Jacqui Dankworth - Carrying on family traditions

Jacqui Dankworth is often referred to as the jazz princess, due to her parents, Dame Cleo Laine and Sir John Dankworth, being habitually pronounced as the nearest thing British jazz has to royalty.

There’s a skeleton in the cupboard, however, that might point to the singer being an actual princess here in Scotland. Her maternal grandfather may have been a Campbell from Jamaica but according to one source, he was descended from a Scottish colonel who was a Stuart, and a Royal Stuart at that.

Not that Dankworth will be pursuing any ancestral claims as her imminent Scottish tour takes her within a few miles of at least two battlefields, Prestonpans and Culloden, from a previous Stuart quest for the throne.

“My mother’s side of the family is a real melting pot,” she says. “So anything could be possible. There’s Native American and Chinese blood in there, too, apparently, and as far as I know, my great grandmother lived on a Jamaican plantation, probably owned by a Scotsman. My uncle, who’s the oldest survivor on my mum’s side, keeps getting told that there’s family land over there but he’s never done anything about it and I’m not sure I’d feel right about poking about there either. Maybe one day.”

For long enough, just living with the Dankworth name and her mother’s reputation was enough to contend with for Jacqui without digging any deeper into family history. Jazz was the music she grew up with – it could hardly be otherwise – but while the surname opened doors, she also found that people placed expectations on her.

At one point in her younger days she told her parents that she wanted to become an opera singer, which drew rather nervous responses from them. While her brother, Alec, went off and studied jazz bass in America, and worked for a while with Dave Brubeck, so that he could be regarded as a musician in his own right, Jacqui swayed between acting and singing, then eased her way slowly into singing jazz via stage musicals.

“I can remember going to my first auditions when I was just out of school and they would ask if I could sing as high as my mum, and I thought, Give me a chance. I was only eighteen and it had taken my mum years to develop her singing range,” she says. “People did seem to expect someone with my name to hit her strengths straightaway, whereas if you’re incognito, as it were, you probably get time to work on your style.”

She became a success in a variety of acting roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company and once appeared as everything but the soldier in a staged performance of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale. She also had a folk-pop group, Field of Blue, with her former husband, Harvey Brough of Harvey and the Wallbangers, along the way.

Jazz was exercising a pull, though, and when brother Alec, always supportive, offered her a tour of Hawaii, Hong Kong and Indonesia with his band, she accepted. Closer to home, she worked with saxophonist and now composer in residence at Newcastle University, Tim Garland, on a song cycle alongside two of the best jazz singers in Britain, Norma Winstone and Christine Tobin. The singing side of her career was building momentum.

“I definitely felt less pressure acting because I wasn’t doing what my mum does,” she says. “I really enjoy singing, though, and I suppose you can’t avoid comparisons but I would steer clear massively of any songs that mum was known for singing.”

Then one day a letter arrived. From Cleo. “It was a really long letter and obviously written with my best interests in mind,” she says, “and in it mum said that she realised that I wasn’t singing certain songs and she knew why, but I should go ahead and sing them anyway because all the great jazz singers had sung them and that was no reason to shy away from them.”

The only time Jacqui had asked her mother for advice previously had been about those high notes that she kept being asked to replicate at auditions.

“She told me to pretend I was a cat and get the note up my nose and go miaow,” she says laughing. “That didn’t really help me, although presumably it worked for her. And I’m not sure I took her advice about singing all these great jazz standards either because although I sing some classic jazz songs, I like all sorts of different music and a lot of what I do is more contemporary. I’m just a singer of songs really.”

Except, she’s not. She’s a songwriter, too, and having previously written both words and music for Field of Blue, she’s growing into the jazz singer as writer role by putting lyrics to established compositions. Her former collaborator, Norma Winstone, has done this successfully, turning instrumentals by trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and bass guitarist Steve Swallow into songs that are now sung quite widely and for another home-grown example, she need only look to Tina May, whose lyrics to tunes by Joe Zawinul and Bobby Watson have gone back across the Atlantic.

“It’s a thing quite a few jazz singers do and I can see how it happens,” says Dankworth. “Sometimes I’ll hear a song and I’ll love the words but maybe not the tune or vice versa, and of course, when both are great, that’s ideal. But often I’ll hear something and think, now why should the guitarists or the saxophonists get that to themselves? It happened the other night when my guitarist, Chris Allard, was playing this tune, Travels by Pat Metheny, at the soundcheck and I just fell in love with it. It had a real spiritual – as in the style of song – feeling about it and I could relate to that. The words came really quickly, about twenty-four hours, which is quick for me - I usually take weeks – and now I have a co-writing credit with Pat Metheny. If the guys’ll let me play it.”

The guys being Allard and fellow guitarist Mike Walker, the Mancunian who has become the guitarist of choice for bandleaders including Mike Gibbs and George Russell. Dankworth normally tours with a quintet but hit on the idea of using two guitars to create a more intimate atmosphere. If it’s a setting where the singer can’t “hide” in a bigger sound, it’s also one, she says, where the musicians can really respond to each other and the audience.

“The longer I go out playing gigs, the more I become convinced that live music is a special thing,” she says. “I don’t think people realise just how much musicians react to the way an audience listens. If the audience clap and shout a lot, then obviously the musicians feel encouraged. But being aware that people are listening carefully can make you feel really good about the music, too. I like an audience to feel moved, uplifted in some way. I got a letter once from someone saying, You’ve changed my life – and I suppose the idea is that you should do that to everyone. But if I can do that to one person, then it’s all worthwhile.”


From The Herald, May 31, 2008.

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