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.”
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.
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.
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