For many, John Dankworth will be remembered as Britain’s answer to Charlie Parker. For lovers of 1960s cinema, it will be his output as a film score composer that will remain his legacy. Some may know him through his work as a bandleader, others for his commitment to the promotion of jazz in musical education. Whatever the perspective, Dankworth – who died on 6 February, aged 82 – has profoundly affected the landscape of British jazz music during his distinguished career.
Born in Woodford, Essex on 20 September 1927, Dankworth picked up the clarinet at 16, continuing his studies at the Royal Academy of Music, an institution not then suited to jazz musicians, in the 1940s. Nevertheless, he embarked upon a career in the UK’s burgeoning jazz music scene, switching to alto saxophone after hearing Charlie Parker on BBC radio. By 1948 he was working a jazz club residency in London with Ronnie Scott.
In 1950 ‘Johnny’ Dankworth formed the Dankworth Seven, and later, a 20-piece big band, performing and recording with jazz greats including Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald. Dankworth’s output was characterised by a refined and tightly composed style. In 1958, the same year as his marriage to singer Cleo Laine, he began a parallel career as a composer of film and TV scores, notably for Modesty Blaise and Tomorrow’s World. The big band continued to grow into the 1970s, acting as a catalyst for the development of jazz players, including pianist Dudley Moore, bassist Dave Holland and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler. Meanwhile Dankworth and Laine ran their own venue, The Stables, promoting jazz in education.
Dankworth later became interested in ‘serious’ music, writing a number of works that fused jazz and classical styles. In 2006 he became the first UK jazz musician to receive a knighthood. Upon receiving the honour, he commented that ‘for some reason I’ve been in the right place at the right time’. He is survived by Cleo and his two children, Alec and Jacqui.