Born: August 11, 1940;

Died: August 23, 2020.

PETER King, who has died at the age of 80, was an internationally acclaimed jazz saxophonist, and a man whose obsessive thirst for knowledge on the subjects which interested him combined with his brilliant, analytical mind to make him able to excel in more than one field.

Early in his six-decade-long career in jazz, he was regarded as the natural successor to his hero, the American bebop pioneer, alto saxophonist, Charlie Parker, and he used that as a launch pad for his own style of playing which was adventurous, inventive and original. As Alan Barnes, the leading clarinettist and saxophonist, said recently: “Peter more or less set the standard worldwide of how good it was possible to be. He was one of the greatest altoists we’ve produced.”

Peter John King was born in Tolworth, near Kingston upon Thames in Surrey in 1940. He was the son of an advertising executive and his wife who already had two teenagers in the house. As a child growing up during the Blitz, he was frightened out of his wits by the sound of the anti-aircraft battery in his local park and he suffered from night terrors and extreme anxiety and shyness which triggered a nervous breakdown in his mid-teens.

By this time he was already fascinated with aeroplanes and their workings and spent hours designing and building model aircraft. Over the decades, he became world-renowned as an expert in that field – and indeed, in some quarters, that was what he was best known for. He wrote highly respected papers on the subject, and at one point even held the title of British champion of free flight (as opposed to radio-controlled) aircraft modelling.

Thanks to the Armed Services Network Radio, King was already becoming interested in jazz when, aged 16, he went to see the sugary Hollywood biopic The Benny Goodman Story at his local cinema. In his harrowing yet often blackly funny 2011 autobiography, Flying High, he wrote: “This badly-made movie was a kind of ‘revelation on the road to Damascus’. It was not just the music but the lifestyle and the heroic struggles for recognition of the professional musician that captured my imagination.” The next morning he resolved to become a professional jazz clarinettist, just like the subject of the film.

Having only recently convinced his parents that aerodynamics was his calling, he realised that he stood no chance of persuading them to pay for a clarinet and lessons so he decided to teach himself. After hearing a record of a Louis Armstrong All Stars concert with Edmond Hall on clarinet, King began to learn his, and everyone else’s, solos, by ear – even before he had acquired an instrument. He solved that problem by figuring out how to make his own. Seeing his hard work – and the final result, which soon fell apart – his parents bought him a cheap clarinet.

He studied every music and theory book he could find in the library, memorised albums’ worth of music and taught himself how to play. He was playing in a Dixieland band at a local pub when he became obsessed with the sound of Charlie “Bird” Parker, who had died in 1955. He threw himself into studying and transcribing even Parker’s trickiest solos until he had could play them fluently on the alto saxophone he had bought with wages from his job as a trainee cartographer. In just two years, he reinvented himself as a Parkeresque bop saxophonist and was good enough to be invited to perform at the opening night of Ronnie Scott’s, in October 1959.

After being catapulted onto the London jazz scene, King was offered a regular quartet gig at Ronnie’s which was establishing itself as the hippest jazz club in the UK. Over the next decade, he worked regularly in big bands led by Johnny Dankworth, Tubby Hayes and Stan Tracey, but was disheartened by the fact that the only way to ensure a steady income was to accept commercial work. Like many other great jazz musicians, King’s career would be a mix of lucrative, high-profile gigs as a sideman (including with the Charlie Watts Tentet and Ray Charles’s band), artistically rewarding but poorly-paid jobs, and the odd extended period of work in a theatre pit band or in a Mecca dance hall orchestra.

Early on in his career he was also musically frustrated and sought to break free of Charlie Parker’s “all-pervading influence” on the alto sax, so he took up the tenor. Alan Barnes says: “He proved to be a superb tenor player, recording with Zoot Sims and Al Cohn in his early twenties and playing equally as well and as individually as both of them.”

King’s personal life at this time was disastrous. He was dependent on heroin and endured a “hellish” but brief marriage to the black American singer Joy Marshall, who routinely humiliated and belittled him. In 1969 he married Linda Froud, a former Bluebell dancer 15 years his senior, who helped him get his habit under control.

In the 1970s, he was a founder member of the popular Bebop Preservation Society band. However, it was only when he stopped using drugs in the early 1980s that he began to record under his own name – and with a quartet or quintet of musicians he had selected himself.

His aptly titled 1982 album New Beginnings marked this turning point, and paved the way for such acclaimed releases as East 34th Street (1983) and Tamburello (1994), which brought together two more of King’s longstanding passions – the music of Béla Bartók and Formula 1. His knowledge on subjects that interested him was encyclopedic, and sometimes they came together with remarkable results: the Bartók obsession fused with his interest in the Holocaust to produce his first and only opera, Zyklon, a scaled-down version of which was staged in New York in 2004.

Despite his increasing fragility, he continued to wow audiences – even as recently as 2015 when, at a benefit in his honour necessitated by a period of ill-health and the fallout from a financial fraud, he still turned in a dazzling performance.