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First Band

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.