Sir John Dankworth, Britain's first jazz maestro, dies at 82

Saxophonist who wrote The Avengers theme tune played with legends Charlie Parker and Ella ­Fitzgerald
Sir John Dankworth at Buckingham Palace after receiving his knighthood in 2006.
Sir John Dankworth at Buckingham Palace after receiving his knighthood in 2006. Photograph: Andrew Parsons/PA Photograph: Andrew Parsons/PA

Sir John Dankworth, a totemic figure of the British jazz scene who worked as a musical director for artists including Nat King Cole and Ella ­Fitzgerald, has died at the age of 82.

The saxophonist, whose career spanned more than half a century, died yesterday in King Edward VII hospital, London. He had been ill for several months.

Dankworth enjoyed a parallel career as a film and television composer, and wrote the theme tune for television shows The Avengers and Tomorrow's World, as well as scores for films of the 1960s, such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Servant and Modesty Blaise.

Born into a family of musicians in Essex in 1927, Dankworth, known earlier in his career as Johnny, studied at the Royal Academy of Music after winning a place there at the age of 17. He was voted British Musician of the Year in 1949 following a period of national service, and met his wife, the jazz singer Dame Cleo Laine, in 1950.

His group, The Dankworth Seven, became a favourite of the British jazz scene in the 1950s, and he shared the stage with numerous jazz legends, including Charlie Parker.

Dankworth's agent Jim Murtha told the BBC: "For British jazz and jazz around the world, I believe John has become such an international figure, particularly since he became Sir John Dankworth a few years ago."

Jazz musician Jamie Cullum paid tribute to Dankworth on his Twitter page, calling him a genius. "Sir John Dankworth ‑ a great man and one of our finest musicians and composers has died," he wrote. "Rest in peace sir."

Jazzwise magazine hailed the performer as "one of the totemic figures of British jazz" and said he was the country's "first major jazz musician".

Dankworth was given a CBE in 1974 and knighted in 2006 for his services to music. He met Laine while he was auditioning for singers for his band, and the couple had two children, Alec and Jacqui, who are both jazz musicians.

Laine announced his death at a concert at The Stables theatre, in Buckinghamshire, last night. The couple founded the theatre in the grounds of their home in Wavendon, and the concert ‑ marking the venue's 40th anniversary ‑ went ahead as planned.

It featured performances from Laine, Alec and Jacqui, as well as performers including Paul O'Grady, Prunella Scales, Maureen Lipman, and Victoria Wood.

Stephen Clarke, chairman of the charity that now owns the venue, said: "It is a fitting tribute that on the day of Sir John's death that we celebrated on stage the 40th anniversary of The Stables with some of the many artists who have performed with Sir John at The Stables."

Dankworth was taken ill in October last year, following a US tour in October with his wife. The couple cancelled a number of UK concert dates for the following month, although the musician did return to the stage at the London Jazz Festival, playing his saxophone from his wheelchair at the Royal Festival Hall.

Contributors

Adam Gabbatt, Ben Quinn and agencies

The GuardianTramp

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