‘Johnny’ Dankworth

light of the world,

O ne morning in the early 1990s I answered our phone and heard a man’s voice say, ‘John Dankworth here’. Recently, BBC4 delighted us all in the jazz-lovers’ world with an hour’s celebration of his performances, from a 1958 film of the original Johnny Dankworth Seven playing Strayhorn’s Take the A Train through to a 2007 performance with his Big Band and Cleo Laine doing the 1939 Billy Holliday classic, Fine and Mellow. It was wonderful, and I have to thank our good friend Geoff Mackay for pointing out that it was going to happen.

In the ’60s I had revelled in the sound of ‘Johnny’ Dankworth’s Big Band rollicking out its smart, crackling jazz. Whenever he was going to be on the air I made quite sure I didn’t miss it. He was big.

And now, here he was, the man himself, actually speaking to me. When you’re old you can’t absorb these things quickly.

He asked if I would send him something for him to set to music. When it became clear that he was asking for something choral I was shaken. Dankworth and cathedral choirs? Surely not?

And what sort of theme, what sort of language, should I use? I had written for people like Archer, Barnard, Iliff, Kelly, Rose, Sumsion, all composers and arrangers of music for choir alone or choir and congregation – but Dankworth?

Anyway, I plunged, and over the following week or two I worked on a piece and sent it. Another few weeks and I was listening to it. The music, apart from a few lovely jazz chords, was so far removed from everything jazzy that it was difficult to believe that one composer could stretch to such extremes.

We eventually wrote three songs for choir. But one of them stood out from the others immediately. Our Light of the World was published in 1992 and 2000 by The Canterbury Press (Hymns Ancient & Modern) and Novello respectively. Tewkesbury Cathedral School Choir were the first to record it and it is included in their album Light of the World.

Everyone knew John Philip William Dankworth as ‘Johnny’, but as the Queen presented him with the CBE in 2006 he became Sir John. But ‘Sir’ or not, the ‘Johnny’ has persisted.

His death came on February 6, 2010, in the afternoon of the very day that ‘The Stables’ was marking its 40th year in a celebratory concert. This world-famous jazz centre in Milton Keynes was set up by John and Cleo not only for jazz concerts and festivals but also for the teaching of young people in the performance of, and enjoyment in, jazz. John’s wife, Cleo, decided that the concert should go on. She said she knew that John would have insisted that it should.

And, under Cleo Laine’s presentation and performance, the atmosphere that evening was of happiness and loving remembrance.

One well-remembered day in May 2005, John came for lunch and to talk about a future collaboration. To have this truly great man in our home was something we could never forget; time and again I kick myself for failing to set up a tape recorder to record the hilarious few minutes of extemporisation at our keyboard piano/organ.

However, it turned out that any further collaboration was out of the question; John’s and Cleo’s bookings in the US had to take precedence. One piece he was due to set, a children’s celebratory song for the Yorkshire Wildlife Park, was eventually set beautifully by Mark Nightingale.

Some weeks after John’s visit another composer friend called. We had told him of John’s fun with the keyboard and after the meal he stood looking down at the instrument in awe. Turning to Barbara and me he asked with, I think, tongue only very slightly in cheek,  if he might be allowed to sit on the ‘very same’ stool. He sat, and his eyes lifted to heaven.

‘And may I, you know, actually play something?’ he asked. To watch him playing was an entertainment in itself.