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Britain’s first jazz Knight, Sir John Dankworth grew up in Woodford Essex and studied at the Royal Academy of Music. Inspired by Benny Goodman he first played clarinet before taking up the alto-saxophone In the late 1940s he visited New York to experience American jazz first-hand (as part of ‘Geraldo’s Navy’)  and also played at the Paris Jazz Festival with Charlie Parker in 1949.


In 1950 he formed his own small group  ‘The Johnny Dankworth Seven’ (his singers were Frank Holder and the young Cleo Laine) and then, in 1953, his first big band which scored a top ten hit with ‘Experiments with Mice’ in 1956. In 1958 he married Cleo and in 1959 was the first British bandleader to appear at America’s Newport Jazz Festival where his orchestra  scored a sensation. The New York Times said: ‘Dankworth’s group showed the underlying merit that made big bands successful years ago” and they also played Birdland, New York’s Lewisohn Stadium (where Louis Armstrong joined them) and more concerts opposite Duke Ellington. John was an early political activist on behalf of racial equality (he refused a South African tour on account of the country’s segregation laws) and in 1959 became chair of the ‘Stars’ Campaign for Inter-Racial Friendship’ to combat the fascist White Defence League. In 1961 he scored a second hit with ‘African Waltz’ (which reached no.9 in the UK charts) and his new outstanding albums included ‘What the Dickens’ (one of the greatest-ever British recordings) as well as the equally outstanding ‘Shakespeare and all that Jazz’ (with Cleo Laine) and the British-American collaboration  ‘Zodiac Variations’ were more major on-record triumphs.  From the 1960s John began a second career as composer of film and television scores including ‘The Avengers’ (1961-4) the signature tune to ‘Tomorrow’s World’ (1965-2003) ‘Darling’ (1965)  ‘Modesty Blaise’ and ‘Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment’ (1966) and ‘The Frost Report’ (1966).


A longtime enthusiast for jazz education and regular patron for young musicians  he also co-founded (with Cleo in 1969) the revolutionary ‘Wavendon All-Music Plan’ including his Summer School which ran for over thirty years and in 1982 he  was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Berklee School of Music, Boston. By then however John had formed the duo with Cleo Laine that from 1976 would turn them into international superstars after a headlining concert at New York’s Lincoln Centre and prompt a non-stop  international touring schedule in Europe, Australia and the USA for three more decades. During this time John and Cleo would collaborate with many American and British stars including Mel Torme, Clark Terry, Gerry Mulligan, George Shearing and Oscar Peterson both on and off the record and in 2006 Sir John Dankworth was made a Knight Bachelor in the 2006 New Year’s Honours List. In later life he remained as busy as ever writing a jazz violin concerto for Gabriel Garrick  (2008) but became ill after a US tour in 2009 and died on 6th February 2010. With Cleo he remains the only British musician to achieve genuine worldwide recognition.



“I was proud to call Sir John a close friend and his indefatigably enthusiastic  work on behalf of jazz was equalled by his friendship to the world, his ever-generous spirit and his incomparable body of work”
(Digby Fairweather/ Trustee & Founder and Lifelong Patron/The Jazz Centre UK)
Sir John Dankworth Piano



One of our key exhibition items at The Jazz Centre UK is the first piano of Britain's first jazz Knight.

The old upright piano was probably built in the early years of the twentieth century by J.C.Browne, 154 Brecknock Road, Camden Road London, and it’s possible that Sir John’s mother - a dedicated singer and choir mistress with several relations who were professional musicians - may have bought it new, or nearly so. “As far back as I can recall,” wrote Sir John in his autobiography ‘Jazz in Revolution (Constable, 1998)” - I was expected to look over her shoulder at the piano music stand and keep my end up.

Sir John Dankworth Piano

I struggled manfully to sight-read unfamiliar notes, coupling them with unfamiliar words which were nowhere near the notes at the bottom of the page” (Such early and tough training may begin to explain why - later on - Sir John could write a complete score by torchlight at the back of the band-bus or correct apart by reading it upside-down on a musician’s stand!).

Over the years to come— long after Sir John and Dame Cleo would have stipulated (at the very least) a Steinway Grand in their contracts in concert halls all around the world - the piano stayed patiently in their home at The Old Rectory in Wavendon, the pretty village near Milton Keynes. But finally, its long-term lodgings came to an end. The Wavendon Foundation couldn’t find new ones, so finally it was rescued by daughter Jacqui. “ I had it at home for a while,” she says “- and actually used to play it when I was younger”. But then she passed it on to brother Alec who kept it for a while; ”before” as he says “ - we hauled it over the road to give it to my neighbour. And in due time he put it on E-bay”.

That’s how it came to the attention of The Jazz Centre UK when Digby Fairweather had a call from Terry Cheney, the editor of Britain’s invaluable monthly ‘Jazz Guide’. “Sir John Dankworth’s first piano is on E-bay,” he said and: “fine,” said Fairweather “ - but surely we could never afford it?” “I think you might,” said Cheney “ - the starting bid is £5.00!” So the deal was sealed at the reasonable settlement of £10.00 “ and in due course, the piano was trundled into the basement space of our Centre.

Sir John Dankworth's piano has been beautifully refurbished by the Centre’s restorer Tim Basket. Due to its wooden frame, it was decided that - at least for now - the piano should remain silent. We do hope to restore it back to its full playing capability again in the future via a funded project. It is now presented within our Heritage Centre alongside the Humphrey Lyttelton collection, Louis Armstrong’s very own trumpet and endless other priceless artefacts. “The nicest things,” says Fairweather “ - begin in the strangest places”.

Piano Restoration


When we can we hold further exhibitions and live events to celebrate the Dankworth Dynasty. In June 2019 we organised a whole afternoon of events dedicated to Dame Cleo Laine. Jacqui Dankworth and Charlie Wood performed a 2 hour concert for ticket holders leading up to the great public unveiling of the Dame Cleo Laine portrait painted by Duncan Shoosmith for the Sky Art's TV Show 'Portrait Artist of the Year'. 

Click the images to the right to see highlights from the day or click the banner below to find out more about the Dame Cleo Laine portrait on display at The Jazz Centre UK.

Dame Cleo Laine Painting Eyes


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