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Sir John Phillip William Dankworth

Blue Collar Rat


Water Rat Register Number: 801. Initiated into the Order on 13 June 1997.

Proposer: Dr Jim Marshall. Seconder: Bert Weedon, OBE

John (Johnny) Dankworth was an iconic figure in British Jazz he was also the first major jazz musician and the first British bebopper to be knighted. Together with his wife, the jazz singer Dame Cleo Laine, he became known far beyond the jazz fraternity as an international musical star particularly in America.

He was born in Essex and grew up in Walthamstow, in a musical family. He began playing the clarinet after gaining a liking of the music of Benny Goodman. He later took up the saxophone which he studied at the Royal Academy of Music. After his National Service he rapidly became well-known on the British jazz scene. In 1949 he was voted Musician of the year and played with Charlie Parker at the Paris Jazz Festival. This was followed with a tour of Sweden with Sidney Bechet. At this period of his life he was usually credited as 'Johnny Dankworth'.

In 1950 he formed a small group known as the Dankworth Seven. This group lasted for three years when Dankworth wound it up to form his Big Band. The band was an immediate success and in 1959 they were invited to the Newport Jazz Festival. The band went on to perform at the Birdland Jazz club in New York and then shared the stage with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Dankworth?s friendship with Ellington continued until the latter's death. It was whilst performing at New York?s Lewisohn Stadium that the band were joined by Louis Armstrong for a set. By this time Cleo Laine was a regular singer with the band. In 1958 she and Dankworth were married. After their marriage she gave up as the band's regular singer. Among his other compositions were African Walt which became a hit on both side of the Atlantic and was covered by many artists particularly Cannonball Adderly who hat a minor hit in the U.S. During this very busy period of recording, the band made frequent live appearances, including tours with Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Gerry Mulligan, Lionel Hampton and Ella Fitzgerald.

Dankworth has always had a great interest in the education of jazz music and has held many seminars and master classes and concerts at The Stables, the theatre, created by him and his wife in the grounds of their home. In 2008 the violin concerto he composed for Christian Garrick was given its premier on 1st March 2008 in partnership with the Nottingham Youth Orchestra. From 1984 to 1986 he was professor of music at Gresham College, London, where he gave free lectures. He also ran, for many years, the Allmusic summer schools at the Stables.

Sir John and Dame Cleo's two children are both jazz musicians: Alex is a bassist who is also a member of his father's band and Jacqui is a singer.

In 1997 John Dankworth was initiated into the Grand Order of Water Rats and in the New Year's Honours List for 2006 he was made a Knight Bachelor of Music.

On Saturday 6th February a concert, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the opening of their theatre, The Stables, took place, it was not until the end of the concert that Dame Cleo informed the audience that John had died that afternoon. What finer tribute could be paid to a great musician.

Secretary to the Trustees, John-Adrian
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