It is unlikely that there is a British musician better known for a wider range of musical activities. For many years now his name has been synonymous with the crossing of musical barriers. Indeed he started achieving quite surprising musical breakthroughs of this sort at a time when such events were rare occurrences.
Born in 1927, John Dankworth showed early proficiency on the clarinet and by the age of 17 had entered London's Royal Academy of Music. Benny Goodman was his first idol, but he soon became impressed by the work of the great Charlie Parker, and took up the saxophone as a result. He was voted Musician of the Year in Britain in 1949, the beginning of a succession of such honours, which included top composer, arranger and leader of both small and big bands, and was to continue unabated for the next fourteen years in Britain. Later the accolades took on different and often more international forms. During this period Dankworth's recording activities included two hit records, "Experiments with Mice" (1956) and "African Waltz" (1960).
In 1959 Dankworth's large jazz orchestra played several engagements in the United States, the first of countless such visits by its leader. The trip included a week-long concert season sharing the bill with the Duke Ellington Orchestra in its heyday.
Around this time John first began devoting his musical attentions to the film world. And so began a decade or so of dozens of movie scores, including "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning", "The Servant", "Morgan", "Accident" and "Modesty Blaise", working for directors like Karel Reisz, Peter Hall, John Schlesinger, Joseph Losey and Henry Hathaway.
During this time he also served as musical director for Nat "King" Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Sophie Tucker and many others. His composing career extended to the theatre, with commissions in Britain from the National Theatre and The Royal Shakespeare Company, as well as two musicals both involving his wife, singer Cleo Laine. Since then there has been an opera/ballet for Houston Ballet, several works for choir and orchestra, a set of symphonic variations for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, a piano concerto and a string quartet.
In 1985 Dankworth founded the London Symphony Orchestra's Summer Pops, with which he continued to be associated as Artistic Director until 1990. He has continued to conduct symphony orchestras throughout the world, including the majority of the great American and Canadian organisations, as well as in Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Holland and, of course, Great Britain.
John lived with his wife, Dame Cleo Laine, in Wavendon, Buckinghamshire, where in 1969 they founded their first charity, The Wavendon Allmusic Plan, with the aim of helping people broaden their views about music through performance and musical education. In the converted stable block in the grounds of their home they established an arts centre that has since become internationally renowned. The Stables, Wavendon has been host to many world famous artistes, from Vladimir Ashkenazy to George Shearing, and some of today's top professional musicians and singers have benefited from its education projects in the early stages of their careers. With the aid of an Arts Council lottery grant the new Stables theatre, built adjacent to the original stable block, opened its doors in October 2000 and continues to provide performers, students and audience alike with a centre of musical excellence second to none. The organisation, administered by a board of honorary trustees that included John Dankworth and Cleo Laine, currently produces an annual programme featuring nearly 200 concerts and 300 education sessions. Having realised their original vision, John and Cleo decided in 1999 to set up a further charity. The Wavendon Foundation was formed with the objective of raising funds to benefit both individual young artistes in need of financial aid, and organisations seeking support for music education projects. A major activity of the trust is the annual Wavendon Garden Season, a programme of summer events staged under a purpose-built canopy in the Dankworths' garden.
John was awarded honorary Doctorates by the University of Cambridge, the University of York and the Open University, and in the USA by Boston's Berklee College of Music. He is a fellow of the Royal Academy of Music, and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Northern College of Music and Leeds College of Music. Elected a member of the Worshipful Company of Musicians, he received the Freedom of the City of London in 1994. He was also awarded the Company's Silver Medal for Lifetime Contribution to British Jazz, and was honoured in the annual British Jazz Awards a number of times for his achievements in and services to British Jazz. His services to music have earned him a CBE and a Knighthood from Her Majesty the Queen.
Sir John Dankworth died on 6 February 2010. A wide range of obituaries can be found here.
You can leave a message with the Dankworths in his Book of Condolences, here.
Johnny Dankworth Quartet