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Obituary: Humphrey Lyttelton

Obituary by Jack Foley

VETERAN jazz legend Humphrey Lyttelton has died at the age of 86.

The popular musician, who was also chairman of BBC Radio 4’s comedy panel show I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, had recently undergone surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm.

Among the first to pay tribute was Mark Thompson, Director General of the BBC, who described his former colleague as “a unique, irreplaceable talent”.

In a career littered with amazing achievements, Lyttelton received a Sony Gold Awar for services to broadcasting in 1993 as well as a lifetime achievement award at both the Post Office British Jazz Awards in 2000 and at the first BBC Jazz Awards in 2001. He also famously turned down a knighthood.

His best known song is arguably Bad Penny Band, which helped Lyttelton and his band to become the first British jazz act to enter the top 20 in 1956 – 20 years after he had first started to play the trumpet.

Born in 1921 to a father who was a housemaster at Eton, Lyttelton developed a keen ear for music at an early age, especially since both his parents were amateur musicians, but had to wait to pursue a career in the music industry.

Upon leaving school he worked for a time in a steelworks in South Wales and was commissioned in the Grenadier Guards during the Second World War, seeing action on the beach at Salerno. According to some reports, however, he was said to have arrived at the beach-head with a revolver in one hand and a trumpet in the other.

After the war he dedicated himself to a career in music and by 1948 had formed a band with the clarinettist Wally Fawkes. In the same year, he went to France’s Nice Jazz Festival and met his idol, Louis Armstrong.

His achievements and popularity continued into the ’50s, when he opened the Humphrey Lyttelton Club in a basement in London’s Oxford Street and spent the next 35 years developing a reputation as the elder statesman of British jazz.

In total, he composed more than 120 original works for his band, but also liked to deliver his own interpretations of classic numbers such as When The Saints Go Marching In and High Society.

His band also backed several singers, including New Orleans songstress Lillian Boutte and Helen Shapiro.

In spite of his passion for playing, Lyttelton was also prominent in promoting it to a wider audience and regularly presented and performed in many jazz radio programmes, such as Jazz Scene, Jazz Club and The Best of Jazz, in addition to his role on I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue.

He was also a cartoonist for the Daily Mail and wrote several books about music.

As part of his tribute, the BBC’s Mark Thompson added: “One of the towering figures of British jazz, he excelled too as a writer, cartoonist, humorist and of course as a broadcaster on television and radio…

“He was a unique, irreplaceable talent. Like his many fans, we owe him an enormous debt of gratitude. Like them, all of us at the BBC feel a tremendous sense of loss.”