As the daughter of jazz legends Dame Cleo Laine and Sir John Dankworth, it is hardly surprising that from childhood Jacqui Dankworth 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.

Although Jacqui had always enjoyed singing and her first husband, Harvey Brough (of Harvey and the Wallbangers), had a vision of her as a singer fronting a band, her exceptional vocal talent wasn't more widely recognised until she played Cinderella in Sondheim's ‘Into the Woods’. Many offers of singing work followed but Jacqui was in her forties before she really started to concentrate on jazz singing and song-writing as her mainstream career.

Jacqui, 51, is now 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 highly praised albums, and they perform with Jacqui's small band at top international venues. Recently they appeared at Didcot's Cornerstone Arts Centre in Oxfordshire. It was an evening to remember - an incredibly powerful performance combining the real passion, emotion and versatility of Jacqui's distinctive voice with the stunning virtuosity and technical skill of Charlie and the band. The lyrics of Jacqui's original songs are beautifully crafted too - a rich mix of poignancy with wit and style.

When I met Jacqui in front of a blazing log fire in the sitting-room of the attractive period home in Bedford that she and Charlie share, I asked her about her gig at the Cornerstone.

“That is a really lovely, intimate venue. We were all so impressed by it,” Jacqui began. “And the evening seemed to go well; we thoroughly enjoyed it. We already have our spring and early summer tour dates, but I hope we'll be returning to Didcot in the near future.”

Jacqui has only been singing jazz professionally for the last decade or so. Did she deliberately resist a jazz career in her younger years - perhaps to avoid comparisons with Dame Cleo Laine, her famous mother – dubbed my many as The First Lady of British Jazz?

“Well, I didn't do that consciously,” Jacqui was quick to stress before she continued, “though it is true that both my parents are obviously quite 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 the music tuition was rather weak but the drama side was exceptionally strong. I had a wonderful drama teacher called Margaret Steward who was inspirational. So, that's why I went into drama. We founded a theatre company and toured UK universities putting on all kinds of plays including some Shakespeare. Many of us from St Christopher then went on to drama school - I attended the Guildhall School – and quite a few became successful actors or writers.”

“I was a very serious actress...I still consider myself a serious actress! I joined the Royal Shakespeare Company for several years, and also toured internationally with theatre director John Dexter's company. Later I did some musical theatre – including Sondheim's ‘Into the Woods’. It wasn't until after I'd met and married Harvey Brough that I was persuaded to do more vocal work and try my hand at song-writing. I sometimes wish I had focused more back then on combining my acting and singing. Though it has taken me the last ten years performing jazz to really build my vocal strength – so probably now is a better time for me to marry the two skills. I would love to have a key role in a Sondheim musical – or in something equally respected. That's a big ambition.”

Jacqui has also performed some opera. At last year's Edinburgh Festival she played the part of a lesbian jazz singer, Eleanor, in ‘American Lulu’, the contemporary opera by Austrian Olga Neuwirth based on the original opera ‘Lulu’ by the expressionist composer Alban Berg. This proved a major challenge. The dissonant, abstract style of contemporary opera, where there's little obvious relationship between a character's rather angular lines and the surrounding harmony, is hugely different from the medium of jazz where vocalists and instrumentalists navigate together between chord changes. Yet Jacqui triumphed and received excellent reviews. “That was certainly tough...a world of music I'd never entered before. But ultimately it was very satisfying to overcome my fears and take that challenge on,” Jacqui recalled.

Over the years, Jacqui has met some of the biggest names in music. She has also performed with a range of talented actors and musicians. Are there people Jacqui would still like to meet or perform with?

“I've seen so many great gigs and been lucky to work with some wonderful people, not all of them well known names. But I would love to have worked with the Brazilian composer, singer, pianist and guitarist, Tom Jobim (who wrote ‘Girl from Ipanema’), though sadly he died in 1994. And I wish I'd met Elis Regina, the Brazilian singer – though she, too, is no longer with us. Also, Stan Getz and Duke Ellington. In fact, Charlie and I are performing some of Duke Ellington's and Billy Strayhorn's music this year as a duet gig at The Sage, Gateshead and we've been reading up on Ellington's life - one of Charlie's Christmas presents was Terry Teachout's biography of Duke Ellington. Plus I enjoy Al Jarreau, the American jazz singer who I am hoping to see soon at Ronnie Scott's. He is an extraordinary live performer, really ebullient and so full of light. Great gigs I've seen include Dianne Reeves at the Festival Hall - probably the best audience reaction I ever witnessed - as well as the American saxophonist Bob Berg at Ronnie's, the American pianist and composer Chick Corea who used to play with Miles Davis plus the vibraphonist Gary Burton. There are many performers I've admired across a range of musical genres. I really liked Sam Brown – I thought her ‘Stop’ album was great as well as her work with Pink Floyd and Jools Holland. And some of my husband Charlie's more intimate gigs have been incredible...he is brilliant, you know. Of course 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 twenties, 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 with earrings and a fancy top – though I still had my scruffy shorts on. She rang Frank's dressing room and 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 – still in my tatty shorts - was on a table with a musician and the man who usually brings Liza Minelli over from America, plus a lot of suave Italian men in the casino business with their glamorous, surgically enhanced wives dripping in real diamonds. Suddenly 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 sudden 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.”

“Later I was introduced to Frank Sinatra, and I watched the sell-out concert from inside the sound booth which is an excellent seat, actually. 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 and I couldn't stop crying. He really did have something very special.”

There must have been 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. 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, like many show business parents, 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.”

“But they were away working a lot and, on reflection, although we were lucky in many ways, I do wish we had seen more of our parents. Perhaps they could have taken us on the road with them and had a travelling nanny...that might have been cool. Back at home we did have a succession of nannies looking after us. One Spanish couple absconded with Alec and me to Spain...my parents hired a private detective to find us! But most of the nannies were very good. Getting close to nannies and then losing them is hard for a child, though. I definitely have abandonment/separation issues as a consequence. Even with Charlie, my husband now, it has taken me quite a while to realise he is definitely coming back when he goes out down the road.”

Does Jacqui regret not having had children?

“I have had my moments but, no I don't, not really. And life as a performer isn't ideal if you are trying to raise a family. My big regret is that I didn't meet Charlie sooner...he is definitely the love of my life. Even my mum approves of him! We met after the Northern Irish jazz trumpeter and broadcaster Linley Hamilton played me some of Charlie's music from his album ‘Southbound’. It knocked me sideways...his playing, writing, arranging. He was classically trained as a pianist and is acknowledged in the USA as one of the best Hammond organ players anywhere. After hearing his work, I covered one of his tunes, a song called ‘Lucky Charm’.”

“Then we met when Charlie was playing at Pizza Express in Dean Street, Soho, and we stayed in touch by e-mail. Afterwards Charlie moved to London - he was increasingly disillusioned at political developments in the USA and the way Obama has been opposed over his 'Obamacare' plans, plus Charlie hates the gun laws there - and I just came to realise that Charlie was the one for me. When my dad died it made me reflect that life is very short, and within months Charlie and I married. We just ran away to San Francisco City Hall and did it....no friends or family! We'd both been married before and didn't want any fuss. My mum couldn't criticise me since that's exactly what she and my dad did when they married in London years ago. My grandma on dad's side was furious with them....my dad's family were quite musical, but his father had a very respectable job working in a bank and I think they'd hoped dad would have a different kind of marriage...not to the singer in his band!”

“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. Dad was also a prolific writer who was really interested in all forms of music - including classical. Until just before he died he would get up very early – by six in the morning – and write until lunchtime. Some of his work – like his ‘World Music Suite’ - was very complex, really sophisticated. 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 it 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'm not sure if any other jazz musicians have been knighted, have they? I am so pleased my dad finally had that recognition.”

In the months before John Dankworth died in 2010, Jacqui worked with him on her album, ‘It Happens Quietly’. Jacqui wrote lyrics for several tunes her dad had composed. John Dankworth recorded a saxophone solo for one track – ‘The Man’, which Jacqui did not complete until after her father's death.

“We worked on the album in stages and didn't add the strings or the brass until after my dad had died,” Jacqui explained. “He had done a lot of the arrangements. With the alto sax solo for ‘The Man’ it was quite extraordinary. As soon as we listened to the recording of it that Dad had made, we realised the fit was perfect which was very sweet. I think we only had to change one note. It works so well.” ‘It Happens Quietly’ deservedly received excellent reviews. It is a very moving, beautifully executed work in which Jacqui pays touching homage to her father.

Last Autumn Jacqui released ‘Live to Love’ - another stunning album which demonstrates her versatility and subtlety as a vocalist and reaffirms her credentials as a gifted lyricist. It includes Jacqui's sharp lyrics for the ‘Tomorrow's World’ theme her dad had penned for the BBC TV show years before. The track ‘A Certain Kind of Eden’ is particularly impressive too. Jacqui and Charlie will be touring the UK to promote ‘Live to Love’ until late spring.

Jacqui has also produced Charlie Wood's latest album, ‘Lush Life’, which was recorded in Charlie's home town of Memphis. Again, this is a widely acclaimed album where Charlie performs solo in his very individual style - accompanied by himself on piano - some of his favourite classics from the Great American Songbook. Jacqui joins him on just one track, singing ‘Alone Together’. “It really is a great album. The toughest thing for me as producer was choosing between the tunes. Every take was brilliant and none of it is overdubbed. It is all live,” Jacqui enthused. “Eventually Charlie and I will do a duet album – though whether that will be the next one we record. I don't yet know.”

Recording, performing and writing music take up a huge amount of Jacqui's and Charlie's life. But how does Jacqui relax when she isn't working at her musical career?

“We have been refurbishing this house which we only acquired recently. It is a major project. I also enjoy walking plus I love gardening – though I am not an expert at it. Being a gardener is the only other career I might have liked to pursue. I am interested in alternative medicine and herbal remedies, and I would like to create a complete herb garden here. That might fit better with being a musician than you imagine...I am sure we are all sorcerers really!”


More information about Jacqui's tour dates and albums can be found at www.jacquidankworth.com. Charlie Wood's album ‘Lush Life ‘ and more information about him can be found at www.charliewood.us













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