He Played as He Pleased

April 26, 2008 at 4:12 pm (good people, jazz, Jim D, Uncategorized)

Humphrey Lyttelton, b: 1921, d: April 2008.

“And one last thing. The good feeling you have attained may need a top-up from time to time through the day. If you go into the bathroom for any reason and catch a glimpse in the mirror of that old expression – the furrowed brow, the turned-down mouth, the grumpily sagging jowels, here’s what you do. Go up to the mirror, look straight at your reflection as if it’s another person – an alter ego, if you like – and give it a knowing, conspiratorial smile, with perhaps a wink for good measure, as if to say ‘Nobody else has a clue, but we do don’t we!’ You think I’m joking? Well try it – it’ll take ten years off you in seconds.

“Good heavens, is that the time? I started this book with a question posed by my hero, Robert Benchley. Let me end with another:

“‘What is the disease which manifests itself in an inability to leave a party until it’s it’s over and the lights are being put out?…I can’t bring myself to say, ‘Well, I guess I’ll be toddling along.’ Sometimes even my host asks me if I mind if he toddles along to bed…It’s that initial plunge that I can’t seem to negotiate. It isn’t that I can’t toddle along. it’s that I can’t guess I’ll toddle.’

“Well, I know the feeling. But I guess I’ll toddle along now. It’s been fun…

THE END”

(H. Lyttelton, ‘It Just Occurred to Me…’, Avona Books, 2006)

Humph’s death, announced this morning, hit me in the way that the death of a close family member who’s been ill for a long time, hits you: you’re not surprised, but you’re still shocked. It still comes as a blow, even though you’ve been half expecting it.

Humph was tremendously influential in my life and in my appreciation of jazz. His weekly “Best Of Jazz” broadcasts on BBC Radio 2 introduced me (as an enthusiastic schoolboy) to such jazz heroes as (from memory): Vic Dickenson, Joe Thomas, George Wettling, Joe Bushkin,  Jay C. Higginbotham and Dave Tough – all “middle period” players that I might have missed altogether if Humph hadn’t drawn my attention to them. Sadly, BBC Radio now rarely features such players (except on Geoffrey Smith’s Saturday ‘Jazz Record Requests’, which keeps having its time changed – a sure sign that the BBC is preparing to axe it).

Humph was, first and foremost, a jazz musician. Even his later, better-known, career as the Chairman/Host of the comedy BBC radio quiz “I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue” (ISIHAC), owed its success to his impeccable timing, developed as an improvisor and jazz band leader. In fairness, it should be recorded that Humph recently (during his appearance on ‘Desert Island Discs’, I think) attributed his dead-pan “innocent” persona as Chairman of ISIHAC to a subconscious absorbtion of the persona/act of Kenneth Horne on ‘Round The Horne’ in the 1960’s.

Humph was born into an upper-class, aristocratic family. His father was an Eton schoolmaster, and he himself was educated at Eton, then serving in the Brigade of Guards, before veering off into bohemia and jazz.

He burst onto the late 1940’s amateur British ‘revivalist’ scene with a musical force and personal charisma that made everyone sit up and take notice. Some of this may have been down to what many people have described as his “imperious” (ie: upper-class) self-confidence. But there is also no doubting the fact (evidenced by the early recordings) that he was a damn fine trumpet player, in the early-Armstrong style, possessed of a power and technique that placed him well ahead of revivalist contemporaries like Owen Brice and Reg Rigden, and more in the league of ‘Archer Street’ professionals like Tommy McQuater, Max Goldberg and Kenny Baker. A few years later, Humph came under the spell of Buck Clayton with whom he developed a very close personal and professional relationship. But he never forgot his early debt to Armstrong (or the first British trumpet player to popularise the Armstrong style, Nat Gonnella). 

Humph joined the first British “revivalist” band, George Webb’s Dixielanders, which included Wally Fawkes, a superb, Sidney Bechet-influenced clarinet player who was also a highly-skilled cartoonist, working (under the name “Trog”) at the time for the Daily Mail. Fawkes moved on, from the Mail (which was not to his taste politically) and ensured that Lyttelton (who had attended Camberwell Art School), inherited his job on the Mail:

“His (Fawkes’ – JD) words were on the lines of, ‘Get some samples of your stuff together and go in to see the Features editor. I’ve already primed him.’ He had indeed. The man barely glanced at my work before saying, ‘You start tomorrow.’ And that led to eight years on the Daily Mail during which I graduated to pocket cartoonist and, for a year or two, librettist for ‘Flook’.”

It must have been at about this time (the mid-1950’s), that Lyttelton ran into a former Eton schoolmaster who enquired about what he (Lyttlelton) was doing. Humph replied that he was drawing a strip cartoon, doing freelance journalism, playing trumpet, leading a band, broadcasting and writing a book. The master replied, “I suppose you’ll have to give all that up one day and start to think about a career.”

Happily, Humph never had to “think about a career”, in that sense. His band went from success to success in the 1950’s, ’60’s, ’70’s…and up until last Tuesday, when they blew what was, by all accounts, a very enjoyable session at the Bull’s Head in Barnes (South West London, and one of Humph’s favourite venues). Humph remained a much loved figure on the British jazz scene, even though he regularly alienated the more staid sections of his fan-base by continually changing his stylistic approach, moving from ‘revivalism’ to ‘mainstream’, and beyond…although always remaining in touch with the eternal jazz verities as espoused by Louis, Fats, Duke, Basie, Billie, and Condon. 

Humph was a vigilant talent-scout and his band, over the years, included such outstanding British jazz personalities as Bruce Turner (alto sax/clarinet), Stan Greig (drums/piano), Johnny Pickard (trombone), Mick Pyne (trombone, cornet and piano), Jimmy Skidmore (tenor sax), Tony Coe (alto sax), Joe Temperley (baritone sax), Kathy Stobart (tenor sax) and Eddie Harvey (trombone, piano and arranger). He also championed female jazz players like Kathy Stobart and, more recently, Karen Sharpe (tenor and baritone saxes) and Jo Fooks (tenor sax).

His band, during the 1950’s and 60’s, accompanied and/or worked alongside such great US jazz masters as Sidney Bechet, Eddie Condon, Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Rushing, Big Joe Turner, Buck Clayton, etc, etc…

He also boosted the careers of singers Helen Shapiro, Elkie Brooks and Stacey Kent.

He played as he pleased. He lived his life as he pleased. He was this country’s most effective champion of jazz in all its manifestations, from early New Oleans to the avant garde. He stood up for fair play, equality and human decency whenever he could. He recently said (on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, when asked the inevitable “retirement” question), “When I finally slump forward, I hope it will be with the trumpet in my hand”: well, he very nearly did that, playing a successful and enjoyable gig a week before he died. A good life, and (insofar as there can be such a thing), a good death. Farewell, Humph.

 

10 Comments

  1. BRUCE said,

    As you say, Jim, sad but expected.

    In an otherwise very thorough obit, you forgot to mention one detail – Humph, despite his upbringing, was a socialist, apparently as the result of a visit to South Wales in the depression in the late 30s after leaving Eton. He put his talents at the disposal of the Labour Party and Musicians’ Union when he could be of use for publicity or to liven up some event.

    I know that despite his cultivated curmudgeonly demeanour he was musically tolerant but I was surprised to learn he was ‘a champion of the avant garde’. Maybe you could provide details.

    Talking of jazz deaths and tolerant musicians, clarinettist, saxophonist & composer Jimmy Giuffre also died this week. He was exactly the same age as Humph. Few of that generation remain.

    On two non-Humph points. I think JRRis probably safe. The time keeps changing because they think it is more important to broadcast interminable operas, particularly Wagner, from the Metropolitan Opera House – not to be confused with the Metropolitan Bopera House – in New York. I suppose some people have nothing better to do on Saturday night.

    More interestingly, I am writing this on my mini-laptop from my hotel in Berlin which is on a street which has had several names – one of which was the Stalinallee. The early 50s tile covered buildings in a classical / socialist realist style have, I think rightly remained. T

  2. BRUCE said,

    As you say, Jim, sad but expected.

    In an otherwise very thorough obit, you forgot to mention one detail – Humph, despite his upbringing, was a socialist, apparently as the result of a visit to South Wales in the depression in the late 30s after leaving Eton. He put his talents at the disposal of the Labour Party and Musicians’ Union when he could be of use for publicity or to liven up some event.

    I know that despite his cultivated curmudgeonly demeanour he was musically tolerant but I was surprised to learn he was ‘a champion of the avant garde’. Maybe you could provide details.

    Talking of jazz deaths and tolerant musicians, clarinettist, saxophonist & composer Jimmy Giuffre also died this week. He was exactly the same age as Humph. Few of that generation remain.

    On two non-Humph points. I think JRRis probably safe. The time keeps changing because they think it is more important to broadcast interminable operas, particularly Wagner, from the Metropolitan Opera House – not to be confused with the Metropolitan Bopera House – in New York. I suppose some people have nothing better to do on Saturday night.

    More interestingly, I am writing this on my mini-laptop from my hotel in Berlin which is on a street which has had several names – one of which was the Stalinallee. The early 50s tile covered buildings in a classical / socialist realist style have, I think rightly remained. The workers’ revolt against Stalinism in June 1953 started here when the building workers working on the buildings revolted against increased work norms. There are a number of plaques around with interesting info about the history of the area but this is not the place for that.

    I also have Humph’s last jazz programme in digital form with me so I’ll listen to it tonight as a tribute

  3. BRUCE said,

    More on the Lyttleton-Giuiffre connection, which is probably not of much interest to anyone as there wsn’t much of one. They were born a month and a few days apart. This from Steve Voce’s obit of Humph in the Independent:

    ‘He was the leading light on Radio 2’s Jazz Score, a panel game that also
    featured George Melly and guests including a newly eloquent Acker Bilk.

    ‘“I wasn’t fond of doing that programme,” Lyttelton said. “In the quite early stage I discovered that they gave every contestant the answers to the questions in advance except me, believing that I knew too much about jazz and that it wasn’t fair. The result was that all the other members of the panel were able to come up with carefully prepared or plagiarised stories, while I was left to say something amusing about Fud Livingston or Jimmy Giuffre in a moment’s notice. I wonder if anyone knows anything amusing about Jimmy Giuffre.”’

    Well, how about this from the NY Times obit of Giuffre:

    ‘Among the half-dozen instruments he played, from bass flute to soNprano
    saxophone, it was the clarinet that gave him a signature sound; it was
    a dark, velvety tone, centering in the lower register, pure but rarely
    forceful. But among the iconoclastic heroes of the late ’50s in jazz,
    he was a serene oddity, changing his ideas as fast as he could record
    them.’

    ‘From the mid-50s on, Mr. Giuffre taught music, initially at the Lenox
    School of Jazz, the late-summer educational conference in Lenox,
    Mass., which existed from 1957 to 1960. (A remark made the rounds at
    the time: when told that Mr. Giuffre would be there to teach clarinet,
    among other things, the writer André Hodeir quipped, “Who will be
    teaching the upper register?”)’

    Not exactly ‘I haven’t a clue’ quality but might have passed.

  4. Simon b said,

    Thanks for that Jim. Humph will be greatly missed.

    I know him mainly for ISIHAC where, as you say, his impeccable timing and deadpan manner made the show. They will surely have to stop now as he is irreplaceable.
    It’s interesting to read about his jazz career, which I’m less familiar with.

    Monday evenings will never be the same again.

  5. modernity said,

    [as an side, I see Newman is bitching about Shiraz Socialist's anti-Stalinism and Tibet, how predictable? http://www.socialistunity.com/?p=2197 ]

  6. johng said,

    but trad jazz is fascism isn’t it? Myself and Jim have had this dispute before.

  7. Simon b said,

    No John, Gilad Atzmon plays modern jazz.

  8. Humphrey Lyttleton RIP « Byas’d Opinion said,

    [...] Jim Denham’s Shiraz Socialist blog [...]

  9. Jim Denham said,

    Bruce: thanks for pointing out Humph’s socialist views: I was aware that he was a leftie, but had forgotten that his life-long socialism was first aquired when his family sent him to South Wales during the depression (in the hope that he’s become a captian of industry!). I think he tells the story in his first autobigraphy ‘I Play As I Please’, but I’d forgotten about it.

    As for his “championing of the avant garde”: in his last book, he describes (with much wit and warmth, but also respect) how he compered John Stevens’ ‘Spontaneous Music Ensemble’ (including Kenny Wheeler, Trevor Watts and Paul Rutherford) when they appeared on BBC Radio’s ‘Jazz Club’. Humph’s short-lived 1960s big band also included several avant gardists, most notably John Surman.

    Thanks for also noting the passing of Jimmy Giuffre. Doug Ramsey over at “Rifftides” has a warm appreciation, as does John Fordham in today’s ‘Graun’.

    John G: how many more times!?!? Mainstream is *not* the same as trad! You really must *learn* to know what you are talking about when it comes to jazz (I accept that as an SWP’er you cannot be expected to know anything abot Marxism).

  10. female jazz singers said,

    [...] If you go into the bathroom for any reason and catch a glimpse in the mirror of that old expressihttp://shirazsocialist.wordpress.com/2008/04/26/he-played-as-he-pleased/Cult hero Hicks brings his Hot Licks to Binghamton Press & Sun-BulletinNo doubt about it: Dan Hicks [...]

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