Spotlight on

Johnny Dankworth

 

Versatility - that's one of the key words you can't get away from when attempting to sum up the careers so far of Johnny Dankworth and Cleo Laine. Now Sir John and Dame Cleo, well-deserved honours awarded for their services to music, they have now passed the milestone of their 80th birthdays. Far from resting on their laurels, they continue to be forces to be reckoned with.

Back in the late Forties, Johnny joined 'Geraldo's navy' - working as an alto saxophone player with dance bands aboard transatlantic liners. A colleague from those days was Ronnie Scott and they both haunted jazz clubs in New York on their frequent visits there. Bop innovators such as Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Dizzy Gillespie left a strong impression on the young men, then barely out of their teens. They brought the message back to Britain and spearheaded the bop movement in the UK, founding the Club Eleven, a London nightclub where bop was the order of the day. Johnny joined the Tito Burns Sextet at about this time and also doubled as alto saxophonist and arranger for the Ambrose band.

For several years from 1949 he had begun to emerge as a consistent 'Melody Maker' popularity poll winner - in several categories (i.e. Musician Of The Year, Top Alto Player, Top Arranger etc.). In the natural course of events Johnny formed a small band, known as The Johnny Dankworth Seven, and they made their debut to a mixed reception at the London Palladium on 5 March 1950 as part of Ted Heath's Sunday Swing Session. The group's repertoire on that night wasn't commercial enough for most of the audience, something Johnny soon discovered, and before long the band had to compromise in order to survive. He readily admits that the group was considerably influenced by the Miles Davis epoch-making, albeit short-lived, nine-piece band of September 1948. The Johnny Dankworth Seven lasted considerably longer, breaking up in July 1953. The ensemble had plenty of ideas of its own and was certainly no carbon copy of any American group. In retrospect it emerges as a very significant and original part of British jazz history.

Cleo Laine had become a member of the unit in 1951 and even on these early recordings, such as Honeysuckle Rose and Easy Living (from 1953), her huskily rich voice is instantly recognisable. It's easy to understand how she has progressed to international stardom - her unique qualities were there from the start.

The phoenix that arose from the ashes of The Seven after just over three months was a seventeen-piece big band plus three vocalists (Frank Holder and Tony Mansell in addition to Cleo Laine). There was plenty of work available for big bands at this time and Johnny now came into competition with Ted Heath, Jack Parnell, Geraldo and Vic Lewis amongst others.

Cleo was making records under her own name by the mid Fifties and left the band in 1958 to concentrate on a solo career, in acting as well as singing. And in March of that year she became Mrs Johnny Dankworth. Like most great singers, Cleo has that rare ability to 'get inside' a song and virtually make it her own - even the most jaded and hackneyed numbers take on a new freshness when interpreted by her. In common with the late Mel Tormé, she doesn't like to be categorised as a 'jazz singer' - in fact it's impossible to pigeonhole a singer/actress of such diverse talents as Cleo. In the late Sixties for example her programmes would feature Schumann and Hugo Wolf lieder rubbing shoulders with traditional blues, British and contemporary songs as well as excerpts from Brecht and Weill's 'Seven Deadly Sins' and American evergreens. It was as Mrs Yajnavalkya in Sandy Wilson's musical 'Valmouth' that Cleo made her first West End appearance in January 1959, replacing Bertice Reading who had left for Broadway.

During the years that followed, Cleo's stage achievements included taking over the lead role from Lotte Lenya in 'The Seven Deadly Sins', depicting two famous actresses (Ellen Terry and Mrs Patrick Campbell) in the Johnny Dankworth-Benny Green musical based on the life of George Bernard Shaw, 'Boots And Strawberry Jam', and playing the role of Julie in Kern and Hammerstein's 'Show Boat' (Adelphi Theatre, July 1971). In November 1979 Cleo first portrayed the celebrated French authoress Colette in her husband's musical of the same name which enjoyed a short West End run in 1980. Cleo's first visits to Australia and America in 1972 were huge successes and from this time on she has gone from strength to strength and achieved true worldwide acclaim. Amongst the rave reviews by American critics, one wrote "…simply the greatest popular singer, male or female, in the world" - some accolade! 'Cleo On Broadway' marked her Broadway debut in 1977 and she attained the enviable distinction of being nominated in the popular female, classical and jazz sections of America's Grammy Awards.

In 1968 Johnny and Cleo bought the Old Rectory at Wavendon in Buckinghamshire (about 50 miles north of London) and converted the stables into a small concert hall. The following year the Wavendon Allmusic Plan (a charitable organisation) was launched, the main aim of which was to break down the artificial barriers between classical, popular and other forms of music. Thirty years later, they set up another charity, The Wavendon Foundation. This was formed with the objective of raising funds to benefit both individual young musicians in need of financial aid, and organisations seeking support for music education projects. In October 2000, with the aid of an Arts Council lottery grant, the new Stables theatre, built adjacent to the original stables block, was opened. It continues to function as a pivotal venue for performers, students and audiences alike.

This varied collection covers the seven years from 1953 to 1960, and includes two hit records. The first of these, from 1960, is the catchy African Waltz, and the second, which dates from 1956, is Experiments With Mice. This is an amusing, tongue-in-cheek vignette of several big band and jazz leaders, complete with a narration by Johnny Dankworth. At the time of this recording Johnny had recently changed the instrumentation of the orchestra by reducing the saxophone section to three (alto, tenor and baritone) and adding an extra trumpet and trombone - this created a new sound and placed the soloists in the front line. A year later the band recorded Big Jazz Story which is based on the same lines as Experiments With Mice and sets out, in a light-hearted way, to portray jazz history. Often underrated as a saxophonist, Johnny is given a chance to shine in the alto solos he provides on It's The Talk Of The Town and You Go To My Head. The style is markedly his own and reflects the 'cool' sound which was popular in the Fifties as typified by Lee Konitz and Paul Desmond.

The Dankworth Orchestra's first American concert took place at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 3rd 1959 and proved a great success. They also appeared at New York's prestigious Birdland nightclub and the Levisohn Stadium. Johnny disbanded the orchestra early in 1960 but re-formed a new band in the Summer of that year. During the next decade his activities were mainly centred on writing music for many films, commercials and television serials.

Happily, the Dankworth musical lineage continues through their talented children: Alec, a bass player, and Jacqui, a singer.

From the early Seventies to the present, with Cleo having attained international status, Johnny (or John as he is now billed) has undertaken an increasingly active part in managing her career and they are acclaimed in almost every country in the world.


© HUGH PALMER 2008



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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