Sir John Dankworth

March 3, 2010 at 9:01 am (General Information, Music) (, )

Barry Collarbone, NBT’s Orchestra and Concerts Manager was a friend and colleague of the late Sir John Dankworth who sadly passed away on 6 February. Barry has been invited to a celebration of John’s life on Monday 1 March and wanted to share his memories of John with you.

When I received the invitation I immediately relapsed into a collection of memories of John during my tenure as General Manager at the Stables Theatre, a post I held between 1988 and 1992.

I had a circuitous route to that position having started life as a trumpet player initially with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, various freelance engagements and then a long stay in Scotland, 1974 to 1985, as a founder member of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. During my time in Scotland I became involved in orchestral management. My wife, Freddie, was a cellist in the orchestra and, having started a family, we came to the conclusion that the life of a musician in an international touring orchestra (which the SCO had become) was not a great environment in which to bring up children.

I decided then to ‘jump the fence’ into full-time management and spent a number of years in the Midlands as administrator with the Birmingham based ‘Orchestra da Camera’. I, subsequently, applied for the post of General Manager at The Stables Theatre, (Wavendon AllMusic Plan) and moved to Milton Keynes.

This was my first experience outside of orchestral life and, as I had to programme this ‘AllMusic’ venue, mixed regularly with musicians from the worlds of Jazz, Pop Music, Country, Folk, Wold Music, etc., in addition to Classical Music Ensembles of all types. As John and Cleo were also regular performers at the venue I had a lot of interaction with them. Although I worked closely with them I was still somewhat in awe of their stature in the music/entertainment/show business world.

Every Christmas John would organise a week of ‘John & Cleo’s Family and Friends Christmas’ shows. As the title indicates various members of the Dankworth family, and friends, were pressed into performing on The Stables stage along with John & Cleo.

Knowing that I had been a trumpet player John decided, one year, that I should be involved in this, and ‘volunteered’ me. I pointed out that I had given up playing many years before and, indeed, my instruments were gathering dust in my loft at home. This conversation took place during the Summer months and he insisted I had plenty of time to ‘dust the instruments down’ and to be ready by Christmas.

I hoped he would forget this, as he and Cleo were going back to the USA to carry on their work there before returning for the Christmas Season. The thought of trying to play again, and in particular share a stage with The Dankworths was daunting, to say the least. However, I rescued my instruments from the loft and took them with me to work and, during evening shows, once they were up and running, I got into the habit of practising, with a practise mute in so as not to be heard by others, upstairs in the offices.

John & Cleo came home, as expected, prior to the Christmas period and, much to my relief, no mention was made of my proposed involvement in the ‘John and Cleo’s Family & Friends Christmas’ shows. My relief was short-lived, however, when John reminded me I had volunteered to take part in the shows. I pointed out I hadn’t volunteered but, rather, had been told by him I was taking part. He informed this was the same thing!! I asked John what musical items I’d be playing in and was told ‘I don’t know yet, but will decide on the day’. I explained that, unlike him & Cleo, I needed to know, in advance, what ‘rep’ I was going to be involved in as I was totally at a loss when it came to do ‘jamming’!! I was met with a shrug!

I then suggested that we perform ‘Let the Bright Seraphim’ by Handel, for soprano and trumpet, with Cleo singing the solo and me, playing the trumpet obligato. This was agreed and I felt a little less nervous about the upcoming experience!! I duly supplied the music for John & Cleo to study.

The day of the first show arrived, and I was called from the office for a rehearsal/sound check. Cleo told me, at that time, she wouldn’t be singing the piece as she was already doing a lot more in the programme. This was news that was ‘music to my ears’ as this let me off the hook. However, John had other ideas as he had written me into a couple of other numbers. He also asked me to go to his and Cleo’s house during the tea break, prior to the show, for a private rehearsal with him and his sister, the pianist, Avril Dankworth.

I made my way to the house, with trepidation, at the appointed time for this rehearsal to find that John had decided he would sing the soprano line in falsetto!! He proved to be very adept but decided we should present the piece as a ‘send-up’. I admit to feeling a great sense of relief, as this would mean I wouldn’t have to try and prove myself as a musician of the same stature!!

This, indeed, proved to be the case as the audience fell about at the sound of John’s falsetto and my pathetic attempts to treat the piece with the gravity the music was intended. Having initially been filled nervousness about appearing on stage with John & Cleo, I was able to relax and enjoy the evenings.

On a subsequent occasion, John again decreed I should be involved musically with him and Cleo, and at impossibly short notice, but I’ll save that for another occasion…

Suffice to say I enjoyed my time working with the Dankworths and John proved to be a real gentleman as well as a great musician. His passing has left a large void and he will be sadly missed by all those whose lives he touched.

Barry Collarbone
Orchestra & Concerts Manager
Northern Ballet Theatre

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