Nick Dent-Robinson starts the new year in the company of a jazz artist of impeccable pedigree – Jacqui Dankworth

As the daughter of jazz legends Dame Cleo Laine and Sir John Dankworth, it is no surprise that Jacqui Dankworth always wanted to perform for a living.

But it was as an actress and a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company rather than through jazz that Jacqui first won wide acclaim. Her exceptional vocal talent wasn’t widely recognised until she played Cinderella in Sondheim’s Into The Woods.

Many offers of singing work followed but Jacqui was in her 40s before she really started to concentrate on jazz singing and songwriting as her mainstream career.

Jacqui, 51, is married to the brilliant American blues and jazz keyboardist Charlie Wood who is also her musical director. The two of them have released a string of albums and they perform with Jacqui’s small band at top international venues but also in more intimate settings. They were a a big draw at Blenheim Palace in September and recently at Didcot’s Cornerstone – and there will be another chance to see them at the Oxford Playhouse on January 24.

I asked Jacqui if she’d deliberately resisted a jazz career in her younger years – perhaps to avoid comparisons with her famous mother?

“Well, I didn’t do that consciously,” she stressed, before adding, “though it is true that both my parents are obviously hard acts for my brother Alec (a talented bassist and composer) and me to follow. But what actually happened was that I went to a boarding school – St Christopher in Letchworth – where I had a wonderful drama teacher who was inspirational. So that’s why I went into drama.

“I was a very serious actress. I joined the Royal Shakespeare Company for several years and later I did some musical theatre. It wasn’t until after I’d met and married my first husband Harvey Brough (of Harvey and the Wallbangers) that I was persuaded to do more vocal work and try my hand at song-writing.”

Over the years, Jacqui has met and performed with some of the biggest names in music.

“I’ve seen so many great gigs and been lucky to work with some wonderful people, not all of them well known names,” she says. “But I wish I’d met Stan Getz and Duke Ellington. In fact, Charlie and I perform some of Duke Ellington’s and Billy Strayhorn’s music as a duet gig. My husband Charlie’s more intimate gigs have been incredible, too...he is brilliant, you know. And some of my mum’s concerts back in the 1970s were unbelievable.

“One time I’ll always remember was seeing Frank Sinatra who was performing with my mum at the Albert Hall. I was in my early 20s and had just returned from holiday. I was riding on a London bus heading past the Albert Hall when I saw the banner there for Cleo Laine and Frank Sinatra. Just on a whim I got off the bus and went in to see my mum. After I’d finally been allowed past security – Sinatra’s bodyguards were everywhere in their flash suits and with walkie-talkies – I met my mum and she said, ‘Why don’t you come out and have dinner with us?’. Well, I was only dressed in a simple top and rubbishy shorts so I was hesitant. But my mum soon spruced me up and rang Frank’s dressing room. He agreed I could join them.

“So we ended up going to this expensive Italian restaurant in Chelsea and the party sat at three tables with the bodyguards in the background. Michael Caine joined my mum at the top table with Frank, plus one of the Sainsbury family. My dad was on another table with some more top show business people and I was on a table with a musician plus a lot of suave Italian men in the casino business with their glamourous, surgically enhanced wives dripping in real diamonds.

Out of the blue the musician, who was next to me, very innocently asked a question about the recent murder of an Italian judge, allegedly by the mafia. There was immediate silence. All these Italian guys looked at each other and then one suddenly let out this loud, mock laughter sound. It was just like a scene from The Godfather! I was convinced that musician would be finding a horse’s head in his bed that night. I just kept silent – but tried to smile a lot at everyone. Anyway, the moment passed.

Oxford Mail:
Jacqui Dankworth with her husband American blues and jazz keyboardist Charlie Wood

“Later I was introduced to Frank Sinatra and I watched the sell-out concert. I found Sinatra’s performance incredibly moving. He really acted out his songs. Each individual person in the audience felt he was singing to them. He had amazing charisma and he had me in tears. Even singing Old Man River which is a bit corny, Sinatra was so powerful, so moving. He really did have something very special.”

There was a succession of stars passing through the Dankworth home at the old rectory in Wavendon, Buckinghamshire – now famous as the base of The Stables Foundation, the Dankworth family charity which helps aspiring musicians. Was it a Bohemian childhood and did Jacqui ever wish her parents were not in the music world?

“There were a lot of interesting people around,” she says. “My parents obviously had many friends in the jazz world – and they were very friendly with the Northern Irish flautist James Galway and John Williams, the guitarist, who visited a lot. But my mum and dad were actually not at all Bohemian in the way they raised us. They were both from ordinary backgrounds and ensured we remained pretty down to earth.

“They were away working a lot, though and, on reflection, whilst we were lucky in many ways, I do wish we had seen more of our parents. Back at home we had a succession of nannies looking after us. But most of the nannies were very good.”

She goes on: “Both my parents were very strong people – though in different ways. My dad glued the family together, he was a great humanitarian, a very kind man and a real people person. By contrast my mum is very self-sufficient. Since my dad died I have reflected on all his, and my mum’s, achievements. They were one of the few couples each to be honoured with a knighthood and a ‘damehood’ in their own right. My mum became a dame some years before my dad was knighted and at the time we thought that must have been a bit hard for him. But when he was knighted he was so proud that jazz had been recognised in the honours system.

“I am so pleased my dad finally had that recognition.”

Jacqui Dankworth plays The Oxford Playhouse on January 24.
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