Jacqui Dankworth and all that jazz
- Credit: Archant
British jazz vocalist Jacqui Dankworth and her husband Charlie Wood performed at this year’s Nailsworth Festival. Katie Jarvis spoke to her about her varied career, her famous parents, and dinner with Frank Sinatra. / Photography by John Kentish
There are loads of questions I want to ask Jacqui Dankworth, much-loved British jazz singer (not to mention daughter of Dame Cleo Laine and Sir John Dankworth). But there’s one – just something stupid - that’s leapt to the head of the queue.
Is it true she once had dinner with Frank Sinatra? What’s even better - is it true she once had dinner with Frank Sinatra, wearing cut-off jeans and flip-flops?
“Tell no word of a lie,” she assures me. Her mum – the amazing Dame Cleo – was playing the Albert Hall along with Ol’ Blue Eyes in May 1992, when the 20-something-year-old Jacqui popped in to see her. The next thing she knew, “Someone had dropped out of Frank Sinatra’s party for dinner, which meant they had one empty chair, so I was allowed to go. But I literally had on a pair of cut-off jeans and flip-flops.”
Was it very posh?
“Oh my god, yes, yes it was! But no-one took any notice of me because they were all too worried about Frank Sinatra and his entourage. I didn’t speak to him – I just shook hands.”
It was the same month that Judge Giovanni Falcone had been killed, along with his wife, Francesca, and three policeman, by a Mafia car bomb. The one thing you didn’t do in Sinatra’s company – and I appreciate this is a tip that comes rather too late – was mention the Mafia.
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“There were three tables – my mum was on the top one; my dad was on another, I think with Michael Caine and Lord Sainsbury. I was on a table with someone who owned all the casinos in Monte Carlo, and a man who was responsible for bringing Liza Minnelli over to the UK. And there was also this songwriter who’d had a big hit in the 60s – I can’t remember his name – who confronted them. He said, ‘How do you feel about the judge who was murdered by the Mafia?’”
“Yeah. I just thought, ‘Oh my god, get me out of here!’ It was the longest three seconds of my life.”
And is there now a successful 60s songwriter somewhere under the Thames with boulders attached to his feet?
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen or heard from him again!”
So there you have it. In an interview with Jacqui Dankworth, you get mystery, intrigue, superstar cameos, and Sicilian violence: pretty good value, I’d say. But it doesn’t stop there. You also get an incredibly modest, talented and considered interviewee. And talking of great value, when she played Nailsworth Festival this month, it was alongside her husband, the equally-phenomenally-talented American blues and jazz keyboardist Charlie Wood. Jacqui had recorded one of Charlie’s songs long before they met; so when Charlie moved to London, he gave her a call. They worked together for some time as musical colleagues before they finally realised, four years ago, that they were romantic soul-mates, too.
She laughs. “We’re both complicated characters and it takes a negotiation, sometimes, to work together, but we really enjoy it.”
Does being literally and figuratively in harmony add understanding to their work onstage?
“It does, actually: words can’t really articulate what that feels like. Our voices do sound really great together. Probably partly why we’re attracted to each other is because there’s some harmonic vibration there. I admire him greatly – he’s a world-class musician and a great artist; a great songwriter; so to work with him is lovely.”
In Nailsworth – part of a wider tour that will keep Jacqui busy until September – they performed many of the Duke Ellington numbers that featured in their appearance at Gateshead, one of the UK’s biggest jazz festivals, last month. “I’ve started reading the biography of Duke Ellington - it’s a massive book and I haven’t got that far – but it’s so interesting to flesh out your perspective of a person, and how extraordinary it was to have achieved what they did, against all odds in some ways.”
She also performed songs from her latest album, Live to Love, which showcases just how brilliantly versatile a singer she is. Tracks range from the haunting All is Quiet to the upbeat Tomorrow’s World, which she sang in Nailsworth. Jacqui herself – a superb lyricist – has added words to the original melody written by John Dankworth for the TV series. “It’s about quantum physics,” she laughs (which she does a lot, attractively and warmly). “I read The Fabric of the Cosmos [by Brian Greene], which tried to explain the concept to the lay person. It’s hard to take in; a bit unbelievable.”
The last real collaboration with her dad was the album It Happens Quietly, released in 2011 but begun in the months before he died, aged 82. [The family made headlines for their bravery in performing hours later at The Stables, Wavendon, the venue the couple had set up 40 years earlier.] I know Jacqui and her dad were very close – it must be wonderful to have that music as a memory of their relationship.
“I guess I didn’t really see it that way until after he’d gone,” she says. “We did it in stages. I’d done guide vocals, and then I had to do vocals in a studio after he’d died so, of course, I heard his voice all over the tracks. That was hard; poignant. But there were lots of lovely things happening at that time as well because I’d just met Charlie. It’s all a mixture, isn’t it? And when he was so ill, you kind of don’t allow yourself to think he might be gone soon. It’s too much; too shocking.
“But I’m glad I’ve got the album and I think he would have liked it. I think he was proud of me.”
She’s not only inherited her parents’ love of jazz; she’s inherited Sir John’s determination not to be pigeonholed by musical boundaries. As well as the breadth of vision on her albums, she has performed opera – last year, she played Eleanor in American Lulu, Olga Neuwirth’s contemporary version of the original Lulu by expressionist composer Alban Berg.
“I wonder sometimes if it’s the right thing to do but it makes for a very interesting career,” she says. “The problem is that people end up not quite knowing what you do do. My career has taken me in so many different directions: maybe I should have just stuck to one thing – like those painters who just paint cats and become known as The Cat Painter!
“But I think I must get that [desire for versatility] from my dad. He was talking about breaking down musical barriers back in the 70s, which no-one else was really doing then. I suppose the Beatles did a bit when they got into Indian music; but certainly the classical lot didn’t speak to the jazz lot and the jazz lot didn’t really speak to the classical. There was no sharing of ideas. The courses my parents ran [at The Stables] were all about that and he was passionate. He hated that segregation – musical apartheid.”
She’s clearly inherited much from her parents, but her talent – and certainly her success – is all her own. In fact, Jacqui started her career as an actress, working with the Royal Shakespeare Company for a number of years, and touring internationally, before moving into musical theatre. (She has a particular fondness for Cheltenham after a stint starring in My Fair Lady.) But acting wasn’t, she says, any conscious attempt to avoid the family ‘trade’: “No - it was a real passion. When I was a young lass, I went to boarding school and I found solace in the drama department. I enjoyed being these other characters and I was quite good at doing it.”
School was the progressive St Christopher’s in Letchworth, where Laurence Olivier himself performed as a teenager. (His father was church minister for the town.) “It was a strange place,” she recalls. “I remember mum and dad used to put me in a car, quite often, to get me back to boarding school and I used to tell the driver to park round the corner so I could walk up the road without anyone seeing. I think that was more coming from me – I don’t think anyone at the school really minded. It wasn’t a load of privileged people but a good mixture from all walks of life.”
Thanks to the Dankworths’ success, she and her brother, Alec (now a jazz bassist and composer), had to endure their parents working away from home a great deal. Two of a long succession of nannies once took the children on an unscheduled holiday to Spain; they were tracked down by police after Cleo feared they’d been kidnapped!
Did Jacqui find that aspect of her childhood hard? “I think most little people find that hard, don’t they? No child likes being separated from their parents but I don’t think I found it more difficult than any other little girl in those circumstances.”
In later life, her relationship with her parents became much closer. She’s happy that Charlie managed to meet her dad, though sad it was too late for them to get to know each other well. “They have so many things in common in terms of their sense of humour. They’d have really enjoyed each other’s company – I know they would. I think my dad would have admired him as a musician and Charlie would have enjoyed getting lots of arranging lessons from my dad. They would have had a really nice relationship. So that’s a sadness.
“But my mum really, really likes Charlie. She is so straight down the line and he likes that: calls a spade a spade which, when you’re growing up, sometimes is tough. I appreciate it now but when I was a teenager…!”
She’s so obviously proud of her parents – and the fact that she’s made her own way in life is even more admirable because of it. “I don’t suppose you get much better than those two, certainly around the jazz singing, certainly in the UK. They’re the pinnacle and their careers have been so successful,” she says.
“But I don’t feel as if I’m walking in their shadow. I just feel that I’ve got my own thing.”
Jacqui Dankworth and Charlie Wood performed as part of the Nailsworth Festival (May 17 - 24) on Saturday, May 18. For more information on this, and other festival events, visit www.nailsworthfestival.org.uk
This article is from the May 2014 issue of Cotswold Life