Danny Moss: The Sad Passing of a British Jazz Great

By Robin Brace

Danny Moss (1927-2008).

Here at 'Jazz; A Musical Passion,' we lament the recent (2008) passing of noted British jazz musician Danny Moss who died, aged 80, in Perth, Western Australia, on May 28, 2008.

Used by permission: Jazz Photographs by Sue Storey

Born in 1927 in Redhill, Surrey, England, Danny Moss was a highly talented veteran big band/swing-styled tenor saxophone player who had been an important part of the British jazz scene all the way from the early 1950s. Almost entirely self-taught, Danny started playing professionally when he was just 16. His entire working life was spent as a professional musician, never deviating at any time, and he played in all of the really famous British dance/swing bands of the 1950s; but it was in the next decade, when he finally struck out on his own, that his distinctive style began to be more widely noted. At length, Danny Moss became one of the relatively few British jazz musicians to establish an international reputation.

The Danny Moss childhood was spent on the English south coast, in the Brighton-Worthing area, where he attended Steyning Grammar School. Danny was able to clearly recall the precise moment when jazz entered his life: at the age of 13, he was on a family visit to the local cinema when a jazz band appeared briefly in a B-movie featuring the Bowery Boys. He was so taken with the clarinet playing that he swapped his ice skates, his most treasured possession at that time, for a second-hand clarinet.

His musical development was so rapid that at the age of 16, upon leaving Steyning Grammar School, he was proficient enough to immediately join the band which played at Sherry's Ballroom in Brighton. This was interrupted when he was called up for National Service at the age of 18 ('National Service' was military training which was compulsory for all British young men at that time), however, he spent his service time in an RAF regional band, so his musical gifts were not entirely neglected.

Later he joined the Vic Lewis Orchestra, one of Britain's most jazz-minded touring dance bands. At the time, his pay was around 12 a week, which, as he later recalled, "seemed like a fortune."

It then becomes almost easier to say who Danny did not work with on the European music scene than who he did. Throughout the early 1950s the country's leading dance bands were constantly before the public, both in live performance and on the radio, and there was fierce competition for the very best players. Danny was with the Oscar Rabin Band and the Squadronaires until landing, in 1952, what he himself was to later describe as, "the prestige job of all time," when he was selected to play with Ted Heath ('Ted Heath and his Music' was the official band name). Formed at the conclusion of the war in 1945, the Heath band had quickly established a reputation for very fine musicianship even beyond British shores. Danny was with the Heath big band from 1953-1955.

Apart from the outstanding money (by the standards of the day) which Ted was able to pay, however, Danny rarely actually enjoyed playing for Heath. The Heath big band were always technically outstanding and Ted insisted on only employing the very best players, but the Heath 'band book' consisted mainly of vocals and fairly mundane numbers, certainly outstandingly well performed but frequently somewhat dull. When it turned to thrilling, all-out big band swing, the Heath band was widely acknowledged to be more or less without any peer in Europe, the surprise for many was that for a large part of the time Ted did not choose that route. Ted even insisted that the somewhat rare jazz solos had to be played in exactly the same way every single time they were played (actually, I think Ted - much later - relented on this policy since I recall hearing several great, though brief, Eddie Blair trumpet solos around the early 1960s which were not 'repeat improvisations'). But the formulaic Heath approach at the time that Moss was with Heath was bound to prove stifling for a highly gifted jazz improviser like Danny Moss and so it proved to be. When he left, after three years, Danny found that his skills as an improvising jazz musician had actually suffered and had even moved backwards a little. Following this, Danny Moss showed determination never to take a similar pathway again - even if this inevitably meant less financial security.

In 1955, he moved to the Geraldo band and thence, in 1957, to the adventurous, truly jazz-based orchestra of Johnny Dankworth. He can actually be seen with Dankworth in the 1958 film The 6.5 Special (it is here, second up, after the dreadful opening song from a pretty young Petula Clark). This was the first highly-original 'seven-section' Johnny Dankworth big band and it was here that I first noticed Danny and heard him play. It was when he was with Dankworth that Danny made known to Johnny his swing/mainstream stylistic preferences as a soloist and Johnny is said to have staunchly supported his artistic preferences; in short, Danny did not want to develop a John Coltrane-type very modern tenor style but felt much more attuned to a Ben Webster/Coleman Hawkins full-bodied, earlier tenor sound. When I first heard Danny with the Dankworth band in 1958, I quickly noted that he was one of about four outstanding jazz soloists within the band. Moss left Dankworth in 1961, and then tended to gravitate toward his preferred swing/mainstream area of jazz when working with Alex Welsh, and then Humphrey Lyttelton (1962-1964). He also often played with visiting American jazz performers including people like Buck Clayton, apart from playing with his wife, the singer Jeannie Lambe.

You can see and hear Danny playing on the YouTube video below.

Perhaps the first sign of international approval had come in 1959, when the Dankworth band visited America and was heard by Count Basie. Basie quickly noted Danny Moss and said: "Wow! Now that's real 'Texas tenor.' That's the way it should sound! I wish some of the younger guys would play that way."

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Moss continued to play, and he toured widely, either with his quartet or as a guest soloist. He also recorded with such star singers as Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Sarah Vaughan and Rosemary Clooney. He became a founder member of the Pizza Express All-Stars in 1980, and continued to play with them for about ten years. In 1984 Moss and Jeannie Lambe played a season in New York with the band of Bob Rosengarden.

After several working visits to Australia, the couple decided to move there permanently, settling in Perth in 1989. Strangely enough after settling in Australia European demand for Moss seemed to increase and Danny and Jeannie often returned to the UK.

In 1990 Moss signed a recording contract with the German label Nagel-Heyer and this proved to be a blessing indeed because it ensured that some of Danny's finest mature playing was preserved. The two CDs 'Weaver Of Dreams' and 'Jeannie Lambe and Danny Moss Live In Hamburg' are particularly impressive. His duet recordings with the pianists Brian Lemmon and Stan Tracey are also outstanding and well-worth a listen.

Danny Moss was awarded an MBE in 1990 for his services to music; it was a richly deserved reward. Danny is now survived by his wife and two sons.

Danny, we are going to miss you - you made a real difference to the British jazz scene for more than 40 years: What a great player!
Robin A. Brace, June 6th 2008.

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