Photo credit: Ruth Rees
Daryl Runswick is a musician who defies definition. With a career spanning over 50 years, across every conceivable genre, and as a performer, composer and arranger, Daryl has proven that there really is such a thing as a “Master of all trades”. After a lengthy hiatus from the jazz world, he re-entered the scene with a vengeance bringing yet more innovation and virtuosity with his One Man Show back in 2006. His new double album The Jazz Years looks back at his active jazz performing years of the ’70s and will be launched at a celebratory 70th Birthday Gala evening at Cadogan Hall on 6 June 2017. Interview by Leah Williams:
LondonJazz News: What is your earliest musical memory?
Daryl Runswick: I remember listening to my mother play Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata and looking up at the sheet music. It was before I could read music and I just remember seeing this flurry of black note runs and thinking that they must correspond to the thunderous chords I was hearing – totally wrong of course!
LJN: So you grew up in a fairly musical household?
DR: Yes, my father was also an amateur musician and composer. This is what made me realise from a young age that being such a thing as a composer was a possibility! He taught me how to play piano by the time I was five and then I moved onto cello when I was at school.
LJN: So how did you come to play the double bass?
DR: It was actually one of those random things. Somebody at school came up to me one day and said he was running a Trad Jazz band and they needed a bassist. He knew I played cello and apparently thought it was an obvious progression to the double bass! There was one lying around unused at school so I took it to my cello teacher and asked him how to tune it. He showed me and that was the first and last lesson I ever had on the double bass. I actually found out some time later that double bass players don’t use the ring finger on their left hand for playing but, because I’m self-taught, I never knew that. I might be the only bass player out there using all their fingers!
LJN: After that, it was on to Cambridge where you got a choral scholarship?
DR: Yes, that scholarship was a blessing but boy did I hate getting up early for it. I would get up, quickly get dressed and rush down to the chapel – then five minutes later I’d be singing! I was a bit lazy with it… It was at Cambridge that I also started composing and performing though when I got involved with the Cambridge Footlights.
LJN: How on earth were you able to narrow things down, and to decide what to include in the programme for your upcoming 70th birthday Gala concert at Cadogan Hall?
DR: I really wanted the programme to be as representative as possible of all the main aspects of my career: The King’s Singers, whom I’ve written much music for over the years, are performing; as well as London Voices (who I’ll be singing with); Aleksander Szram is performing the world premiere of my new Concerto for Piano and Nine Instruments. The Concerto is very much a hybrid: a classical piece with room for improvisation.
A lot of the pieces I write that aren’t jazz still involve a lot of improvisation. I don’t think it should be limited to that one genre. When I first started teaching at Trinity and encouraging classical musicians to improvise, I would get a lot of weird looks! Eventually though, students started to see the merit in it.
It’s also the launch of my double album, The Jazz Years, and so it seemed only right to include both some pieces from my earlier and later jazz years. Dame Cleo Laine is planning to attend, which will be fantastic. I’m hoping to persuade her up on stage, then – who knows?
LJN: Talking of Dame Cleo Laine, you spent the vast majority of your jazz years playing in her and John Dankworth’s band.
DR: It was about a decade and a half – 1970 to around 1983. Most of that was playing bass but for the last 18 months I played piano. They wanted their son, Alec Dankworth, to start playing bass in the band but didn’t want to get rid of me so offered me the chance to play piano instead. My first response was: “No thanks, I don’t think I can do that”. I played piano, sure, but I didn’t consider myself up to the task. As soon as I put the phone down though, I thought: “Am I crazy?! I’ve just turned down the chance to be Cleo Laine and John Dankworth’s pianist!” So I rang straight back and accepted. I spent the next six months wood-shedding and practising hours a day to get up to scratch. It was the opportunity that really shot my piano playing forward in the end.
LJN: After you finished with them in 1983, you finished with jazz altogether for a pretty long time. Why did you make that decision? Was it a conscious one or just the path you ended up taking?
DR: It was very much a decision I made on purpose. What I really wanted to do was become a composer. I’d had a great time playing the jazz scene but I wasn’t getting much chance to really write music and have it heard. I made a decision to draw a line under jazz, I even sold my double basses! I joined Electric Phoenix, an avant-garde classical band, who gave me the opportunity to really get into my composing. Through them I met so many amazing people in the classical world – Pierre Boulez and John Cage to name a couple – and it gave me the opportunity to become recognised as a composer.
LJN: Have there been any downsides to getting involved in so many different genres and projects over the years?
DR: Some journalists have commented in the past that the way I’ve moved between genres, etc, has held me back in terms of public fame or recognition. But, if it has, then I can honestly say that’s the only way it’s held me back. I’ve worked across the highest levels of so many music genres and had the chance to really expand my playing and composition, and to play with some amazing people, right from Frank Sinatra and Ornette Coleman to Paul McCartney and John Cage! I feel incredibly happy with the success I’ve had.
LJN: How was it that you found your way back to jazz music?
DR: From 2002 to 2005 I was totally off the music scene whilst I recovered from illness, which had been brought on by how busy I’d been, well, pretty much my whole life! For some reason or other, once I’d recovered – after almost 20 years away from it – I had this sudden yearning to go back to my jazz roots. That’s when my One Man Show was born. I had this idea of creating a whole show with just me playing every instrument and every part. I did the premiere at Cleo and John’s place, The Stables in Wavendon, and then toured it for three years. It became quite exhausting though; the trouble with a one-man show is that you’re on your own lugging all the equipment in and out every night!
LJN: So, what inspired you to release “The Jazz Years” now?
DR: It was actually the record label who approached me. I trawled through over a hundred recordings I had from those days and picked these 16 songs, all live recordings, that were from particularly great nights alongside some amazing musicians.
LJN: Is it true that you write a song each year for your wife on her birthday?
DR: Yes, yes it is. I started doing it in 2007 so this will be the tenth year. It was one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time, but now I’ve really got myself stuck and I have to do it every year (laughs)! I’m actually going to feature one of those songs as part of the extracts from my One Man Show at the Gala concert.
LJN: After the Gala concert, what other plans or projects have you got coming up?
DR: I’m going to go on holiday for a bit! The thing I’ve got on my mind for a next project though is to write an opera. I’ve never written a full-length two-act opera and it’s definitely something I’m keen to do. Just have to find someone who will put it on!
LJN: Coming back into jazz music, all those years later, is there anything that struck you about its progress or how it’s changed?
DR: What I really like about jazz music now is that people are really taking it all, the full breadth of it. There was a time when people rejected the fusion stuff, saying that the only true jazz was played on acoustic instruments in 4/4 swing but now it’s all being recognised and young musicians seem to be making use of all of this to create some really wonderful stuff. One musician I really rate is Gwilym Simcock; I love what he’s doing with the genre.
Buy tickets for Daryl’s Gala Concert here: Daryl Runswick Gala Concert
Buy The Jazz Years at all major retailers: The Jazz Years