Sir John Dankworth by Frank Griffith

Here are the thoughts of one composer-orchestrator-arranger about another. Frank Griffith wored extensivel with Sir John Dankworth, who would often say that Griffith “knows more about my life than I do.”

Sir John Dankworth- COA

The acronym refers to Composer, Orchestrator, Arranger, and not another award to add to the numerous ones he has already received (a CBE in 1974 and knighthood in 2006). John was and will likely remain my favourite COA. What made him so special? Its hard to say as distinguishing and defining this sort of thing is a bit of an apples and oranges exercise as with comparing any artists in any field.

For a start, Dankworth turned his hand to every conceivable genre and discipline in the writing field. He opened with small group (7 piece) post bop charts in the early 1950s then moving on to full scale big band orchestrations with an emphasis on dance and jive swing later that decade. His classic films scores of the 1960s embraced full orchestral settings along with the odd importation of specialist musicians from faraway lands for films like Sands of the Kalahari and The Last Safari.

His chamber music works were numerous. In 1981 he composed Fair Oaks Fusion for the The Myrah Sax Quartet (boasting John Harle in its ranks) coupled along with his jazz quintet. His score for Joseph Losey’s 1963 film The Servant utilised the Michael Krein Sax Quartet which he told me was his favourite and most successful film score in our interview published in 2006 in the Journal of British Cinema and Television (accessible on http://www.jazzorg.com ). I attended the premiere of the various Shakespeare sonnets that he’d adapted for the Swingle Singers on July 2005 at The Stables. He had originally recorded these with Cleo in 1963 for the Shakespeare and all that Jazz album. He also wrote two pieces for clarinet and piano recorded by Emma Johnson in 2008.

John’s classic 1960s big band theme albums are for me, the most distinctive and emblematic of his signature sound. What The Dickens (1964), The Zodiac Variations
(1965) and The Million Dollar Collection all stem from a basic theme and explore it to an LP’s length. They all contain tuneful melodies, piquant harmonies and engaging rhythmic figures that are timeless in origin and idiom. I was present last year for a performance of The Zodiac Variations by The Trinity College of Music Big Band conducted by Malcolm Earle Smith at Ronnie Scotts sitting next to the composer. It sounded as though it had been written that week.

Sir John’s melodies have always had a distinctly English quality about them. A gleeful, Puckishness gait laced with a scintilla of dry wit with an ever present entry for irony to sneak in, if necessary. This, coupled with the harmonic colours of Ellington and Strayhorn as well as Ravel and Delius among other 20th Century classicists brought about a wide ranging worldly scope to his sound. No rhythmic slouch either, John liked to find a way to create rhythmic tension between the rhythm section and horns (musically speaking). This is often the first thing that attracts a listener’s ear compared to sophisticated harmonies or quirky melodies and is the most important distinguishing factor between classical and jazz music. The wide accessibility of John’s music was no doubt down to these attributes of his sound and style.

Gil Evans, often liked to tell of his growing up listening to Louis Armstrong on the radio and even if not all of the songs he played were brilliant they all contained at least one “magic moment”. A note, phrase or section that left an indelibly impact on him. The very same applies to Sir John’s compositions and arrangements. There was always a moment lurking nearby that would elate and arrest the listener in such a way to satisfy as well as insure they were in good hands.

COA indeed- Sixty years of moments that will be magical eternally. Long may it last.

Categories: miscellaneous

1 reply »

  1. I had the opportunity to hear Sir John guest-conduct The Philadelphia Orchestra several times during the Eighties, and of course Dame Cleo sang with him at all of these superb concerts. The first concert, which I attended in 1982, also introduced their son, bassist Alec, who has since gone on to play with Dave Brubeck and, since the early Nineties, co-led the Generations Big Band with his father. The Dankworth legacy continues with two singers following in Dame Cleo's footsteps: daughter Jacqui and granddaughter Emily (Alec's daughter, for whom her grandfather penned a gorgeous arrangement of the Johnny Mandel standard about fifteen years ago).

    I last saw Dame Cleo and Sir John at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, two years ago (after driving through a surprise snow squall), and the concert, which featured Shakespeare and All That Jazz, was well worth it. Sir John's death leaves a large void in a music world starved for talent such as his, and he will be sorely missed.

    Robert J. Robbins
    USA Secretary
    Big Bands International

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