As all Old Monovians know, Sir John Dankworth is one of the most famous old boys of the school. He attended Monoux during the period 1938-1944, a period which saw the greatest upheaval the world has ever known, the Second World War. It was during these formative years that he discovered his love of jazz which propelled him to be one of the greatest British exponents of that art form. This year in recognition of his enormous contribution to British music he was awarded a well deserved knighthood.
In his autobiography "Jazz in Revolution" Sir John discusses the evolution of jazz and his contribution to it. The first few chapters discuss the formative years of his life in Walthamstow, his time at Monoux and the disruption of his schooling by the war and evacuation. They also provide an insight into the limitations of any education system in dealing with those whose exceptional ability falls outside the conventions of the day.
We are grateful to Sir John in giving permission to include excerpts from those first chapters in this web site.
It was my mother who was the main musical influence in our household. She came from a family with several professional musicians in its ranks - one a church organist, another a pianist for the silent movies. Her connections with the Methodist church and Townswomen's Guild choirs - first as a mezzo-soprano and later as a choir leader-meant that she was constantly searching through songbooks for new material and roping us young 'uns in to practise it. As far back as I can recall I was expected to look over her shoulder at the piano music-stand and keep my end up. I struggled manfully to sightread unfamiliar notes, coupling them with unfamiliar words, which were often nowhere near the notes but at the bottom of the page.
Thus I became, almost before I was aware of it, initiated into the world of musical performance - and the die was cast. I suppose it slowly and imperceptibly dawned on me that here was the foundation of a job, a job that would beat the daylights out of a daily trek to an office on a bicycle. But I had to reason all this out for myself gradually over the years, because even though my father was full of good advice about some things he was a hopeless counsellor for others. Nothing my father ever said to me led me even to suspect that there was any other way to earn a living than his way - to hop on a bike or bus to go to work in the mornings every weekday, and return in time for supper and the 6 o'clock evening news on BBC radio. The possibility that anyone on this earth led a normal and solvent life performing music did not exist - as far as my father was concerned.
Life was sweet. True, Wall Street had not long ago crashed and left millions destitute and homeless. Hitler was beginning to take over Germany and Mussolini was already in charge of Italy. The Japanese were raping China. Spain was racked with bitter divisions which would lead to a bloody civil war ... but all of these were of small concern to a young lad living in a genteel suburb of a country at peace.
I could go out of the back door of our garden to a strip of waste land by a stream and play with the other kids of the neighbourhood. I could get out my bike and cycle all over the area without meeting a car. But if I did see a parked car I would dismount and inspect the vehicle meticulously, whether it be a Rolls, a Morris Cowley or a Trojan van. I could go to the level-crossing by the station and watch the steam trains go by. I could go along to the Regal cinema (we used to call them picture palaces in those days) and look at the pictures in the display cabinet outside. There were a hundred things to do without spending any money at all - there had to be, for we so often had no money to spend. But even just a little money went a very long way. Tuppence bought a quarter of a pound of sweets, quite a long ride on a bus, a couple of hours seeing films in the Regal on Saturday morning, a comic paper such as Film Fun, an adventure magazine such as Hotspur or Wizard, or even a kid's science paper such as Modern Wonder.
My first five years or so of school involved a fifteen-minute dawdle through side streets and along footpaths, and necessitated crossing only one road with any appreciable amount of traffic. The daily routine at school was much the same as it had been for years - kids drank their school milk in the morning break and ate their sandwiches at lunch time, if they didn't go home for lunch. They played in the playgrounds before and after school and during breaks much as they had since time immemorial. Occasionally playground ditties would reflect the goings-on of the outside world:
Roll along, Mussolini, roll along You won't be in Abyssinia very long You'll be lying on the grass With a bullet up your arse, Roll along, Mussolini. roll along.
That particular one demonstrated which side British kids were on at the time of the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, long before we were at war with them in 1940.
My sister Avril was five years ahead of me - at junior school, at high school and eventually at earning a living. Avril and I were always good friends. In some ways she was my guiding light, my advisor in moments of unhappiness or doubt. Yet in some ways she was a bit of a millstone round my neck (a tiny one from a peppermill perhaps, but a millstone nevertheless) because, as an exemplary student, she created a model for me which I found very hard to live up to. She was a staunch and enthusiastic Girl Guide, so I was enrolled in the Cubs. She took music lessons, so 1 was sent to music lessons. That wasn't so bad, but Avril practised, and I (in common with millions of young boys coerced into taking up a musical instrument) hated practising. All in all, Avril was much too good an example of what can be done with a young life for me to be able to get away with anything at all. Which made me occasionally wish I had been an only child - and a spoilt brat, no doubt. Avril and I were nevertheless bosom buddies and spent countless happy hours together. Some of the happiest were when she rattled out popular songs of the day on our front-room piano from sheet music she had somehow acquired, and I played along on a toy drum kit. As a duo we were hard to beat.
And so life went on for us in the 1930s, day after day, year after year. Father plied to and from his office and played his snooker, Mother did the shopping and went to her choir practices, while Avril and I wafted to school and music lessons and Guide or Cub meetings. Nothing much seemed to change.
However, around my eleventh birthday came the inevitable school selection exams. To my parents' delight I found myself chosen for the Sir George Monoux Grammar School for Boys in Walthamstow. The Monoux was a good school, and I was proud to have been selected for it. It boasted a reputation for entrances to Oxford, Cambridge and others of the more venerable universities that was far and away above the national average. My contemporaries included ballet critic John Percival, England cricketer Doug Insole, symphony conductor John Pritchard and several others who have made their mark on the world. Indeed, when in 1995 my wife and I performed at Brown University in New England I received a phone call. 'It's Geoffrey Ribbans here - we used to be classmates at the Monoux. Do you remember me?' I did, but he remembered me better.
'You gave me some advice. I was taking German as a second language, and you said I was wasting my time, and should be taking Spanish as you were - so I did.'
'Great. What are you doing here: '
'I'm director of Hispanic studies', came the reply.
Life might well have gone smoothly at the Monoux, with the brighter among us cruising on to university scholarships or an easy slide into the business world, in either case leading to prosperity, security and a quiet life. Three terms every year, with the family summer holidays to Clacton on Sea, or Cromer in Norfolk, or Hastings or wherever coming predictably round each year. But such patterns were about to change-to my surprise, although quite predictably for those wise enough to see all the symptoms and draw their inevitable conclusion. The world was sliding towards war.
War and Evecuation
People can usually remember where they were when an item of world-changing news breaks, and I am no exception. We were on our annual family vacation at a holiday camp in Kent, near the symbolic white cliffs of Dover, While I and my sister were playing with our new-found holiday friends our parents were listening anxiously to BBC news bulletins assessing the likelihood of war.
People of our parents' age-group knew war from experience; some had even lived through air-raids on London by the German zeppelins during the 1914-18 conflict. Our prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, had thought he had made a deal with Adolf Hitler which would avoid war. It now became increasingly clear, as German troops crossed the border into Poland, that he had been mistaken. And on one bright morning towards the end of our blissful fortnight at the holiday camp I noticed people gathering round radios listening anxiously, and heard the fateful words:'. .. consequently this country is at war with Germany'. Fateful words which changed our lives. Immediately plans were made for us all to return home, which we did the following day. Gas masks which had been issued some time previously were got out and prepared for use, blackout curtains were rigged hastily to avoid tell-tale light patterns for navigational use by enemy bombers, air-raid wardens braced themselves to assist during raids, hospitals opened special casualty wards.
And nothing happened. The 'phoney war' - the period in which neither the British nor the German forces facing each other on the Franco-German border waged war in any way that affected basic lifestyles in the British Isles-was on. Nevertheless, knowing what might happen, the government decreed that the plan for the evacuation of British schoolchildren from cities considered vulnerable to air attack should go ahead immediately. And that of course included London. And London of course included me.
And so on a duly appointed morning, with a small suitcase packed with the barest necessities and a gas mask in a cardboard box slung across my shoulder, I reported with hundreds of others to the railway station -for an unknown destination. My mother waved me a tearful farewell and we were off.
In London we changed trains, then streamed off anew in a different direction, stopping eventually in a small market town, Ampthill in rural Bedfordshire. Eventually we were distributed around the surrounding Countryside and allotted accommodation in houses and cottages in a number of villages and their outskirts. I was in a little place called Lidlington, the guest of an elderly couple. Their five-year old grandson lived with them - l: never found out what had happened to the boy's parents - and for a while he and I were room-mates, in a cottage with one toilet (at the bottom of the garden) and one source of running water (the kitchen tap).
Our lessons continued sporadically and somewhat chaotically in the village hall, or the church, or anywhere that could be grabbed for use by our harassed teachers. But we were at the very most half-operational during those times, with no equipment and no proper school premises to work from. Moreover, nothing whatsoever was happening in London, other than food rationing, to upset normal everyday life. Yet the schools were empty.
It was not surprising then, that after a month or so many youngsters, including me, started to drift back to their London homes. The scheme had never been compulsory, and the lack of war activity made evacuation seem pointless. But hardly had I got accustomed to my own cosy bed (instead of the straw-filled mattress of my digs) and re-established myself as a member of the family when the war began in earnest. The Nazi war machine overran Holland, Belgium and finally France, the British army was driven into the sea and ( what was left of it) back to England, and the enemy took up positions only twenty-odd miles away from Dover and began to shell our hitherto unassailable island.
And the air-raids on London started. Quickly we were redispatched to the safer areas, parting from our parents amid hasty and sometimes emotional farewells and leaving them to face the music in a beleaguered - and later badly battered - city.
The Battle of Britain and the severe bombing of London in 1940 and 1941 came and went, as did other attacks during the course of the war. I was sent first to Colchester, where the Monoux shared premises with the city's grammar school, an amazing choice for a refuge, since Colchester itself was a potential and indeed likely target - it was in fact a garrison city. We were eventually moved on to Leominster in Herefordshire, where we adopted a similar pattern of school-sharing with the grammar-school boys.
Life in Leominster had its interests. One of my hosts was a railway signalman, and we lived in a railway-owned cottage by the line itself at a place called Ford Bridge, just outside the town. I spent hours in the signal-box, helping to pull the enormous levers that manually operated the wires connected by hundreds of pulleys to the 'semaphore' signals themselves, as the express steam-trains roared through, belching their smoke in all directions. Occasionally I was allowed to pass on a bell signal to the next signal-box, or even to enter into the log-book (with a nibbed pen which was periodically dipped into an ancient inkwell) the time of a passing train.
But during the next lull in the London air attacks homesickness got the better of me once more, and I sent a telegram to my parents. 'Coming home on next available train', it read, and none of their pleas could persuade me to do otherwise. 'If you're going to be blown to bits I'd rather be blown to bits with you', was one of my first remarks as I presented myself on the doorstep. So from now on all of us Dankworths were in this together.
In the event, my return to the battle zone turned out to be a good move. Schools had been reorganised, and about one in three was open again. Monoux was not among them, though, and my educational activities were relocated to the nearby Leyton County High School for Boys - I was a 'school guest' yet again. It meant a long bike ride to school, but at least my daily life returned to one approaching peace-time normality. The war was not by any means over at this stage - and it was to have a sting in its tail that was to surprise us all - but the Germans were doing badly on the Russian front, and air-raids had virtually stopped. As for an invasion of Britain, that seemed almost impossible now, since Britain was jampacked with US forces, armed to the teeth and preparing to invade Europe.
And then-joy of joys-the Monoux reopened, and all its evacuees, staff and pupils returned to the unscathed building and proceeded to establish anew all the school traditions of good education. I was by this time ready to join the sixth form, the five-year course having finished, and this I duly did. .
Things started well enough, and without a doubt I had the best of intentions. When the war appeared all but over, however, a new factor came into our lives. First came the pilotless plane bombs known as Vls; they caused major disruption and considerable loss of property and life. Moreover, they were bad for morale, since those that got through the cordon to the inner-London area were extremely visible (during daylight anyway) and quite frightening at times. Much less effective in this respect were their successors the V2s, quite simply because nothing could be done about them at all. There was no way of predicting the arrival of these explosive rockets, with the result that the only possible course of action for us Londoners was to go about our business pretending that no such thing as a VZ existed. It was essential that you adopted a philosophy about the thing- if it had your name on it then it was going to get you, and if it got you, you wouldn't know much about it anyway!
Such events led surprisingly to a feeling of normality in 1944 in London, which, in spite of the Vls and V2s, continued to function. At this point came the event that cast the die for my lifetime. I discovered jazz.
It had been all right when I left the house five minutes earlier, but now it was beginning to drop down quite thick and fast - I could hear the tell-tale sounds on the rooftops around me. I reluctantly realised that it was time to shelter in someone's front porch until things eased off a bit. I didn't want to be late for the jazz record night at the youth club, but such conditions didn't usually last too long. This current shower, and the thundery sounds that accompanied it. I knew from experience would be followed by a lull which would probably last long enough for me to reach my destination in comfort and without too much of a hurry.
The downpour was likely to inflict far more discomfort than a soaking, however. What was in progress was not a rainstorm but an air-raid. On nights like this one, when the sirens had wailed their baleful warning of an impending raid, life frequently went on as if nothing had happened. It never occurred to anybody of my age that there was any danger involved in walking the blackout streets of the eastern suburbs of London while the enemy planes prowled the skies immediately above. The tinkling of falling metal sounded deceptively harmless for something so lethal. Funnily enough, it wasn't the Nazis that were causing the shower of unpleasant materials to descend from the clouds; it was the shrapnel from our own anti-aircraft guns that forced me to take shelter.
But the object of the journey - to compare notes with other young jazz buffs on the merits of Louis Armstrong's Weatherbird or Duke Ellington's Harlem Airshaft- was uppermost in my mind. There was absolutely no question about the wisdom of the whole expedition: the risk involved in getting there was well worth it.
Beginning of my Jazz Education
Being a jazz fan during World War II wasn't exactly easy. Yet on reflection, considering that the future of the free world was at stake (and with it, according to the philosophies of the Hitler regime, the future of jazz as well), the music was surprisingly easy to obtain. True, the new jazz releases amounted to just two or three double-sided 78 rpm records a month (just, say, half a dozen three-minute morsels of jazz), but since we were living on an island under siege and fighting for its very existence that tiny ration of jazz (by today's standards) didn't seem too bad, especially as the sum total monthly issue of discs of all types of music amounted to only twenty or so. Looking back, it was a very fair percentage for a musical style that had already outlived its 'popular' period and was fast becoming considered an 'art' music. It nevertheless amounted to precious little evidence of what was happening at that time in the birthplace of jazz across the submarine infested Atlantic. In those circumstances every bar, every note, every nuance became the object of close scrutiny and endless discussion. Access to our music might have been severely limited, but it was certainly an assurance that what we did get was studied - and then studied, and then studied over and over again.
The result was a collection of records bearing the scars and scratches of continual replay, with numerous grey areas, caused by overplaying of a special passage in an effort to dislodge its secrets, and plenty of craters which created the illusion of unscheduled drumbeats. Even the use of needles made from thorns to minimise wear didn't help much - they required such frequent sharpening that the puny sound they made wasn't worth the effort. Steel needles at sixpence a box were still the only real choice, in spite of their lethal effect on the discs.
And the wind-up portable gramophone which activated my pitiful assembly of scratchy sound-bytes was primitive, even for those days. It frequently needed a boost to its clockwork mechanism from the handle on the side to make it last the whole record, otherwise Ella Fitzgerald would in mid-phrase start a gradual but inevitable sliding metamorphosis into Paul Robeson. And, as it had no volume control, the only way to avoid waking up the whole household and incurring parental wrath was to stuff a rolled-up pair of football socks in the mouth of the speaker horn! By using this admittedly unscientific but vaguely effective bit of 'noise reduction' I was able to extend my hours of jazz study well into the time when all decent God-fearing people were asleep - or in the air-raid shelters.
Thus began my jazz education. Although it wasn't quite as simple as that. I had, after all, been brought up in a classically inclined household, where all other kinds of music were regarded with an air of benign superiority. There was no real embargo on any specific style of music, but the general parental message was that the only 'quality' music was of the classical variety. This was the edict tacitly understood and until now rigidly observed by all.
Except for my Aunt Nell, an independent-minded schoolteacher who lived with us for a while during the war. She was a very active lady in the local music world. She played the viola in an amateur orchestra, but, much more surprisingly, also at times performed on the french horn, the trumpet and the cornet, the last in an otherwise entirely male marching band. It was to Aunt Nell that I initially confided my interest in jazz-the true jazz, that is, not the dance music which generally had the label 'jazz' attached to it at that time. I had of course discovered this music for myself, as young people do, but I had no idea of how to get more deeply involved in the study- and perhaps eventually the performance - of this exciting music. Neither had I heard from other lips any encouraging or supportive words to lead me to believe that my quest was worth while. and not just a teenage phase which I would pass through and eventually abandon. And even as I told Aunt Nell of my jazz interest I felt sure that she would disapprove, and so started to refer to it in a slightly deprecating way.
When we were chatting together one afternoon at home, something must have caused her to detect my insecurity. 'Well', she said, 'there's certainly such a thing as good jazz, but it's often confused with dance music and the Tin Pan Alley stuff you hear such a lot of on the radio.' I felt I had already realised this, but to hear Aunt Nell's endorsement was music to my ears. 'Louis Armstrong, for instance', she went on, 'he's wonderful.' Her eyes twinkled. 'He's got lips like leather, y' know', she added with the air of someone who recognised that quality from personal experience. 'Benny Goodman, too', she went on, 'he's a virtuoso in any sense of the word - plays classical music as well!'
This was enough for me. My plan was formed then and there. If I took up an instrument that was used classically too, I just might get my mother on my side - and thus the wherewithal to get a clarinet.
I left my aunt sitting by the fireside looking slightly astonished at my sudden movement for the door, perhaps wondering what she had said to occasion this flurry of activity from Number One Nephew. I rushed through the kitchen, causing my mother, who had just removed a tray of newly baked cup-cakes from the oven, to side-step with the adroitness of a skilful matador. I ran through the lean-to garage at the side of our semi-detached abode, grabbed my bike, and hurtled down Hollywood Way to Hale End Road and on to the radio and record shop near the station. I dashed into the shop, straight to a rack containing dozens of jazz records (probably some job-lot of old stock that the current owner had inherited from a previous one), and grabbed hold of a disc I had often seen while browsing in this little store but had never before had the motivation to buy - Tea for Two, by the Benny Goodman Quartet!
In no time I had persuaded the startled salesman to defer payment till the next day and was back home again playing my prize on the Columbia portable. My mother was too dazed to react, but Aunt Nell beamed approvingly and even tapped her feet to the warm, beguiling Goodman sound. And I had made my big lifetime decision.
I was going to be a jazz clarinet player. Yet my decisive choice of an instrument had done nothing to finance my habit and, like any other addicted person, I felt I could stop at practically nothing to procure what financial assistance I needed. Money, even though I was still a schoolboy, became a pressing problem in my life as a jazz junkie. I knew of only one way to solve it.
Getting up in the wee small blacked-out hours of the morning in wartime London to do my newspaper round was not something I relished in the slightest, let alone enjoyed. Neither did my mother enjoy getting up at that time to stir her heavy-sleeping son for his task. I was amazed that she did so at all, since she had thoroughly disapproved of my taking the job in the first place.
But for me a paper round had one overriding advantage. It provided extra money for gramophone records, still virtually the only means at my disposal for hearing jazz at the time. And as a result I now found myself trudging through rain, hail and snow in order to raise the funds for an additional six or seven minutes of the music which had captured my life. There was one other by-product of my employment. A paper round was a good opportunity to whistle.
I had already started thinking like a jazz performer rather than a jazz fan, even though I was still the latter rather than the former. Jazz tunes were already presenting themselves to me as opportunities for improvisation. As I still had no instrument to improvise on, the answer was - whistling! I whistled my way round the streets - softly to myself, of course, since the town was still sleeping - and imagined myself as one of my new-found idols. Benny Goodman, Bix Beiderbecke and Johnny Hodges all unknowingly helped me get through my task on those dark mornings in the war-torn city.
Despite my income from the noble task of paper delivery the exchequer still didn't run to an instrument. I had, during my stay in Leominster, acquired a penny-whistle and managed to get some sounds vaguely like jazz out of it. But by now I was becoming ever keener to get myself something more acceptable in jazz circles. My mother's antennae seemed to pick this up, and within weeks her Townswomen's Guild bush telegraph had located a clarinet, for sale by the friend of a friend. This was a breakthrough indeed, and we lost no time in making a pilgrimage to view the merchandise.
The history of this particular instrument was vague, and since neither Mother nor I knew the first thing about clarinets we relied heavily on the vendor, who knew precious little about them either. The only thing about it that we knew was exactly right for us was the price. It was to cost just 3 5 shillings - in today's parlance just under two pounds (or five dollars)! We didn't bother to bargain - in those circles it was hardly the right thing to do anyway.
The instrument was brought home in triumph, viewed with circumspection by my father, and at the insistence of my mother, passed over the garden fence for a close inspection by our neighbour Mrs Turner. 'Ooh, it's a really nice one!' she cooed, fingering the instrument nervously. 'Is it a trombone?' she added. She must have found it hard to know exactly what to say.
Next day, with the help of a friend, I found a local musician and persuaded him to pop round and view my treasure. He eyed it with the air of an expert. 'Very nice. And what sort of lamp did you say it was going to be?'
'Lamp? What do you mean?'
'Oh, I thought you were going to make it into the base for a reading lamp-you know, run the wire up through the middle with a bulb and a shade on top. People often do that with these old things. They look very classy, too.'
I told him that my needs for it were musical and not electrical. With eyes glazed from the sheer boredom being inflicted on him by this clarinet ignoramus, he patiently enlightened me. Not only was the system of key layout an obsolete one, but the pitch of the instrument would not be compatible with anything else in any band - or even with our beloved domestic piano! I thanked him warmly for this blissfully welcome bit of enlightenment and retired hurt.
Before he departed, leaving this endless trail of bad news, the man had nevertheless (out of pity I suppose) got the instrument into a state of playability, with a reed in place on the mouthpiece, ready to blow. The thing still looked wonderful to my eyes - just like Benny Goodman's. Too bad it had turned out to be a sort of woodwind leper, from a practical point of view.
Not to be completely defeated I got out the tutor book which I'd bought for this very moment. I placed my fingers gingerly over the holes as instructed, wrapped my hands round the beautiful African blackwood body, drew the slender instrument to my lips, and breathed gently into the mouthpiece. Nothing.
I tried blowing a little harder. Still nothing.
I unlearned the advice of the manual and reverted to brute force. A stark, searing squawk escaped from the reluctant instrument, provoking a chorus of barking from the neighbours' dogs and rattling the crystal glassware on the sideboard.
Frustrated, depressed and angry I was about to hurl the thing across the room when somehow I managed to persuade myself to have one more try. I forgot all the book's advice, and blew. This time a sound emerged, a luscious low murmur in the chalumeau register. Within seconds I was finding the other three notes needed to satisfy my immediate desires. Ten minutes later I was beside the Columbia wind-up portable fulfilling my dream.
My career had begun at the top: I was playing Tea for Two with the Benny Goodman Quartet, and from that moment on I was unstoppable by the proverbial wild horses - or anything else - in my intention to become a jazz musician.
And pursue my goals is what I did - with a vengeance. I bought music and tuition books for my clarinet. I continued to keep in touch with the latest in jazz via the radio, records and specialist magazines. I practised the clarinet daily, and often all day. Within a week or so the word had somehow got around the Sir George Monoux Grammar School that Dankworth was playing the clarinet. I had not taken music as a subject - wartime movement between various places had somehow contrived to preclude that - but my musical skills were well known in the school, and indeed I often assisted the music students with any homework that they found difficult. And so it was not long before I received a request from the leader of the unofficial school dance band to attend an informal jam session. The prospect of playing with other musicians meant a change of instrument and I managed to buy (with a combination of paper-round wages, pocket money and parental benevolence) my first really usable clarinet. On reflection I realise that it was in fact an audition, to ascertain my suitability to join them on a regular basis, but it all must have been rather premature - because I accepted their invitation, and didn't hear from them again.
Undeterred, I formed my own band, the first of several small groups for which I managed to get occasional jobs. The first one to achieve any sort of cohesion, or indeed any success for that matter, was a quintet. I have forgotten how I came across these fellow aspirants for jazz immortality: Jack Davenport, Ken Moule, Cliff Dunn and Peter Huggett. Somehow the bush telegraph of suburbia puts like-minded souls in touch with each other.
Jack was about my age, the son of a local drummer who played with a quartet at the Majestic Ballroom in Woodford, a few miles from my home. Once we got to know each other he would take me to the Majestic, where I would be allowed to sit in with the band on quiet nights- a great source of experience for me. Later, when we got started with my own group, Jack acquired a discarded milk-float -the kind you pushed-to transport his drum kit, and we would think nothing of propelling this strange vehicle three or four miles through the blacked-out streets of east London in the early hours of the morning after a gig.
Jack was at that time somewhat slow at reading music but later went to the Royal Academy of Music to correct this shortcoming. By contrast, pianist Ken Moule was a good sight-reader and indeed an accomplished musician for his age. Early childhood illness, which he barely survived, left him with a cadaverous look which went well with his ridiculous sense of humour. He was tall and bony, with a long face which switched easily from intransigence into a twinkling grin, and with arm movements so comic that they would have been perfect companion pieces to -and just as side-splitting as-the silly walks of John Cleese. The Moule delivery of words was also quite distinctive: a lugubrious drone with long, semi-nasal vowel sounds, which were further exaggerated when he assumed character parts.
Ken had another, more serious side, which constantly found itself at loggerheads with much of' the world outside. Indeed later in his career he was frequently to come to verbal blows with those working with him. He seemed (as I suppose do so many of us) unable to call on his highly developed knack of laughing at life to get him through any current problem, which he inevitably took very seriously. Yet after such incidents, recounting his altercations with this misguided BBC producer or that excitable TV choreographer, his sense of humour returned and he would have us convulsed with mirth. That was apparently enough to mollify the outrage that still lingered in him.
I met Ken when I heard him playing at the Rhythm Club (as jazz appreciation societies were then known in Britain) in Woodford, and our mutual musical needs brought us together in what was to become a lifelong friendship. His confident piano style proved a sheet-anchor for our little group, and his ability to arrange music - later to become a great asset in his career in the days of BBC resident orchestras-was a great help. Ken and I found out early in our relationship our common tendency to compose alternative lyrics to well known tunes.
One night, during one of our frequent late foregatherings at one of our homes (usually mine) where we sipped cocoa and listened to jazz records, I burst into song to the tune of the then well-known ballad I love the moon, whose lyric predictably ended with the line 'I love you - I love you. My somewhat less romantic version went:
I love balloons, I love cream buns
I love Jamaica and ferret-runs
I love red lamp-posts
Frog-spawn and pancakes
But best of all
I love snakes
Big green snakes.
As my last note died over the kitchen table, so Ken's first note took over and blended in, like a medley of hits. He droned in his doleful voice, to the tune of I'm in the mood for love, something close to:
I'm in the mood for whales Give me a piece of blubber I want it for my supper
I'm in the mood for whales.
Can't sleep for dreaming of them
Black bodies floating past me
Plenty of rubber dinghies
I'm in the mood for whales.
(Then there was a bridge section which I can't recall but included the line: 'They keep on shouting "Grandma"', - then:)
I'm in the mood for whales
(But) can't seem to find one nowhere
But there are sharks, so - do I care:
I'm in the mood for sharks.
Later we were to hone our skills, improving on these first puerile efforts and producing better - if more surreal - creations. The catalyst for our latest improved versions was seated at that very kitchen table that night. His name was Cliff Dunn.
Cliff lived, like Ken, in nearby Chingford with his mother, a vivacious lady named Doddie, and was the only child in a single-parent household. He showed all the signs of emergent talent on his instrument, and was one of the few guitarists at that time to be in possession of an amplifier, amazing though that may seem today. Cliff also had a ready sense of quirky humour, but rather more surreal in nature than Ken's.
The quintet was usually completed by bassist Peter Huggett. Peter lived with his parents in a semi-detached suburban-style villa in an acacia-lined avenue a little nearer to the centre of London's sprawl than the rest of us, and his front parlour was always available as an alternative rehearsal room - a not uncourageous act on the part of his mother, who was only too aware of the din (by the standards of those days) we were capable of creating. Peter was the one among us with the gift of the gab, and was well equipped to take over the job of haggling with prospective clients. And so my group was complete, with all the requirements of a small dance band of the day. Except engagements.
The king of the suppliers of dance bands for casual engagements in the east London area at that time was Will de Barr. I had seen the name 'Will de Barr and his Band' emblazoned on poster after poster announcing this or that dance in this or that church hall or such and such a municipal baths. He was obviously the man to woo. And I had seen his name every day, cycling home from school, outside a tiny social club near Wadham bridge, a short hop from my home, which advertised a regular Friday night dance featuring the Will de Barr Band. I decided to target him the following Friday. I would go there and sit in, like they did in the films I had been seeing, and in the books and articles I had read. That was the way to do it.
I planned my assault with the precision of a military commander: 'It starts at 7.30, right; OK, at 7.22 I'll arrive, introduce myself to Will and ask if I can sit in, and once he hears me he'll offer me dozens of gigs - couldn't be simpler.'
It is Friday night. I get out my bike, make sure front and rear lamps are both working, and pedal off to the dance hall. Not much sign of life, but a few chinks of light through the blackout curtains. I padlock the bike and enter the hall. It is drab, dusty and as yet deserted, except that at the far end a small band seems to be in the process of setting up. A pianist is tinkling, a drummer assembling his kit and a bass player taking the canvas cover off his instrument. I approach the pianist, clutching my clarinet nervously. Are you Mr de Barr?'
'Not guilty, sonny. Will doesn't come to this gig - just puts the band in. What d' you want him for, anyway: ' He began to look suspicious. 'Thought I might sit in', I venture casually.
His hitherto helpful attitude now changed completely. 'Will doesn't like people sittin' in.' But something in him took pity on this obviously nervous youth, clutching an instrument case as if his life depended on it. 'But - er, what d' you play, son?'
'Well, Dave the tenor player is leader tonight, and he's late - motorbike broke down. We'll let you play a number before he gets here.' He must have seen my eyes light up. I ripped open my clarinet case, and within two minutes we were into I got rhythm at quickstep tempo. During its progress Dave the Sax strode up the centre of the dance floor. There were still no customers. He manoeuvred himself onto the stage, peeled off an enormous leather coat, opened a case with his motorbike-begreased hands and produced a couple of saxophones and a clarinet together with a metal-framed contraption on which to stand them all, then proceeded to join in.
It soon became obvious that I had passed my audition, as not another word was said about the 'no sitters-in' policy of the Will de Barr regime. I shared the rest of the evening happily with those seasoned gigsters, as well as with the intrigued patrons now thronging the dance floor and eyeing my youthful appearance with some amusement, until we brought things to a close with God Save the King.
Next morning my mum woke me up excitedly, earlier than usual. 'Quick, Will de Barr's on the phone.' Her voice insinuated that it might as well have been Winston Churchill. I leapt down the stairs three at a time instead of my usual two. The great voice echoed down the line into my ears. I could hardly believe what I heard. 'I hear we've got a budding Benny Goodman living in Highams Park.'
'Oh, thanks, Mr de Barr, but I'm not really that good.'
'Good enough to do the gig for money next Friday - if you're free?' I made a pathetic attempt to shuffle the pages of my diary near the mouthpiece of the phone to make him think I was really checking, but I don't think I fooled him.
I did the gig at the Roberts Social Club the following Friday. For money. At the end of the evening, from the hand of Dave the sax, I received, predictably begrimed with motor-cycle grease, a ten-shilling note.
Meanwhile the quintet continued to exist, even - in our terms - to thrive. Apart from local gigs we had somehow managed to land a three-nights-a-week gig at a tiny watering-hole called the Mozart Club in Stoke Newington, an inner London suburb several miles up the commuter line. It presented a transport problem-it was much too far to wheel a milk-float- but it was far too important a career step to turn down. It meant a twenty-minute train ride, and then a journey on foot of about a mile to and from Hackney Downs station, carrying everything we needed in the way of instruments from drums downwards - every Thursday, Friday and Saturday. No wonder my schoolwork started to suffer.
Things were developing fast at the Mozart Club too. We had scored a hit there, and the word spread quickly around the neighbourhood. Not far away lived a family which boasted three sisters, whose closeharmony singing had already begun to attract local attention. Their family name was Chinnery, but they called themselves the Beverley Sisters. The twin girls, Teddy and Babs, had an elder sister, joy, as a sort of spiritual leader, and they somehow got invited (or invited themselves - I fail to remember) to appear at the Mozart Club. Naturally our quintet was asked to accompany them, since none of the girls played anything and there was no one else to provide a backing. It seemed to be at that time a constraining factor on their career.
It was also just up our street: Ken's sure-footed reading and accompanying together with my fast-developing arranging skills filled the bill perfectly. So well, in fact, that the girls asked us to appear with them at Stage Door Canteen in Piccadilly, where they had been booked to perform in a show for the American forces, thousands of whom were either stationed or on leave in London in those days. It was heady stuff for us lads, a sort of catapulting to stardom (or so it seemed) that we had hardly dared dream of. We did that show with the Bevs, and if I remember rightly a couple of others, before their career inevitably took off and our ways parted.
But the connection made with the US forces entertainment machine led us to other things, including a regular gig at Rainbow Corner - a booking in our own right and on our own merits. And so our local commuter train (drawn in those days by an old and grimy steam tank engine) now started to puff and heave us not just a few stops to Hackney Downs, but right to the end of the line - the London terminus at Liverpool Street.
Those were exciting times, which I still think of with practically undivided pleasure, and it is indeed hard even to remember that London was at war. Though for many it must have been a worrying period - for the soldiers whom we entertained, who were enjoying short respites from risking their lives, for their families back in the States, and indeed for the millions of Londoners who went to bed every night in fear of their lives - for us teenage would-be stars it was joy undiluted.
We played requests for nostalgic GIs, one of them a version I had concocted of Artie Shaw's Concerto for Clarinet, a jazz piece with a bravura introduction, a boogie-woogie main section and a cadenzastyle coda ending on an altissimo C, an extremely high note which I, a clarinet player with months rather than years of experience behind me, was singularly ill-equipped to pull off. I did it by a lightning change of reed during a few bars' rest near the climax, which made the elusive note attainable for me. Deservedly or otherwise, it managed to bring the place down on most of the occasions I played it. And, moreover, I seemed in my innocence able to handle the unexpected with calmness and efficiency. On one occasion the child star Petula Clark popped in to entertain the GIs and required accompanying. We did the job as effectively as seasoned pros, and earned the plaudits of all concerned.
Meanwhile, back in Walthamstow, Will de Barr, concerned that many of his gigs demanded a saxophone player who doubled on clarinet rather than a clarinet player who didn't double on anything, had offered to lend me a saxophone on which to learn to increase my versatility. I jumped at the offer. The only reason I had not already taken this step was a lack of the necessary finances.
I found my way to Will's house near the Crooked Billet in Walthamstow, and as I approached met a rather shady-looking character coming out of the front door. Those were the days of the black market, and dance-band leaders, or at least some of them, did not allow themselves to be left out of that side of commerce.
'Wanna buy a pair of hot scissors?' was my greeting as I entered the dark front hallway of the terraced Edwardian house. I responded with nothing more than a grin, but I think the question was a test rather than a genuine enquiry. Will knew, and I found out, that - with the acquisition of that saxophone and my consequent full-blooded entry to the business of wartime gigging - I was entering a somewhat shadowy and illegal world. We would sometimes drive to gigs in an unlicensed car running on illicit petrol, and containing in the back seat a musician with dyed hair and a bushy moustache who, it was whispered, was an army deserter. We would meet in dark side streets to avoid attracting attention, and take circuitous routes to our destinations rather than risk encountering a checkpoint on a main road.
It all made gigging with dance bands seem to me an unexpectedly risky business. But there was no other way to learn and progress. After all, it seemed pretty small beer compared with the exploits of jazz bands in Chicago during Prohibition that I'd read about, who dodged machine-gun bullets as they played for the likes of the Al Capone gang.
By contrast, the lifestyle of the Dankworth quintet was about as innocuous as anyone could possibly imagine. None of us drank alcohol seriously, and the word 'drugs' meant pharmaceutical preparations as far as we were concerned. Any money earned was religiously divided equally between the five of us. Girls, or sex for that matter, played little or no part in our world at that time. We lived only for laughs and the music, for our playing, our listening and our learning.
Our evenings were nearly all spent with music in some shape or form. One of my personal favourite haunts was the Feldman Swing Club (later called the 100 Club) in Oxford Street, and it was in this simple basement that I kept in touch with what was happening in the London jazz world. The partially sighted drummer Carlo Krahmer was a sort of musical and artistic director. He also ran (and played in) the jam sessions there, in which most of the prominent players of the time, many of them in uniform, appeared periodically - among them trumpet player Kenny Baker, drummer Jack Parnell, pianists Ralph Sharon, George Shearing and Dick Katz, and saxists Aubrey Frank and Jimmy Skidmore. It was also occasionally the scene of a visit by American musicians. On one memorable night a group from the Glenn Miller Band treated us to an hour or so of wonderful music, and I was able to savour the delights of pianist Mel Powell, clarinettist Peanuts Hucko and drummer Ray McKinley. It was an experience that made a deep impression on me, and it became my ambition to play at the Feldman Club one day - hopefully with a spellbound audience hanging on my every note, as they were for those Americans that night.
One evening around that time an unfamiliar face appeared on the stand. A young Scottish tenor sax player, who had reached London playing with some touring band or other, had asked Carlo if he could sit in. Carlo, whose ears were ever open for a new talent on the scene, assented, and the young man started to play. It was wonderful: I was transported by the unique way he was able to marry force with finesse and produce such effective results. I was in fact listening to Tommy Whittle at the very beginning of his brilliant career, and I made a mental note to utilise his talents if ever I was in a position to do so - although that last thought seemed most emphatically theoretical rather than realistic at the time. 'The audacity of it', I said to myself. 'You're thinking about giving other people work when you can barely get enough of your own!'
But often events in life don't proceed in the expected order. The next morning I heard my mother pick up the phone. Moments later she called up the stairs. 'John - it's for you ... Will de Barr.' She had shed most of the reverence in her voice that had been present the first time Will had phoned. His frequent requests for my services seemed to my parents to be undermining my schoolwork, and they feared the worst: that this musical interest which had started as a sort of hobby - and as such had received their support, or at least acquiescence-was now turning into a monster which would ruin their son's chances of a regular wage-earning, pension-producing occupation.
I picked up the phone. 'Hello, Will. What can I do for you?'
'Would you like to do it couple of weeks at the Paramount in Tottenham Court Road With your little band? The relief group there has got a couple of weeks' leave, and they need someone to fill in.'
It all seemed like a script for a movie. But the realist part of my mind raced through the pros and cons of' such an enormous step into the professional world -while I was still at school. Heaven knows, the V1 buzz bombs had just begun to rain on London, and whatever time we older boys didn't spend on the school roof to watch out for the missiles was spent in the air-raid shelters doing no work at all. True, the Paramount was in central London where all the darned things were being aimed, but the ballroom itself was below ground level, with several storeys of apartments above it - certainly as safe to my mind as the school shelters. I wouldn't be missing a thing academically; in fact, I was pretty sure they wouldn't miss me.
'Just one thing', added Will. 'You'll need to make it a sextet.', Another sax player would do nicely.'
'We'll do it', I heard myself say. Ten minutes later I had extracted Tommy Whittle's phone number from the Feldman Club office. To my astonishment he was free and willing to do the gig, and in another thirty seconds I had booked him.
The die was cast, and the patrons of a major London ballroom were going to get a taste of our kind of music -whether they liked us or not.
It all seemed so impossible, yet there was no denying it was real. I had spent evening after evening rewriting all the quintet's arrangements to include Tommy Whittle's tenor sax. We had rehearsed all the new stuff time and again until we felt confident that we would have enough suitable material. Since my very first efforts on the family piano at the age of about five I had experimented with writing music down, and later with arranging it and indeed composing pieces for the quintet. Now my experiences were proving to be very useful in fleshing out the band's repertoire.
And so I found myself standing in front of my five faithful cohorts in the artificial semi-darkness (it was mid-afternoon outside) of this sweetly odorised Mecca ballroom in the heart of the besieged capital, watching the male dancers (many of them in uniform) propelling their partners around the French-chalked dance floor while we provided them with - a plaintive slow fox-trot. The multicoloured followspots swirled, the crystal ball cast its countless pinpoint reflections indiscriminately upon humans and inanimates alike - and all was right with the world.
Our sessions soon had a routine feel about them - as did our daily journeys to and from the suburbs on the old commuter steam-train, and on the connecting underground trip from Liverpool Street to Tottenham Court Road. To a group of high-spirited teenagers such as us it could all easily have become boring. But in fact nothing approaching boredom ever set in - thanks to our guitarist Cliff Dunn. In the cause of amusement Cliff would commit acts that were totally beyond the pale for the rest of us.
Every night Cliff, with his deadpan look, would enliven the return journey to Chingford with something extraordinary. Perhaps for the entire journey, in a carriage shared by other passengers, he would read a newspaper upside down, and then proceed to eat the middle page. Or wear his jacket inside out, continually brushing and preening himself, the while with the air of a dandy. Or mumble to himself in a bogus foreign tongue, occasionally bursting into folk-like ditties in that same language.
As the two weeks progressed he got more outrageous. One night he wore a fez and a bath gown and carried a lighted candle, declaiming nonsense from a large, ancient leather-bound tome. The rest of us as usual pretended we had nothing to do with Cliff - until Jack Davenport nonchalantly went up to him and lit his cigarette from the candle.
Soon we all caught the disease. Who first thought of it I can't remember, but once we dreamt up a campaign called 'Bones for the Austrians'. We would stand on street corners carrying placards and solicit passers-by for the spare bones from their meagre meat rations. We even had leaflets printed to hand to those who stopped, wondering what on earth it was all about. 'What do we want to give them our bones for? They're on the other side', said one indignant woman.
Ain't yer got no compassion, mum?' I countered.
'How would they get them there?' asked another inquisitive old girl, anxious to help yet rather mystified by it all.
'Specially converted Wellington bombers, lady', said Ken, with the air of an expert. 'Drops yer bones over Vienna and Salzburg every Tuesday afternoon, reg'lar as clockwork.' The old dear sounded satisfied, and went away mumbling a promise to bring some bones along next day.
On another memorable occasion we were approached to play on a regular basis at a small club in Walthamstow. The money and conditions were good, but somehow during the audition, which was on the way to clinching the deal, we all simultaneously began to realise that it was not the sort of gig that we would enjoy, or even want to do at all. So we began to play badly to cause the club owner - whom none of us had taken to - to change his mind. However, our ruse didn't work- we had obviously been too subtle. The man was delighted with what he had heard. 'So it's all settled then - you can start next Monday?'
I was lost for words, but Ken was not. 'John, have you told Mr Gross about Armadillos?' Before I could reply he went on. 'You see, sir, by tradition we always open each show with Armadillos - it's a kind of cabaret turn. We'll just run it for you - ready Cliff?'
Cliff needed no further cue - this was right up his street. Without a second's hesitation he launched himself onto his stomach and slithered to the centre of the tiny club dance floor. Ken played some atonal arpeggios at the bottom of the piano, while I produced a series of ear-splitting screeches in the clarinet's least pleasant register. Add a few gong crashes from Jack and some sinuous scrapes from Peter's bowed bass, and the sum total was pretty obnoxious by any standards.
But the club owner's eyes were on Cliffy. He was lying on his side and simultaneously performing a kind of horizontal convulsive cakewalk around the floor. I have never seen an armadillo under stress, but I have always pictured a rather mild-mannered animal. In contrast Cliff was baring his teeth, foaming at the mouth and snarling in a most disconcerting way, and from time to time emitting a banshee-style wail. It all went on for an unpleasantly long time.
After the conclusion of Armadillos we packed our instruments and said our good-byes. Mr Gross promised to phone me over the weekend. We never heard from him again.
The season at the Paramount Ballroom did not catapult us to stardom - in fact it seemed to have precious little impact either on the great metropolis or on us. Tommy Whittle left for other pursuits and the rest of us resumed our casual gigs, both as a quintet and as individuals.
On the other hand, my absence from school - and from my home every evening - did indeed have an impact, one which was to affect my future. My parents were extremely worried that their son, hitherto bright as a button at school, was now frittering his life away in dance halls and pubs, while his school reports were getting progressively worse. It was surely time to put a stop to this nonsense and get the boy back on course- a course which to them meant security, success and happiness.
The headmaster was called into the picture. My father had phoned him and complained about my lack of progress academically, and I was consequently summoned to the head's study for interrogation and a dressing-down. The proceedings of the meeting were summed up by the headmaster at the time in a memo which was discovered over forty years later, and it succinctly relates the happenings from one point of view:
Sir George Momoux Grammar School, Walthamstow
DANKWORTH John Philip William Age 16
Date of admission 13.9.1938
Came from Leyton Centre September '4 3 into VI form (Matric)
Plays clarinet (self-taught)
Feb '44 Father rang up. Worried about boy - little interest in work, and intends to take up a job and do dance-band work in evenings. Father (an educated man) dislikes the idea.
Interviewed boy and talked it over at length, but without much obvious success. Boy had genuine (if perverted) interest in 'swing' music. Already, to my horror, plays for dance bands in ('high-class') pubs one or two nights a week, from 7 till 11. Pointed out that this was not reconcilable with VI form work.
Later had telephone conversation with father; decided to let it hold for a bit.
Sept '44 Left to take a course at the Royal Academy of Music.
The last sentence was appended some time later, and recorded the outcome of a showdown with my parents when it became apparent that my meeting had not had the effect they desired.
I explained to Mum and Dad that I had made up my mind: I wanted to be a jazz musician. I pointed out to my classically trained mother that this did not mean that I would never play classical music. Benny Goodman was the living, breathing proof of that. I did, however, want to devote all my available time to music, and not to the other subjects which were then part of my curriculum.
My parents were stunned. But they were intelligent enough to take me seriously-they could see that I would not be deterred. 'Well, if you must play this type of music, you should certainly go somewhere to learn your instrument properly', said my mother. 'We'd better see about applying for a place at the Royal Academy'.
The argument was over. A prospectus was sent for and perused, and in due course I embarked for an audition in the foreboding building near Madame Tussaud's wax museum in the Marylebone Road - The Royal Academy of Music. My sister Avril accompanied me at the piano for a couple of clarinet pieces, and then I played one of my own compositions at the keyboard.
I was accepted to begin studies that autumn. It couldn't have been a difficult decision for the authorities there, since the air-raids were still from time to time plaguing London. Many would-be academicians were away in the armed services, so there must have been more vacancies than applicants for male student places; since I wore long trousers they could not bring themselves to refuse me.
Life at the academy was a completely new world for me. The self discipline required to work and practise unsupervised meant a whole new outlook on life, quite different from the enforced drudgery of schoolwork. It also paradoxically gave me more free time in central London to meet, talk to and play with other jazz musicians.
My clarinet teacher at the academy was an elderly retired symphony player, who helped me with some groundwork on the instrument but frankly did little to inspire me. My inspiration came from a fellow student named Edward Planas. Ted later became a leading authority on the anatomy of the clarinet, and masterminded several important improvements in the construction and mechanism of the instrument. At that time, however, he was an enthusiastic aspiring symphony clarinettist, and I found myself sitting next to him (as his assistant principal) in the academy's second orchestra, as well as on occasional gigs at small orchestral concerts in the home counties. He was my guiding light and my mentor.
The second orchestra was at that time conducted by Ernest Read, whose fame endures as an organiser of children's symphony concerts. The experience of ploughing our way through the classical repertoire was invaluable to me- participating in the thrilling sound of a symphony orchestra in full cry was the part of my studies that I enjoyed the most.
One day at rehearsal, the suite L'Arlesienne by Georges Bizet appeared in our folders. Flicking through the pages. I noticed that at one point my part had a cue on it marked 'alto sax'. I wondered what would happen when we got to that cue. By now I owned an alto sax, but rarely had the courage to bring it within a mile of the academy. When I did, and students enquired about the contents of the longish case, I used to tell them it held a bassoon.
Mr Read started to rehearse the piece. When we got to the sax bit he stopped. 'Does anyone in the woodwind play the ... er ... saxophone?' he enquired. I froze. I had never heard the word uttered inside the hallowed walls of the institution until this moment.
'Go on, Danky!' whispered Ted, who knew all my secrets. 'Now's your chance. Tell him.'
I cleared my throat. 'Sir, I'd ... I'd like to have a go.' I faltered. 'I can borrow a sax.' It would be going too far to admit that I actually possessed one.
'Splendid. Bring it to next week's rehearsal', the conductor replied. I did, and played the piece in classical clarinet style on the larger and somewhat beefier instrument. I was petrified, but luckily got through it without any mistakes. As the last note of my ordeal died away Mr Read quietly put his baton down and addressed the orchestra in his cultured tones: 'The saxophone is a much-maligned instrument. But this is because it is so often unpleasantly played by dance-band and jazz players, who give it a somewhat undeserved bad name. But you have just heard it used by someone who is quite untainted by such undesirable influences, and in consequence has produced the true beauty of which the saxophone is capable.'
He gently led with soft applause, and the orchestra followed, the string players tapping their bows delicately on their music-stands and beaming at me in appreciation. Mr Read had made me the hero of the rehearsal and I loved him for it. Perhaps I should have invited him to the little jam session in a Windmill Street rehearsal studios I was planning to attend that night. But I'm glad I didn't. Sometimes it's best just to let well alone.
Unfortunately life at the academy had very few memorable moments such as that. My time there was during one of its low points, which was not surprising, since the war must have severely limited its activities and removed many of its most talented personnel. It has become much more alive, broad-minded and forward-looking in more recent years. It now even boasts a jazz course, which I was able to instigate in the early seventies, later to be developed by Graham Collier. But in those days my lessons and classes on clarinet, piano, harmony, musical history and aural training all seemed to lack the ingredient needed to fire me up and cause me to progress. It was almost certainly my fault: I should have been more prepared to adapt to the academic way of thinking, rather than expect it all to work on my terms.
But something came up which did in fact generate some excitement and attracted a little attention. I had played in a pub on a couple of occasions with an accomplished and naturally gifted trumpet player, Freddie Randall. Freddie led his own group, but also worked for a bandleader named Freddie Mirfield, who led a band known as the Garbage Men. Randall had informed Mirfield of my abilities, and I was recruited into the band just in time to compete with them in the National Dance Band Championships organised by the music journal Melody Maker. After a couple of successes in the eliminatory heats we found ourselves in the grand final at Belle Vue in Manchester. We were eventually placed second as a band. This was a disappointment, since we had hoped to win, but the press reported that'. . . considerable credit goes to the youthful clarinet player, who thought out an original solo for himself instead of using the conventional one of Barney Bigard's, and played it with a taste and technique that would have been a credit to a professional instrumentalist'.
As a result of that performance, I received at Belle Vue the individual award for best clarinettist. It was a useful way of creating a bit of public limelight for me. And the press coverage, in the main popular music paper of the day, meant that it didn't go unnoticed in the profession of which I was about to become a part.
After that moment of triumph life went on at the academy, where an increasingly busy schedule meant that I had to leave the Garbage Men who, basking in the glory of their Melody Maker successes, turned professional. But one morning almost a year later I picked up the ever-ringing phone at home and recognised the voice immediately - Freddie Mirfield.
'Why, hello, Freddie. How's life on the road?' I enquired cheerily. 'Well, that's just it - we're off the road for a bit. We've got a week playing variety, at Clapham Grand.' He referred to an ageing London theatre which was a 'number three' house on the variety circuit, one of those places whose top of the bill was often a relatively little-known act such as the Garbage Men. And we need a clarinet player. Two shows a night, Monday to Saturday. Twenty quid for the week.' This sort of mouth-watering financial bait had the desired effect on me, and I duly found my way to Clapham. What I didn't know was that the Garbage Men, in order to earn a living, had changed status, from a Dixieland jazz band into a comedy team aimed at the same market as bands such as Spike Jones and his City Slickers or, in Britain, Sid Millward and the Nitwits. No soulful, poetic solo on Mood Indigo for me this time. The clarinet player was required for a very different role.
The featured music was the overture Poet and Peasant. My job was to play a very obvious goof, an extra couple of solo notes when the rest of the band had stopped. My punishment: a prop violin smashed over my head. The whole phrase was then repeated, and again I goofed. This time a guitar came crashing round my ears. We enacted this identical routine twice each night. A harassed Mirfield, poor man, spent the entire time between shows repairing the shattered instruments in preparation for their second decimation, although a shred of sympathy should also perhaps be saved for the youthful clarinettist, who, despite a padded wig, saw more than a few stars on a couple of occasions. Sad to say, my Academy course did not include instruction on injury avoidance when assailed by a musical instrument. I have since suggested that this serious omission be corrected for the wellbeing of future students.
One afternoon during this edifying week I happened to be travelling on a bus near my alma mater, the Monoux Grammar School, when who should board that very vehicle but that institution's head of music, Mr Bellchambers. My main recollection of this gentleman was his choice of a song entitled My mother bids me bind my hair (in bands of rosy hue) as a suitable piece to be taught to a class of pubescent schoolboys. The fellow also tended to be an incorrigible musical snob, and frowned on almost any other music than the strictly classical. However, he had heard of my move to the Royal Academy, and was thus able to greet me with a smile. 'Well, Dankworth, how are you enjoying your serious musical work at the academy? Making good progress, I hope.'
'Getting on reasonably well up to now, thank you, sir', I replied. And who are you working with?' his enquiry continued.
I realised afterwards that he was referring to the identities of my professors. But too late I found myself blurting out automatically, 'Well, just this week I'm working at Clapham Grand with Freddie Mirfield's Garbage Men.' I followed this statement quickly with a correction, but the damage was done. I saw his face assume a look of pain and contempt - there was after all no hope whatsoever for this young moron. We parted company at the bus stop near the Crooked Billet and never met again.
My life, which used to centre around the eastern suburbs, was now finding its focal point in the centre of London, where jazz flourished and jazz musicians met. The main meeting place for professional musicians was Archer Street, a backwater behind two theatres off Shaftesbury Avenue, just a stone's throw from Piccadilly Circus. Archer Street was a kind of open-air labour exchange where bandleaders booked musicians in the days before the telephone became a household commodity in Britain. Monday was the special day there, but if you needed a drummer or a sax player in a hurry to replace Charlie Farnsbarn who had just gone down with the flu or Joe Bloggs who broke his ankle last night, you were more likely to find a replacement in Archer Street-or a cafe nearby-than in any other part of the city.
It was there that I met, directly or indirectly, such contemporaries who, like me, were in love with jazz and determined to make a livelihood out of it. There was Ronnie Scott, the son of a well-known sax player, who himself played the tenor sax with great promise - as indeed did Don Rendell, who was later to become a close friend, and Leon Calvert, whose fluent trumpet playing attracted my attention. Pianist Tommy Pollard, drummers Laurie Morgan, Cecil 'Flash' Winstone and Tony Crombie, bassist Lennie Bush and trombonist Ed Harvey were all typical of the youngsters who went to the 'street' in search of work and communion with fellow musicians. Of course there were plenty of the lower echelons of the dance-band profession there too - some fine musicians, others who found it hard to get work because of their limited abilities. It soon became easy to spot the bandleaders from which the best offers of interesting work were liable to come.
Archer Street sometimes seemed to be mainly a social centre, but no young musician could afford not to show his face there from time to time.
One shadow constantly threatened to appear on the horizon and interfere with young musicians' careers in those days: conscription into the armed forces. My student status meant that my national service would be deferred until my course was finished. In my final term I was examined for my performer's diploma (Licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music) under the eye of one of my heroes, the famous clarinettist Reginald Kell, and I was naturally delighted when I opened the letter which informed me that I had passed. 'Johnny Dankworth. LRAM' looked good on my new business cards.
But of course the bad news was that I was now eligible for call-up. In the summer of 1946 I reported to Maidstone Barracks in Kent. The first six weeks consisted of basic training - marching and drilling, firing rifles and machine-guns, sticking bayonets into sacks of hay and so on - as well as being required to polish boots until they glistened, for no creative reason at all.