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…
(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.