Don Rendell obituary

Saxophonist who established a place among the premier British jazz modernists

The outstanding saxophonist Don Rendell, who has died aged 89, played with a who’s who of British jazz musicians from the late 1940s onwards. A committed Jehovah’s Witness, he sometimes found less than total enthusiasm from his playing colleagues for his offers of religious tracts, but there was no doubt in their minds about his place among the premier British jazz modernists.

Initially Rendell worked with some of the better dance bands in London, before breaking into the more rarefied world of 50s modern jazz with band leaders such as Johnny Dankworth and Tony Crombie. As a spin-off from these associations and a later period with the Ted Heath orchestra, he began to lead a series of influential combos of his own, featuring his free-flowing, cool tenor saxophone style, and to record frequently.

After a year with Heath, Rendell embarked on the most productive period of his jazz life, touring Europe for several weeks with the mighty Stan Kenton orchestra in spring 1956 and later travelling in Britain with the band leader Woody Herman’s starry Anglo-American ensemble. He then formed a series of smaller groups, all highly rated, including a memorable quintet featuring the rumbustious saxophonist Graham Bond. Their 1961 album Roarin’ took Rendell’s music into an altogether feistier direction.

Combining with the trumpeter Ian Carr, a notable innovator, brought Rendell further success, their late 60s quintet giving such fledgling musicians as the bassist Dave Green, the drummer Trevor Tomkins and the pianist Mike Garrick their first real breaks. The quintet’s five albums remain a benchmark for British jazz modernism, and also reveal the gradual incorporation of John Coltrane’s influence into Rendell’s solo style.

Rendell was born in Plymouth and brought up in London, where he attended City of London school. His mother, Vera (nee Trewin), was a musician, as was his father, Percy, musical director of the D’Oyly Carte opera company. Their son started on the piano at five, taking up the saxophone in his mid-teens. After a short spell in a bank and having heard his first Lester Young record, Rendell gave in his notice and became a jobbing musician. With many players away on second world war duty, there were sideman opportunities for younger, well-prepared players, and Rendell turned fully professional in 1943.

He had already toured England with various American entertainment units, and his first association with a big name in jazz came a year later with the Scots trumpeter Duncan Whyte’s band at the Astoria ballroom in London. It was then that Rendell began to spend most of his spare time at the Fullado Club in Old Compton Street, a hangout for young modernists of the time, including the bebop guru Denis Rose. Rendell called it “the fountainhead of the modern movement in this country, where jazz was played nonstop from 3pm until midnight”.

Moving on from Whyte to Frank Weir’s band, Rendell was then with Oscar Rabin’s rather more prominent orchestra for two years from 1947, recording for the first time and also making sure to keep tabs on what was going on at Club Eleven, the bebop co-operative headed by Ronnie Scott and Dankworth. Rendell briefly replaced Scott when he moved on. It was at a jam session that Dankworth heard Rendell and selected him to be a founder member of his new band, the Johnny Dankworth Seven, later seen as one of Britain’s most significant bebop-influenced groups.

With every chair occupied by a potent soloist, the Seven set out in 1950 to bring modern jazz to the British public, but it soon became clear that compromises were needed. Rendell joined the others, most notably the vocalist Frank Holder and the drummer Eddie Taylor, in various comedic antics to entertain audiences while still staying close to their bebop intentions.

As the only married man in the band, he sometimes had his rent money taken out of the kitty before the others were paid, even when the financial pickings were meagre. The band existed for three years, recording and broadcasting often, touring widely, and widening their appeal once the singer Cleo Laine joined them.

When the Seven went their separate ways, Rendell’s new sextet accompanied Billie Holiday on her 1954 UK tour. Rendell then enlisted for Tony Crombie’s classy 10-piece orchestra, his debts mounting as he went along. It was only when he joined Heath’s well-paid orchestra in 1955 that he earned enough to settle all he owed.

When modern jazz seemed to wane, Rendell moved into session work and performed with the BBC Showband. He continued his associations with Garrick and Carr, taught at summer schools and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, and wrote several instructional books. He was still playing the saxophone as late as 2010, when, at Folkestone jazz club in Kent, he was reunited with the drummer Teddy Pope from his 60s quintet. More recently, however, he sold his instruments as his health deteriorated.

Loved for the warmth of his personality and widely admired for his musical prowess, Rendell is survived by his wife, Joan (nee Yoxall), whom he married in 1948, his daughter, Sally, his sister, Doris, and three grandchildren.

• Donald Percy Rendell, jazz saxophonist, born 4 March 1926; died 20 October 2015


Peter Vacher

The GuardianTramp

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