Saluting a Jazz Great

By Louis Barfe

It seems like only yesterday I attended a concert at the Royal Albert Hall to mark the 75th birthdays of Sir John Dankworth and Dame Cleo Laine. However, it wasn’t. It was 15 years ago. This alarming realisation that time’s wingéd chariot doesn’t hang about came when I saw Friday Night is Music Night (R2, Fridays, 8pm) was mounting a  special edition subtitled ‘Cleo Laine at 90’. Most of the programme, recorded at Birmingham Town Hall, consisted of other musicians with the BBC Concert Orchestra and Big Band under the great Guy Barker providing their own interpretations of Dame Cleo’s finest moments. Guests included Kandace Springs, Radio 2’s own Clare Teal and Dame Cleo’s own: her daughter Jacqui, bassist son Alec and granddaughter Emily Dankworth. With Benny Green’s boy Leo hosting, it was quite a night for jazz dynasties. 

Teal gave a lovely reading of If..., accompanied by my old school chum Nigel Price on guitar. I say chum. He was a few years above me so we didn’t socialise, but I’ve watched with immense pride as he’s become one of the UK’s top jazz musicians. Incidentally, he’s running this year’s Swanage Jazz Festival, an event worthy of support.

Sir John, a musical giant and a sweet, funny man, died in 2010, but his own back catalogue was commemorated with a spiffing version of his hit single, African Waltz. I could have done with a bit more, but it was Cleo’s night. Midway through the second half, there she was, in very fine voice. Many years ago, with great affection, pianist David Newton started ascribing to his jazz peers the jobs they looked like they’d have done if they hadn’t become musicians. Sir John was a seaside deckchair attendant and Dame Cleo the Wife of Tutankhamun. Long may she reign.

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