong joined them for a set. By now, Cleo Laine's singing was a regular feature of Dankworth's recordings and public appearances and they married in 1958.

Beginning that year, Dankworth started a second career as a popular composer of film and television scores (often credited as "Johnny Dankworth"). Among his best-known credits are the original themes for The Avengers (used from 1961 to 1964) and Tomorrow's World, plus the scores for the 1966 films Modesty Blaise and Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment.[1]

In 1961, Dankworth’s recording of Galt MacDermot’s African Waltz reached the British charts and remained there for several months. American altoist Cannonball Adderley sought and received Dankworth’s permission to record the arrangement and had a minor hit in the US as a result. The piece was also covered by many other groups.

Dankworth’s friendship with trumpeter Clark Terry led to Terry being a featured soloist on Dankworth’s 1964 album The Zodiac Variations, together with Bob Brookmeyer, Zoot Sims, Phil Woods, Lucky Thompson and other guests. Other Dankworth recordings during this period featured many other respected jazz names. Some were full-time members of the Dankworth band at one time or another, like Tony Coe, Mike Gibbs, Peter King, Dudley Moore, John Taylor and Kenny Wheeler, while others such as Dave Holland, John McLaughlin, Tubby Hayes and Dick Morrissey were occasional participants.

During this active period of recording, the Dankworth band nevertheless found time for frequent live appearances and radio shows, including tours in Britain and Europe with Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan and Gerry Mulligan, and concerts and radio performances with Lionel Hampton and Ella Fitzgerald.

Dankworth’s friendship with Duke Ellington continued until the latter’s death in 1974. Since then he has recorded an album of symphonic arrangements of many Ellington tunes featuring another Ellingtonian trumpet soloist Barry Lee Hall. Dankworth also retained his Ellington links by performing with the Ellington Orchestra under the direction of Duke’s son, Mercer Ellington. Further symphonic albums include one with Dizzy Gillespie and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. Other jazz musicians with whom Dankworth has performed include George Shearing, Toots Thielemans, Benny Goodman, Herbie Hancock, Hank Jones, Tadd Dameron, Slam Stewart, Oscar Peterson.

Dankworth’s active jazz life, which also includes many appearances and recordings with his wife, singer Dame Cleo Laine, shows no signs of abating. He remains a prominent figure in the British jazz scene.

From 1984 to 1986, Dankworth was professor of music at Gresham College, London, giving free public lectures. He has always had an enthusiasm for jazz education, for many years running the Allmusic summer schools at The Stables in Wavendon, a theatre created by him and his wife in their back garden.

He has appeared with Craig David on Later with Jools Holland on BBC Two. He set up his own record label, Qnotes, in 2003, to reissue some of his old recordings as well as new ones. They include a number with Julian Lloyd Webber, Dudley Moore and members of his family.

Dankworth and Laine's two children are both jazz musicians: Alec Dankworth is a bassist who is also a member of his father's band, and Jacqui Dankworth is a singer.

John Dankworth was made a Knight Bachelor in the 2006 New Year's Honours List, the first British jazz musician to receive such an honour.

Sir John is still composing to this day, and he has written a jazz violin concerto for soloist Christian Garrick to play. This work had its world premier in Nottingham on 1 March 2008 in partnership with the Nottingham Youth Orchestra.

In October 2009 Sir John was taken ill at the end of a US tour with his wife. The couple cancelled a number of UK concert dates for the following month. Dankworth did return to the concert stage for just one solo at the London Jazz Festival at the Royal Festival Hall, London, in December 2009. He played his sax from a wheelchair.

External links

See also



Simple English

John Dankworth
Birth name Sir John Phillip William Dankworth
Born September 20, 1927(1927-09-20)
Origin Woodford, Essex, England
Died February 6, 2010
Genres Cool jazz
Instruments Clarinet
Years active 1949 – 2009

Sir John Dankworth, CBE (born Walthamstow, 20 September 1927; died London, 6 February 2010), , was an English jazz composer, saxophonist and clarinetist. He was widely thought of as Britain's most famous jazz musician. He had a very big influence in the development of jazz in Britain. He composed film music and several television theme tunes such as "The Avengers" and "Tomorrow's World". In his early career he was known as Johnny Dankworth He was the husband of jazz singer Cleo Laine.



Early years

John Dankworth was born in Walthamstow. His father was a sales manager who worked for an electrical engineering firm. John soon found that he loved jazz. He played the clarinet in a jazz band when he was still at school.

In 1944 he went to study music at the Royal Academy of Music. He was playing the saxophone, too, but kept this a secret because jazz was not thought to be suitable for study at the RAM.

When Dankworth did his National Service with the army, he often played in the army dance bands. He then got a job playing jazz on the Queen Mary which sailed regularly over the Atlantic Ocean to New York. In America he heard some of the greatest jazz players, especially Charlie Parker who played bebop.


Back in Britain Dankworth took many jobs to get experience playing in jazz bands. He was a member of a group called Club Eleven which played together for several years. He also formed a band called Johnny Dankworth Seven, who played bebop in the style of Miles Davis. They started to get well-known, and in 1951 were joined by a young singer called Cleo Laine.

In 1953 the band broke up and Dankworth formed his first big band. It had eight brass instruments, five saxophones, a rhythm section and vocalists. The group was redesigned in 1956 when he put in a group of soloists instead of the saxophones. They often played on the radio and brought in guest artists who were not necessarily jazz musicians, e.g. the clarinettist Jack Brymer and the violinist Kenneth Essex as well as the music comedian and cartoonist Gerard Hoffnung.

In 1960 he gave up playing in the band to spend more time on composition. He wrote some very successful film music, e.g. The Servant, Darling, Modesty Blaise and Morgan, A Suitable Case for Treatment. He wrote the television theme for The Avengers and Tomorrow’s World, as well as lots of music for television adverts. He composed a musical version of Lysistrata together with Benny Green for the Bath Festival.

In 1958 he married Cleo Laine. He wrote many songs for her and played the beautiful accompaniments, often on the clarinet.

In 1969 they built a concert hall called The Stables in their garden in Wavendon in Milton Keynes. It became an important centre for concerts, educational programmes and cultural events.

John and Cleo have two children: Alec who is a double bass player and Jacqui who is a singer. John formed a band which included Alec playing the double bass.

John Dankworth set up scholarships for young musicians and often worked with young people. He encouraged educational work at The Stables. He continued to work hard until shortly before his death

John Dankworth died on 6 February 2010. His death was announced a few hours later by Cleo Laine who spoke to the audience at the end of a concert in The Stables. She had told the performers before the concert began. She wanted the concert to be a celebration of his life. Alec and Jacqui were both performing in the show.[1]


John Dankworth was made a CBE in 1974 and was given a knighthood in 2006.


•The Daily Telegraph, 8 February 2010 p.31: Sir John Dankworth – Obituary

  1. “This one is for Johnny, gone but not forgotten” in The Daily Telegraph 8 February 2010 p.3


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