Sunday, April 27, 2008

Thanks to Humph


JAZZ trumpeter and broadcaster Humphrey Lyttleton died on April 25, aged 86. The tributes have been flowing, and we'll hopefully have tribute programmes to look forward to, but I want to add a personal note of thanks to a man I never met.

Back in the early 1950s, when I was growing up, the Cold War was fierce, the Left bore the grim, heavy weight of Stalinism, the Labour movement evoked images of Old Men and austerity, and the Express newspapers got away with referring to the Labour Party de rigeur as "the Socialists", purveying the impression its suburban readers were expected to see this as
perjorative, and be frightened by its "foreign" sound. Capitalism was booming, even if it owed this to the Korean war and arms production, and we were promised prosperity, even if there was not much of it around our part of the world.

Among the left-wing publications I looked at in the library, mostly old-fashioned looking and poorly-printed, I was pleasantly surprised to come across a more attractive, modern-looking magazine, I think it was called Socialist Digest. I don't think it lasted long, and I remember little of its content, except that it had an item on two minor celebrities supporting Labour. One was Jimmy Hill, the Fulham football player, head of the Professional Footballers' Association - the players' union - who went on to a long-running career on TV, familiar at first by his jawline beard, and even more so later by his outstanding chin.

The other celeb was Humph. At that time there were not that many entertainers who openly sided with the labour movement and the left, and it pleased me to see the man whose music I enjoyed appearing briefly in a Labour Party election broadcast.

My parents also noted that the Lytteltons were an aristocratic family. Humphrey was a cousin of the 10th Viscount Cobham and nephew of Tory colonial minister Oliver Lyttelton who became Lord Chandos, which added to the piquancy of his being on our side. Born at Eton, where his father was a housemaster, he also attended the school, and fagged for a young Lord Carrington.
After school, where he had already shown an interest in jazz, he was sent to the steel works at Port Talbot, with the idea that he might become an industrialist.

Instead, what he saw apparently made him a lifelong 'romantic socialist', in his own words. But then the Second World War broke out, and for the time being the jazzman and rebel was commissioned an officer in the Grenadier Guards, and saw action at Salerno.

On VE day, May 8, 1945, wheeled around the West End in a barrow by his pals, Humph played his trumpet and was fortuitously picked up by a BBC live broadcast of the celebrations. A childhood spent amid the boring pomp of country houses and the rules and fagging at public school may have helped give him his taste for jazz and distaste for pomp and formality. His aristocratic and old Etonian background may also have given him the confidence to rebel when others with careers to protect were keeping their heads down.

We may also note that to bring his jazz heroes like Sydney Bechet and Louis Armstrong over from the 'States, Humph had to oppose the dead hand of the Musicians' Union, whose policy - whether influenced by Zhdanov cultural nationalism or conservative craft unionism - was to keep out American musicians coming over here.

The second half of the 1950s saw a change in things. Suez, Hungary, and the shock which the Soviet Communist party's 20th congress delivered the Stalinist monolith, also liberated a new wave of socialist thinking and creativity. The big issue we confronted was the menace of nuclear war. The Aldermaston marches, begun independently of the official "peace" movement, and yet influencing the labour movement, brought a new generation around some old campaigners. CND was formed and local groups sprang up like mushrooms around the country. For young people coming into politics this way the culture was duffle coats, coffee (even if it was Instant), beer (albeit we had not yet a campaign for real ale) and Jazz (and this was authentic!). The traditional jazz which Humphrey Lyttelton did much to revive brought the New Orleans tradition of marching bands just right for ban-the-bomb marches. I am not sure whether Humphrey Lyttelton played on the marches, but he did take part, and do CND benefits.

While the trad jazz element sank into a rut, however, Humphrey Lyttelton moved into mainstream, expanding his range and repertoire, recording with US trumpeter Buck Clayton, and helping lead both musicians and listeners into a living, developing jazz world. His radio programme The Best of Jazz, on BBC radio 2, ran for forty years, and helped open our ears to both old and new quality sounds, while a few years ago he supplied the jazz element to a Radiohead number.

But of course what also gave us much enjoyment for many years was Humphrey Lyttleton hosting "I'm sorry I haven't a clue". This was Radio Four's "antidote to panel games", in which he not only brought out the best of his comedian panelists, with that national institution 'Mornington Crescent' over whose rules and stratagems many have pondered over the years, but delighted afficianados of the English double entendre as he kept us posted on what the fragrant Samantha was doing besides keeping the score. With his deadpan, tired and world weary style and wit, Humph was just the man to get away with it, and subvert Auntie BBC's staid image.

Though now the Establishment is paying homage to Humph, he seems to have avoided joining it
- no title or honours, so far as I'm aware. Perhaps having come from a privileged background he could not see the point of all that guff.

He did not pretend to be less than his age, quite the opposite, and maybe this was precisely why he appealed across generations. I've recently been catching up on his programme on BBC7, and appreciating them all the more, and now I wish I'd taken the chance to be in a live audience.

On Tuesday April 22 , 2008, Humph and the gang were due to appear in a recording of "I'm Sorry I haven't a Clue" at the Pavilion Theatre, Bournemouth. But Humph was ill, and so his place was taken by Bob Brydon. A pre-recorded message from Humph was played to the audience. "I'm sorry I can't be with you today as I am in hospital. I wish I'd thought of this sooner!". How typical of his style, and what a way to go!

So thank you, Humphrey Lyttelton. You served a long time, and won't be easy to replace.
And though we never met, and I only know what I heard and saw of you on radio and TV,
you gave us a good deal of pleasure.

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At 4:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A couple of points. In 1962 (when i thirst took a serius interest in beer, almost all beer was 'real' - keg came in over the next few years.

Secondly, i never saw Humph as left-wing, but i suppose when you thinks aobut it, he helped to promote Linda Smith and jeremy Hardy, so the old spark was probably still there. Adios, Humph

At 8:26 PM, Anonymous Brian Robinson said...

Lovely appreciation, Charlie. I saw him and his band in action alas only once at the Dankworths' Stables near Milton Keynes. He was a wonder. I was delighted to see that he refused a knighthood twice - once from Callaghan and I think again from Major.

We also recently lost another great, Allan Ganley, brilliant drummer, jazz arranger and a bandleader himself. He regularly played with John Dankworth at the Stables.

What a lot they've left us.


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