Page last updated at 01:55 GMT, Sunday, 7 February 2010

Sir John Dankworth's life of jazz


Sir John maintained his affection for the older, traditional style of jazz

Sir John Dankworth, who has died aged 82, was one of the British jazz scene's leading lights.

Born in Woodford, Essex, in 1927, the young Dankworth had violin and piano lessons before taking up the clarinet and alto saxophone.

By the age of 17 he had won a place at the Royal Academy of Music. After years of studying, interrupted by a short spell in the Army, he was voted British Musician of the Year in 1949.

The same year he attended the Paris Jazz Festival, where he played with the legendary Charlie Parker - the man who had inspired him to take up the saxophone.

In 1950 he formed the Dankworth Seven, meeting his future wife, Dame Cleo Laine, while auditioning for singers.

The couple married in 1958, by which time he had swapped his seven-piece for a big band orchestra.

John Dankworth (right), 1956
John Dankworth (right) was a film score composer as well as a performer

On a trip that included an appearance at the 1959 Newport Jazz Festival, it went on a bill at New York's Birdland jazz club with the celebrated Duke Ellington Orchestra.

Louis Armstrong also joined them for a set at New York's Lewisohn stadium.

The ensemble had two top 10 hits - Experiments with Mice in 1956 and African Waltz in 1961 - and played numerous engagements in the US. A 1959 visit saw them sharing the bill with jazz giant Duke Ellington.

In the 1960s Dankworth composed the scores for films such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Servant and Modesty Blaise.

He also wrote the theme tune for TV show The Avengers and served as musical director for Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald.

In 1969 he and Laine founded their charity, the Wavendon Allmusic Plan, which led to the establishment of the Stables arts centre in the grounds of their Buckinghamshire home.

Sir John Dankworth
Sir John was knighted for services to music

A sign of their continuing popularity came when he and his wife were spoofed by the Two Ronnies in 1983.

He was made a CBE in 1974 and founded the London Symphony Orchestra Summer Pops in 1985.

He also served as Pops Musical Director of the San Francisco Symphony and Rochester (NY) Philharmonic in the United States.

In 1993 he formed another large orchestra, the Dankworth Generation Band, with his son Alec.

Sir John was a fellow of the Royal Academy of Music and received the Freedom of the City of London in 1994.

He was awarded honorary Doctorates by the University of Cambridge, the University of York and the Open University, as well as by Boston's Berklee College of Music.

As recently as November 2009, he played his saxophone from a wheelchair at the London Jazz Festival.

When he earned his knighthood in the 2006 New Year's Honours, he said: "It's so nice for jazz to get something like this."

"As far as I know I'm the first from the jazz world to get a knighthood.

"I've played jazz for 65 years, with the great jazz men," he continued. "For some reason I've been in the right place at the right time."

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