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.
- << Prev