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Jazz Remembered


John Dankworth On The Bass Guitar


To encourage all jazz fans to delve into the National Jazz Archive’s collection, they present a series of articles – ‘Gems from the Archive’. In one Gem, they feature bandleader, composer and arranger Sir John Dankworth, who in this extract from a 1969 interview, talks to Les Tomkins about introducing the bass guitar to his band:


John Dankworth and Cleo Laine

Sir John Dankworth and Cleo Laine
(Picture courtesy of the National Jazz Archive)


'It’s very encouraging to see that fans are taking British musicians seriously at last. For a long, long while Americans were the only ones; now you see our musicians beginning to get recognition. It's a great time for British jazz, after all, isn't it? It's really beginning to make its mark. I'm thinking of all the young players who are coming up: the John Surmans, Alan Skidmores and Mike Westbrooks. For many years European jazz has been very much underrated. It’s partly because American jazz has always been very well–promoted. All the visiting American jazz musicians don't come over by accident; they're sent over by agents and promotion campaigns are put over for them. And the poor old British musician has just had to exist on his reputation alone; sometimes that hasn't been enough to get his name before the public. But thank goodness, all that'sJohn Dankworth programme changing now.

..... The band that I had on the road gradually petered out. I didn't really ever plan it that way, except that long before I stopped touring I was doing film music. And it was a bit of a strain to return, say, from Carlisle at four in the morning and have to be at Shepperton Studios at seven a.m. ... the trouble was that by that time London had started to come up as the biggest session centre in the world. Which I should think it is now; London is busier in studio activity than anywhere else - except Los Angeles, maybe. Musicians weren't going to tour with me, however good the money, if they could stay at home in London and do work which was varied, ...

... Nevertheless, it's been a very exciting season, because there've been a lot of new players come in to take the places of people like Tony Coe and Chris Pyne, and I've discovered more fine talent. Some I'd heard occasionally, but you don’t get to know their playing until you actually play with them. I mean; a player like Alan Skidmore is every bit in his father's footsteps as one of the finest tenor men in the country already. And yet he's a very good musician, all–round; not just a jazz player, but an excellent instrumentalist, reader, everything. Malcolm Griffiths is another; he plays marvellous trombone and is an ideal man to have in the band. I'd have him again any time, at the drop of a hat. I think that the standard of young players, including those who play in my band and in other bands around now, such as the Stan Tracey, Tubby Hayes, Mike Westbrook bands, they're the equal to anybody in the world, as players in this sort of big band. You wouldn't get better performances anywhere.

As for my bringing in the bass guitar… there was a lot of prejudice against it in jazz, and I was one of those prejudiced people. For me, the change came mainly when I had to use the bass guitar a great deal on film sessions. I've been required to write any sort of music that is necessary for the film. Quite often I was writing pop music and pop–orientated music, and I'd use bass guitars. First of all, I would try to use bass players who doubled bass guitar. After a while I realised that, in fact, the bass guitar is an individual instrument that needs a specialist player. Really, if you're going to use bass guitar, you've got to have someone who thinks of it as a serious instrument. Of course, this is what the young bass players like Brian Odgers, Ron Mathewson and Dave Holland are doing now. They are taking it seriously and playing it very well.

This is a sign to the future. Whatever happens in a small group the bass guitar is a much more suitable instrument for big band work. You can hear it. Nobody could ever say in the old days that the bass line was strong enough with a stringed instrument. And for many years bass players used to hate amplifiers. Well, now there's a good case for the bass amplifier, I think, because amplifiers have improved out of all recognition in the last ten years; and now you could get a good string bass sound with amplification. But still I think the bass guitar has a different feel with it, and for a lot of things that I've written in the last six months or so, I prefer to hear it. This is a trend that is being echoed throughout a lot of big–band jazz all over the world today.


John Dankworth and Cleo Laine playing Feeling Good in 1974 - a 'master class' in how to sing what I think is a difficult number and which is so often sung the same way.




But it's very hard to iron out prejudices, and there are still a lot of prejudices among jazz musicians about pop–influenced things. I think that's wrong, too. I can remember when I would talk to straight musicians who had prejudices against jazz, and they weren't justified. It was through ignorance, mainly. The same thing applies now; and I thought jazz musicians would be broad–minded when it came to considering another sort of music. Quite often, though, they're not. Or the older players haven't been; they've laughed at pop and anything it can offer jazz.

Whereas the younger generation of musicians think differently. Like Henry Lowther, who's playing with our band —he's as much at home with Alan Price's band as he is with ours. And he loves it all; this is the important part. The thing to realise is: there's a lot of bad jazz going around and there's a lot of bad pop going around, but if you can be good enough to select the best of the two, then you're really swinging.'

(John Dankworth, 1969).


John Dankworth Jazz Illustrated

(Picture courtesy of the National Jazz Archive)

Click here for our page of other 'Jazz Remembered' articles.


Our thanks to the National Jazz Archive for this 'Gem'. If readers of Sandy Brown Jazz have a specific enquiry, they are welcome to contact David Nathan at the Archive directly.

Email: Telephone: +44 (0)208 502 4701
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