May Features

'Humph' – Britain's Voice Of Jazz – Dies at 86

by Clarrie Henley

Humphrey Lyttelton, unquestionably the most important figure in the history of British jazz, died in Barnet Hospital, north London, during the evening of Friday, April 25th. He was 86.

Humph, as he was universally and affectionately known, was playing trumpet and directing his band until a few days before he was admitted for surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm. He had earlier announced his retirement from presenting his weekly radio show The Best of Jazz, which may hold the longevity record for a one-man show due to its amazing 40-year lifespan. He also presented a brilliantly witty radio panel game, I'm Sorry, I Haven't A Clue, which was due to start a new series, and he was a regular raconteur on the slightly more serious Jazz Score.

Humphrey Lyttelton (Photo: Ian Powell)

These were some of his many talents. He was also an observant and captivating author, a perceptive and sometimes wicked cartoonist and caricaturist, a record company owner and a popular television personality who indulged in bird-watching and the art of calligraphy as hobbies. His most outstanding talent was probably that of making a total success of anything to which he turned.

Humphrey Richard Adeane Lyttelton was born May 23, 1921, in Eton College where his father was a housemaster. He was descended from a long line of land-owning, political, military, clerical, scholastic and literary forebears. "Not a musician among them," was one of his constant claims. Another was that, of all his forebears, he felt he had most in common with Guy Fawkes, who was executed in 1606 for attempting to blow up the Houses of Parliament.

Lyttelton was educated at Eton during which time he bought his first trumpet. He then served as an officer in the Grenadier Guards during World War II, taking part in the invasion of the Italian beaches at Salerno, "pistol in one hand, trumpet in the other." During the celebrations for VE-Day, he was filmed blowing his trumpet on the streets of London and appeared on newsreels in cinemas throughout the country.

Following demobilization, he attended the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts where he met Canadian-born clarinettist Wally Fawkes with whom he struck up a lifelong friendship and association. They not only worked as illustrators on The Daily Mail but played together in George Webb's Dixielanders,  the first British band to pioneer the New Orleans style. While still something of an unknown, he performed at the International Jazz Festival in Nice where he played alongside Rex Stewart, Sid Catlett, Earl Hines and Jack Teagarden, evoking laudatory comments from Louis Armstrong.

In 1948, Lyttelton formed his first band with Fawkes and Webb as sidemen. It recorded on its own London Jazz label and, famously played and recorded on Melodisc with Sidney Bechet, deliberately defying the Musicians' Union ban on Americans working in the U.K. The subsequent court appearance brought huge publicity for the band which then signed for the long-established Parlophone label on its Super Rhythm-Style series. These recordings were milestones on the British scene and have proved enduringly popular, warranting a series of LP reissues and digital conversion to CD.

The band started to change character when trombonist Keith Christie left, and in 1965 a new-look, more sophisticated lineup recorded a Lyttelton composition "Bad Penny Blues" which was the first jazz record to make the British Top Twenty. Besides playing a forthright trumpet lead and solos inspired by the recordings of Louis Armstrong, Lyttelton also doubled on clarinet. By multi-recording an old folk song retitled "One Man Went To Blow," the Humphrey Lyttelton One-Man Band scored a novelty success, with the leader playing trumpet, clarinet, piano and washboard.

Always keen to experiment, he indulged in innovative collaborations with Freddie Grant in the Paseo Jazz Band and also nine, 10 and 12-piece groups with Graeme Bell's Australian Jazz Band which was then touring Britain. These were precursors to the shock waves that reverberated in the late Fifties when Humph enlarged his band with the inclusion of saxophones while also broadening the repertoire to include mainstream material. At various times the saxophones were played by Tony Coe, Joe Temperley, Jimmy Skidmore, Bruce Turner, Danny Moss, John Barnes, Alan Barnes, Kathy Stobart and latterly, two rising stars in Karen Sharpe and Jo Fooks. The list is a virtual Who's Who of British reed stars.

There followed close associations with Jimmy Rushing and Buck Clayton who wrote arrangements especially for the band plus several compositions, one being a tribute to the leader called "Sir'umph." Lyttelton himself was a composer and lyricist of quality and produced around 200 originals.

Over the years, the band shared the concert platform with Eddie Condon and Louis Armstrong and enjoyed many gigs as accompanists to visiting American stars including Henry Red Allen, Pee Wee Russell, Buddy Tate, Bud Freeman, Ruby Braff, Big Joe Turner, Yank Lawson, Al Casey, George Kelly and Ralph Sutton. Humph liked working with vocalists and recorded with Adelaide Hall and Marie Bryant as well as more popular singers Helen Shapiro and Elkie Brooks. In 1984, he formed his own record company, Calligraph Records, which mainly featured his own band with such guest artists as Kenny Davern, Buddy Tate, Acker Bilk, Lillian Boutté and the trombone ensemble, Bone Structure.

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May 2008 issue | © 2008 The Mississippi Rag

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