Born: October 13, 1926; Died October 13, 2013.
Tommy Whittle, who has died at the age of 87, was one of the leading saxophonists in British jazz and played a prominent role in the development of the music in the 1950s.
Born in Grangemouth, where he took up clarinet at the age of 12 and saxophone a year later, he moved to Chatham in Kent at the age of 16 and began playing in local dance bands before moving on to the higher profile bands of Lew Stone, Carl Barriteau and Harry Hayes.
While he was still in his teens, Whittle was already highly regarded in jazz circles as a soloist, having listened closely to Lester Young, and in 1946, he was invited to replace tenor saxophonist and future jazz club proprietor Ronnie Scott in one of the greatest orchestras of the era, the Ted Heath Band.
Many jazz players worked with Heath, who kept his musicians in regular employment, but after six years of playing mainly written parts, Whittle felt constrained and having studied the bebop recordings that were arriving from New York and developed a passion for the playing of Don Byas especially, he wanted to use his improvising talents. So he left to join drummer Tony Kinsey's trio which was then resident in Studio 51 in London.
He recorded frequently with Kinsey, as well as playing at a high level every night, and his reputation as an articulate, relaxed-sounding tenorist began to grow even stronger when he formed his own quintet in 1954 with the Welsh pianist Dill Jones and baritone saxophonist Harry Klein in the original line-up. The following year Whittle won the Top Tenor title in the New Musical Express poll and when he followed this the next year by winning the same title in the Melody Maker's equivalent he was persuaded by his manager to capitalise on his popularity by taking an octet on the road.
Despite including such rising stars as his fellow Scot, saxophonist Joe Temperley and Canadian trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, this proved not to be Whittle's manager's best idea. Wheeler, a naturally shy man, refused to do the broadcasts that came the band's way due to his lack of confidence and after 14 months Whittle was broke and had to dissolve the band.
He soon found work, however, and almost immediately toured the UK as a stand-in with the Stan Kenton Orchestra and went on to play in the U.S. and France, where he played alongside his hero, Don Byas, in Paris. Byas was so good, Whittle later recounted, that after his first solo the whole band stopped and had to be cajoled back into action.
Back in the UK, Whittle joined the BBC Show Band and then teamed up with his former Ted Heath Band colleague, drummer Jack Parnell's television orchestra, going on to broadcast with many of the top stars of the era, including Bing Crosby and Peggy Lee. He still kept active in the jazz world, running a weekly club for ten years at the Hopbine pub in Wembley where he played alongside the British jazz phenomenon Tubby Hayes on one gig that was recorded for posterity, and even when he moved on to the Dorchester Hotel, where he led a band for dancing and cabaret, and turned to session work, recording with Barbara Streisand and Tom Jones among a host of others, he was still able to turn on first rate jazz performances when his schedule allowed, as a call to record with swing master Benny Goodman confirmed.
In later years Whittle played and recorded with his own quartets, first joined and then led the Pizza Express All-stars jazz band and worked closely with his wife, singer Barbara Jay, on Ella Fitzgerald tribute shows that saw them also recording alongside Rosemary Squires and Maxine Daniels. He repeated his 1950s poll-winning successes by winning the Top Tenor title in the British Jazz Awards in 1990 and 1991 and appeared at the Royal Albert Hall in 2000 on a Ragtime to Swing bill with trumpeter Kenny Ball and American singer Carla Valente.
Into his late seventies and eighties Whittle, a quietly spoken, gentlemanly figure, remained a creative, often adventurous player. He was awarded a lifetime achievement medal for his contribution to British jazz from the Worshipful Company of Musicians in 2005 and was still playing earlier this year before he contracted pneumonia while on holiday in Spain and died on his eighty-seventh birthday.
He is survived by his wife Barbara and his sons Martin and Sean.
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