The Johnny Dankworth Big Bands

J ohnny Dankworth had a very famous big band through much of the 1950s. Its main claim to fame was the use of a 'seven section' instead of a more usual reeds section. This 'seven section' was based on the original Johnny Dankworth Seven which had produced such good small group jazz.

Around 1958 (I don't recall the exact year) the enterprising new TWW commercial television station (Television Wales and the West) invited the Dankworth Orchestra to launch its new Jazz Club series. Every week for several months viewers in this part of the UK were able to enjoy the treat of great big band jazz in the distinctive Dankworth style. I watched every single broadcast with my father. My Dad was a classic music fan and although he liked dixieland jazz he never took to modern jazz and was often critical of the JD band. But - for my part - I watched enthralled and soon started to learn trumpet because of the sizzling affect of watching this great British big band. I had many favourites including a number called 'Old Blues' and their version of 'Take the 'A' Train' - also enjoyed one or two trumpet duets between 'seven section' trumpet Dickie Hawdon and Canadian trumpet man Kenny Wheeler (from the main trumpet section). For a while I struggled to understand the harmonies of soloists like Hawdon and Wheeler (I heard Dizzy, Miles etc., after I had heard Dankworth - not before!), but I soon learned to really love modern jazz trumpet. Also loved Danny Moss' tenor and Johnny's alto sax playing.

Eventually the Dankworth stint (which was surprisingly long) came to an end and TWW's Jazz Club continued mainly with small jazz combos. I recall seeing and hearing people like Bert Courtley, Joe Harriott and several others. It was great, but it was the several months long Dankworth series which really confirmed and developed my love for big band and modern jazz.

The Dankworth reformed band of 1962

New Dankworth

This is the later Dankworth big band, now without the famed 'seven section' which originally replaced the reeds section. In seeking to conform to a more usual big band formation, something highly original about the old Johnny Dankworth orchestra became lost.

The picture to the right is not the original 'seven section' big band, but the re-formed Dankworth band pictured in 1962. I must say that I enjoyed this band far less and felt that Dankworth had let something truly original slip away when he disbanded the original band. But maybe there were reasons for that which I am not aware of. But - for me at least - the re-formed big band (minus the famed 'seven section') was not as good. I heard the re-formed big band about four times but there appeared to be quite a few rough edges - none of the smoothness of the old big band. Sadly the new band lost the services of outstanding, long-serving (and very underrated) lead trumpet Derick Abbott who moved on. Abbott's experience would be hard to replace, he had been playing lead trumpet with the famed Geraldo band as far back as the mid-1940s.

At the start, the new band tried former 'seven section' trumpet man Dickie Hawdon as lead trumpet. Dickie, I believe I am right in saying, had never played lead in a big band before and, although he had a very good range, he did not readily fit into that role (not all trumpet players do; in a modern jazz-based big band the role is very specific and very, very demanding). Eventually Ron Simmonds - a powerful Canadian lead trumpet - was brought in and it is Ron who appears in this 1962 picture. Whilst Ron surely 'steadied the ship,' I remained a sceptic about the band as a whole, but, there again, maybe I never heard them at their best. The trumpets in the picture - left to right - are Kenny Wheeler, Leon Calvert, Ron Simmonds and Gus Galbraith. The reeds are Danny Moss, Art Ellefson and on flute here it could be either Johnny Scott or Roy East. The trombones are Eddie Harvey, Tony Russell and with Ron Snyder retained on the tuba.

A Sad Legacy...

For me, one of the saddest things about the first and highly original Dankworth band is that there is virtually nothing available on CD by them. There was almost nothing on vinyl, but the CD situation is much worse - truly sad. I might be a little critical of John here: Has he pushed hard enough for this? Don't those of us who have avidly supported his big bands for many years in the past deserve some decent CD material now? There are, for example, volumes of good Ted Heath material available but virtually no Dankworth except odd little bits perhaps with the band accompanying singer Cleo Laine (John's wife of course), or other often unrepresentative things. I think that this is truly sad.
Robin A. Brace, 2006.

2010 UPDATE:

We are very sorry to report that John passed away on February 6th, 2010 at the age of 82. His contribution to British jazz has been enormous; who can even start to evaluate it?

2012 UPDATE:

From 2009-2010 a double CD has finally become available of tracks by the original (and best, in my opinion), Johnny Dankworth Orchestra. Called The Best of Johnny Dankworth, this excellent double CD set is on EMI. If, like myself, you were a Dankworth Big Band fan back in the 1950s you should try to obtain this! Although I have some regrets that one or two old favourites are missing, on the whole the CDs are very representative of the band at its best.