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John Dankworth’s Victoria Connection

February 8, 2010

With the passing of John Dankworth on Saturday at the age of 82, this seemed like a story that should be told…

Early in 1960, a young musician from Victoria, having decided he wanted to see a bit of the world, traveled on an old German steamship from Canada to England, landing in Southampton with nothing more than $50 in his pocket and a trombone case in his hand.

Discovering that $50 didn’t go very far in the UK even in 1960, the young player soon started looking for work. One day he heard that John Dankworth was forming a new big band.

He already knew of Dankworth from his appearance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival and from articles about him in Downbeat, and so he phoned him up and explained that he was from Canada, could play the trombone, and would like to audition. Dankworth invited him down to the then newly opened Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in Soho where Dankworth’s quintet was playing, suggesting he could sit in on a few tunes after the quintet had finished its set.

The young player walked into Ronnie Scott’s to find Kenny Wheeler on trumpet, Spike Heatley on bass, Kenny Clare on drums and Dudley Moore (the actor) on piano with Dankworth on sax.

A week after the audition Dankworth’s road manager called him and asked him if he wanted to join the big band. Needless to say the 21-year-old jumped at the chance.

And so a young man from a very provincial town on Canada’s west coast entered a world where he made very good money (over 40 pounds a week when the average wage in Britain at the time was about 11 pounds), where a band boy took care of his instrument, and where his performance clothes were waiting for him on a rack when he arrived for the gig. He could hardly believe it.

Nor could he believe that about a week after joining the band, he was told he would be given a feature (solo) and that they would be recording a concerto for jazz band and orchestra with the London Philharmonic Orchestra that Dankworth had just composed. Quite an experience for somebody who, in his own words, was “green as hell,” and didn’t know “his ass from a shotgun.”

That young player might have enjoyed a long career with Dankworth’s band except he found himself longing for simple North American pleasures like a hamburger and milkshake – not to mention a few evergreens and some mountains.

And so after nearly two years with the band, Ian McDougall, having discovered that he could hold his own on an international stage, returned home.

The rest, as they say, is history.

– Rick Gibbs

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