Joe Temperley 1929 – 2016


As the telling goes, Joe Temperley’s first brush with the Humphrey Lyttelton band was depping on tenor sax, then his chosen instrument, for a temporarily ailing Jimmy Skidmore in 1958. Pleased with Temperley’s playing, Humph told him he was thinking of expanding the sax section from two to three and was looking for someone to play baritone. Having assured Humph that baritone was actually his favourite of all the saxophones, Temperley got the gig and went out and bought his first baritone sax the next day.

Well, it’s a good story and it signals the beginning of the eight piece Lyttelton Band that, between 1958 and 1965, when Temperley left for the States, played some of the most authentic and exciting live jazz it has been my pleasure to have heard. Inspired by  visits of both the Ellington and Basie bands to the UK in the late 50s and early 60s, and able to work later with Basie alumni such as the trumpeter and arranger Buck Clayton and the singer Jimmy Rushing, Humph’s band were a world class outfit during those years and, as such, a perfect springboard to launch Temperley’s career in America. By 1974, he was replacing Harry Carney in the Duke Ellington Orchestra, and from 1988 he held down the baritone chair in the Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra led by Wynton Marsalis, who said of him …

For someone from another country and culture to exhibit the depth of belief that animated his sound was, and still is, truly miraculous…

After he left for the States, I only saw Temperley playing on a few occasions: with the Lincoln Centre band at the Barbican relatively recently; in a small group with the pianist Junior Mance at a New York Club in 1998 or 99; and, a couple of years before that, at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in London’s Soho.

Charlie Resnick saw him, too …

Resnick had been to the old Pizza Express Jazz Club, not the new; had suffered near heat exhaustion listening to Buddy Tate on a summer night when sweat stuck fast to the walls and finally he’d been forced upstairs and out on to the street where the sound was blurred but at least he wouldn’t faint.

This place was larger, still low-ceilinged but air-conditioned; black walls hung with posters, a thick red carpet on the stage. Resnick sat at a small round table smack up against the centre mike, a clear view along the piano keys to his left.

He’d been seated no more than ten minutes when Temperley moved into the spotlight, a wide-shouldered, heavy man wearing a loose, double-breasted suit, a dark shirt, a tie shot through with aquamarine. There was something of Resnick’s father in the broad, almost Slavic face, glasses, dark hair and moustache.

“All the way from America …” said the announcer. “Aye,” Temperley scowled, clipping his saxophone on to its sling. “By way of Cowdenbeath.” Leaning towards the piano, he called a blues in B flat. After two choruses, bell of the baritone close to the mike, the first notes spilled out, rhythmic, rich; large hands, square thumbed, working the keys with ease.

Tune followed tune, song followed song; the club slowly filled. Broadway, The Very Thought of You, Straight, No Chaser, Once in a While. Waiters and waitresses brought food and beer, bottles of wine. Tempos changed. Between solos, perspiring, Temperley took out a handkerchief and rubbed it back and forth across the back of his head.

“We’d like to finish the first set,” he said, “with Duke Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood.”

from “Cool Blues” originally published in Blue Lightning (Slow Dancer Press, 1988).Collected in Now’s the Time (William Heinemann, 2002)





Author: John Harvey


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