Len Skeat, my friend and colleague of 35 years, who has died aged 84 of heart failure, was one of Britain’s great jazz double bassists. Affectionately known as “the Time Lord” for his mastery of the “three musical Ts” of time, tone and taste, he had a career spanning more than 50 years in the highest circles of British, European and American performance. His work was regularly compared to that of his close friend the eminent bassist Ray Brown, whose major partnership was with the jazz pianist Oscar Peterson and whose own career in American jazz spanned more than half a century.
Len was born in east London to Minnie (nee Gibbs), a housewife, and Leonard Skeat, a senior engineer at the photographic materials manufacturer Ilford Films Ltd, and was the younger brother of Bill Skeat, a prominent saxophonist. After minimal education due to an undiagnosed dyslexic condition and early musical beginnings on clarinet and cello, Len took up double bass in his late teens and worked first for Weller’s Circus and summer seasons in Yarmouth and Skegness in 1957 and 1958.
His serious jazz activities began with the pianist Maurice Allen’s trio in 1962; thereafter he joined Ted Heath’s incomparable big band for broadcasting, recording and concerts. Then began a non-stop career in studio session work, for West End shows including Cowardy Custard (1972) and Bubbling Brown Sugar (1977) and as double bassist for visiting American jazz legends including Billy Eckstine, Lionel Hampton, Helen Merrill, Ruby Braff, Harry Edison, Joe Newman, Bob Wilber, Scott Hamilton and Bobby Rosengarden.
Len’s career took him to premier London venues including Ronnie Scott’s Club and Pizza Express and also throughout the UK for concert and theatre appearances. From 1974 to 1977 he also toured and recorded internationally with the jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli’s quartet. Possibly his most famous American partnership of all was with the singer Peggy Lee, with whom he shared a musical association for concerts, radio and TV spanning 25 years. His later career included freelance work with (among others) the Pizza Express All Stars (1979-2016), the Great British Jazz Band (1994-2006) and the Billie Holliday tribute show starring Val Wiseman, Lady Sings the Blues (1987-2019).
A much-loved member of the UK’s professional jazz elite and a supremely qualified musician, Len was the recipient of numerous awards, including the BBC Jazz Society’s musician of the year in 1986 and multiple British Jazz awards for top double bassist between 1988 and 2006. For my own projects he was the unquestionable first-call and a source of unforgettable personal memories.
He was married first to Iris (nee Fish), with whom he had a son, Greg. After her death, he met Jill Gresty, whom he married in 2018 after a 15-year partnership. He is survived by Jill and Greg.