RIP Willie Garnett (1938-2021)

Branford Marsalis with Willie Garnett in 2019

Sebastian writes:

The sad news has just reached us that saxophonist Willie Garnett passed away yesterday 15 October 2021. As one musician has just described him to me, “he was the nicest of us all.”

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As bandleader of his own big band, into which I was very fortunate to play several times as a dep, as a woodwind repairer who would often ask not to be paid…his unbelievable kindness, his unflappable good nature, his generosity, and his good-natured humour were always to the fore. His strong and cutting sound, the joy and the fluency in his playing are unforgettable. Sympathies to Alex and to the family.

Stan Sulzmann has kindly sent in this tribute:

Such sad news to hear . Willy was a ‘one-off’ and a genuinely lovely man. Generous to a fault which stretched to absolutely everybody be it young, old, students starting out or famous names. Willy was definitely a ‘the glass is half full’ person in all its senses. He spread joy and humour sharing loads of great stories should you have visited his workshop which was often more of a meeting place for sax players, or gigging with him in his Big band or at a Bulls Head Tony Lee guest night.. In particular he gave a great deal of encouragement and support to those starting out in a tough profession. I was one who received such support from one of the numerous benefit concerts that he organized when a musician was ill, had an accident or hit hard times. The world is a poorer place and Willy will be sadly missed by us all.

Willie Garnett at Jazz Café Posk. Photo credit: Peter Kaczmarski.

Peter Kaczmarski of Jazz Café Posk: I feel very honoured to have known Willie Garnett. The Willie Garnett Big Band was the cornerstone of our programming at Jazz Café POSK for the last 15 years. His set lists consisted of the great classics from the Big Band songbook, and it was evident the musicians enjoyed playing with him. On the microphone his humour was very tongue-in-cheek, with cheerful banter aimed at the band and allowing each player to shine, giving them regular name checks and a solo spot. He was a genuine jazz man with encyclopaedic knowledge and would arrive with a full trolley’s worth of charts, smiling and enthusiastic about planning out the set list for the evening. I spoke to Willie recently, and he was very eager to get back to gigging in his regular Friday slots. He had a loyal audience, and over the years his evenings became a community of music loving friends with many of the same faces turning up every month, some even from beyond London, travelling especially in and booking local hotels to save them from the late night trip home. Willie Garnett was a true jazz musician, a craftsman and a really nice fellow. He will be always remembered. May he Rest in Peace.

Willie Garnett at the 2019 Ealing Jazz Festival. Photo by Paul Wood

Frank Griffith writes:

Willie was a cuddly bear of a man, not just in his persona, appearance and the way he played, but also in the way he communicated with both the audience and the band.

He played both alto and tenor sax equally well, but had a different approach to each instrument: his tenor was blues-drenched, recalling the gruff and grizzled legacies of Eddie Lockjaw Davis and Don Byas, whereas his alto summoned a more hard bop quality of Lou Donaldson and  Jackie McClean.

This would serve him well as  a member of the Charlie Watts Big Band in the late 1980s. An ever expanding sax section that ended up boasting about 12 strong!

For London-based saxists, Willie was the ever helpful and generous repairman who often preferred “bevys” to “readys”.

Baritone saxist, Pete Lukas, has a story that sums up Willie’s sense of humour, and his particular take on jazz scene “chancers”. “He was so funny. I did my CD launch gig in Crouch End in 2006 and this very dapper older black guy introduced himself and said he was Lucky Thompson. I knew he wasn’t but went along with his BS. When I told Willie he said  ‘I’ve met him! He’s not  Lucky Thompson and I’ve heard him and he’s not even lucky! (Not to mention that Lucky died in 2005!)

Willie was a one-off and  a great Jazz force on the London scene. May he rest in peace.

We welcome further tributes.

Willie Garnett. Born Haifa, British Palestine, 25 August 1938, Died London 15 October 2021

Categories: News

24 replies »

  1. Willie I miss you brother thanks for the time you took to fix my saxophone when I needed your expertise cheers and peace

  2. Wow….this is a really sad one. I played with Willie many times. A true gent and a lovely man. We shared many a drink and a joke. They don’t make them like him anymore. To all his family and friends, my blessings.

  3. Willie was a great musician and much more than that. I was lucky enough to see him play many times and was always touched not only by the music, but also the great humor effortlessly generated into his performances. Seeing him perform with his son Alex was especially joyful..the pair of them exchanging lines and jokes and sharing the telepathy that is present when you share the same blood. Truly great artists can also be great people if they are lucky enough and Wliie was one. He always had time to give encouragement to others who were engaged in their own musical struggles. A special artist and a great person. A life worth celebrating.

  4. Used to love hanging out with Willie in his workshop when I first arrived in London in ’88..He helped me in so many ways other than just fixing my horn..Always offered sage advice and had a wicked sense of humour..He’ll be sorely missed…

  5. We all know Willie was generous with his time and care, as well as in his appreciation of musicians from different traditions. Remarkably, this generosity (and insistence on making a repair without taking payment) extended equally to strangers or to parents appearing for the umpteenth time with flute, clarinet or saxophone bent from an encounter with an eleven year old. Each received the same welcome and care.
    There are lots of stories about Willie’s expertise as a repairer, and occasional dramatic approach to it (someone must have done the straightening a soprano sax story). One thing that always mystified me was when I went in with a hard to pin-down problem, and he went over it with the oil on the point of a needle, chatted for five minutes while running his fingers over the keywork, then handed back a working saxophone. Was this conjurer’s distraction and illusion, or simply what he did? Answers on a copy of Now’s the Time please.
    All this done while contributing great booting tenor and fizzing alto to countless bands, as well as leading The Willie Garnett Big Band.
    Sympathy to Sue, Alex, and all the family, Chris Biscoe

  6. Drummer Denis Smith (whom at one time played in my various ensembles )
    told me he picked him up a couple of years ago and Willie had to walk with a sick and had lost sight in one of his eyes.
    Willie said to Denis “I’ll have to get myself a parrott

  7. ERRATUM: (Sebastian writes): I originally put Willie’s Date of Birth in this piece as 25 August 1936. That is the date stated in John Chilton’s “Who’s Who,” but have now amended. A huge thank you to Alex Garnett for putting the record straight.

  8. I have read all the previous dedications and they all resonate with me. All I can see at the moment is a large void out there which can only be filled with the the parts of him he left with us. I feel I could write forever about our Willie but don’t know where to start, may be at a later date I will be able to. My thoughts are with Sue , Alex ,Roger and Louise who have parted with a wonderful partner ,dad and grandad , thanks for everything Willie ” Denis x

  9. How very sad. I can only echo all the comments made by everyone else; he was a lovely man, it was a privilege to visit him at home, hear his stories, and come back to find a battered Mark VI playing like new again, and then fight to get him to accept some money for his hours of work. Sympathy and best wishes to Sue and to Alex.

  10. I met Willie when he brought his big band to Imber Court jazz nights. Not only were they great nights, full of wonderful jazz, but also Willie’s ability to be wholly inappropriate in his stories. He brought joy and laughter to many and as one of those I will always be very grateful. Rest in peace Willie and thank you for the memories.

  11. Willie would have something hilarious to say about finding out so late in the day of his sad passing.

    I got to know Willie in the Gig shop in Hammersmith. As a wet behind the ears drummer I really warmed to the man’s Sense of humour, he was a great guy to be around.

    Sadly we lost touch for many years, until a chance meeting in Putney where Willie was working away at a Sax repair, he turned and recognised me straight away.

    He had a few remarks as to where I had been all those years, but we carried on our conversation as thought those years disappeared.

    To me Willie was Legend and will be sadly missed

  12. It was this year in June 2022 that I heard that Mr Garnet had passed, truly a sad day for me.

    I recall first meeting him in his repair shop in Camden(I think, forgive me if I’m wrong about the precise location but it was definitely up those ends to my recollection). Such a lovely, kind and conscientious man, humble and generous with his time and expertise.

    Many years passed and another service required when I sourced this ‘go to’ gentleman again in Putney(definitely in Putney, down the stairs in a small hovel of a repair shop)… had not changed a bit in likability.

    Mr Garnet, you will be sorely missed by myself and many out there in the Jazz community but at least I, like others will rejoice in the privilege to have met the likes of you. May you continue to be richly blessed wherever your spirit now dwells… ‘a good egg’!!

    So now I ask humbly, is there anyone out there that can recommend a good and trusted repairer of saxophones. I would be grateful for your commendations and their contact details, please. Thank you.

  13. I remember Willie dropping in on the Tally-Ho big band sessions on a Sunday lunchtime in the ’60s in Kentish Town – he was the highlight of day, ripping off solos. He looked the part as well – lean and mean with wispy beard, true Young Man with a Horn. Happy memories of my youth. RIP Willie

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