Dave Shepherd obituary

One of Britain’s finest jazz clarinettists inspired by his hero Benny Goodman

The jazz clarinettist Dave Shepherd, who has died aged 87, was often billed as Britain’s answer to Benny Goodman, his instrumental facility, centred tone and driving attack comparable to that of his American idol. The sobriquet never rankled with Shepherd: he toured frequently with Goodman’s celebrated pianist Teddy Wilson and regularly put together whole quintet presentations (sometimes using other Goodman alumni) based on the maestro’s music. It was reported that Goodman himself once said: “He plays more like me than I do.”

If Goodman’s music was often technically demanding, it never seemed to daunt Shepherd, whose style and grace in playing was mirrored by his dapper, well-groomed appearance and easy bandstand manner. “Dave was the finest swing clarinettist in the country and perhaps, in the world,” said the trumpeter Digby Fairweather, a frequent associate, adding: “He was always the most handsome man in the band.” Indeed, it was reputed that Shepherd had once modelled for Brylcreem, when it was the trendiest of male hair preparations.

He was born in Walthamstow, east London, to Cecilia (nee Sadgrove), a machinist, and Joseph Shepherd, a semi-pro pianist who worked for the gas company. Dave adopted the clarinet aged 15 after seeing Freddy Mirfield’s Garbage Men, the group whose clarinettist was the young John Dankworth. Shepherd was soon proficient enough to play at gigs with the trumpeter Freddy Randall, while taking lessons from Randall’s clarinettist Bernie Izen and working as a shorthand-typist at the War Office.

His national service posting in 1947 was to the British Forces Network radio station in Hamburg. The army had taken over the state opera house for their studios and this allowed Shepherd to persuade the opera’s principal clarinettist to give him a weekly lesson in exchange for 10 cigarettes a go. Shepherd played with the BFN quintet, broadcasting twice a week and practising for several hours a day, this under the benign command of Cliff Michelmore. As he said: “The army did a lot for my start in the jazz world.”

Shepherd resumed work at the War Office after demobilisation in 1949 and played around London, sometimes fronting his own quartet while fitting in with any number of Dixieland-style bands. In 1951, he joined the drummer Joe Daniels and his Hot Shots, then a highly popular group, and turned professional, making his recording debut the same year. Daniels’s well-organised Dixieland approach suited Shepherd and he stayed for three years, before moving on to play with Randall again, cementing a working relationship that was revisited often over the years.

Shepherd also recorded a pair of albums under his own name at this time. Despite this, and like a number of his contemporaries, he felt impelled in 1956 to try his luck in New York, then the jazzman’s mecca, taking office jobs before the union allowed him to look for musical work. Back in Britain a year later, he became part of an all-star group known as the Jazz Today Unit, playing concerts with the Gerry Mulligan quartet in April 1957. He considered this to be a career highlight, another being his presence as part of the Dill Jones quartet on the first-ever UK tour in May 1958 by the famous Jazz at the Philharmonic troupe with Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson as the star attractions.

It was during this time that Shepherd began to be heard frequently on BBC radio, his quartet often used on the Jimmy Young show, or on Round Midnight or Breakfast Special, and even on Music While You Work, his limpid clarinet tone and flair for melodic invention a welcome inclusion on these popular programmes. He also toured abroad, often in eastern Germany, played the Edinburgh, Nice and Montreux festivals, and began to work regularly from 1967 with Wilson, this taking in biennial UK tours but also a couple of visits to South Africa in 1973, including a concert in Soweto. By the 1970s, he had linked up again with Randall, while still fronting his own Goodman-styled quintet.

In 1980, Shepherd was recruited by the impresario Peter Boizot as a founder member and leader of the PizzaExpress All Stars, a mainstream group that played residencies at the PizzaExpress jazz club in Dean Street, Soho, several times a week over the following three decades, often with star American guests. This was especially convenient for Shepherd as he now had a job with a film production company located nearby.

He moved to Hampshire in 1996, so travelled to London less often, but still carried on with the All-Stars until 2001, while fitting in dates with Fairweather’s Great British Jazz Band and playing solo gigs. He was back at Dean Street in February last year for the 35th Anniversary reunion of the All-Stars, with Boizot on hand to cheer on his veteran proteges.

In 1966 he married his second wife, Mary Evans. She survives him, as does Rochelle, the daughter of his earlier marriage to the jazz vocalist Jo Searle, which ended in divorce.

David Joseph Shepherd, jazz clarinettist, born 7 February 1929; died 15 December 2016

  • This article was amended on 15 January 2017. Dave Shepherd was also survived by his daughter, Rochelle.


Peter Vacher

The GuardianTramp

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