Jacqui Dankworth is in a class of her own. Not only is she the offspring of jazz royalty (her father was saxophonist, bandleader and composer John Dankworth; her mother is the formidable vocalist Cleo Laine), but the disarmingly unaffected singer and actress has a career that must be widely envied, not least for its eclecticism and variety.
In her visits to Scotland in the last year alone, Dankworth has performed in an opera at the Edinburgh International Festival, sung songs from family movies and cartoons with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, and headlined one of the most successful concerts at the British Vocal Jazz Festival, within the Fringe.
For that concert, she was reunited with her occasional singing partner, Edinburgh-based Todd Gordon, and the pair bring their hugely popular Frank & Ella show to the Glasgow Jazz Festival this week. It’s proved to be a winning combination, and, since the two stars – whose close friendship offstage accounts for the warm atmosphere on it – clearly get a kick out of performing together, it’s more double than tribute act. Indeed, as Dankworth points out: “I don’t sing like Ella but obviously I grew up listening to her. She was a one-off. It’s not a tribute show; it’s just acknowledging her and singing some songs that she sang.”
The Ella side of the operation, says Dankworth, means that pretty much anything from the Great American Songbook goes, as she sang everything during her long and prolific career – and in many instances, the record-buying public know more than one Fitzgerald recording of a song, since many live performances were been released on LPs.
“It’s strange because obviously Frank Sinatra had a lot more songs that he made the definitive versions of, and hits that he was strongly associated with – like My Way and New York, New York – but that isn’t necessarily the case with Ella Fitzgerald. Hers was a different kind of career really. With Sinatra, it was almost more about him in a way than the songs. With her, she was serving the song.”
Although Dankworth may have had free rein to choose pretty much any standards she fancied – since Fitzgerald undoubtedly recorded them all – she did have to include two which are strongly associated with the legendary singer: Every Time We Say Goodbye (“though it was only a hit here – not in the States”) and How High the Moon, which became a Fitzgerald party piece due to her downright dazzling scat solo.
When it’s put to her that the other Ella’s with whom Todd Gordon has worked might have shied away from the mind-blowing acrobatics of Fitzgerald’s How High the Moon solo, Dankworth laughs and says: “It took me a long time to learn that solo. It feels easy now but when I first started learning it I thought how am I ever going to do this?! I learned it for Todd.”
Strangely, although Dankworth never met or heard Fitzgerald live (the teenage Todd Gordon did, though, at the Usher Hall in the 1970s) she can boast of having spent an evening in the company of Gordon’s concert alter ego, Frank Sinatra. It was 1984, and Dankworth had recently graduated from Guildhall’s drama department.
She recalls: “I was on a 73 bus and as it passed the Albert Hall, I saw mum’s name because she was opening for Sinatra. I decided I should go and see her. They were all going out for a meal afterwards, and she said: ‘I’ll ask Frank if I can bring you along.’ So she rang his dressing room, and he said it was fine. I said: ‘Mum, I’d love to come but .. ..look at me!’ I was wearing a pair of shorts and a T-shirt.”
“Mum said: ‘Look, grab some earrings and we’ll get you jouged up a bit.’ So I sat looking slightly bedraggled on this table with the owners of all the casinos in Monte Carlo and the guy who was responsible for bringing Liza Minnelli over to Britain, plus this songwriter who’d had a big hit in the 1960s – I can’t remember his name. They were wearing their Versace and I was in a T-shirt and denims. It was a mad night.” And that was even before the songwriter made the Frank faux pas of bringing up the subject of a Mafia murder which was in the news. Dankworth remembers freezing in her seat. “I thought ‘oh God, get me out of here’. It was the longest three seconds of my life.”
A much more pleasant memory is that of Sinatra’s performance earlier that evening. “His presence onstage was astounding,” she says. “He sang every lyric as though he meant it – especially Ol’ Man River, which would normally be a bit odd, but he made it work. He made me cry..” And did she get to talk to him? “Well, not really. I just shook hands and said it was a pleasure to meet him.”
At that stage in her life, Dankworth had not yet even begun to try to make her mark as a singer; acting was her passion and for 15 years she made her living as a jobbing actress, having first discovered her flair for drama while at boarding school. Her musical gifts first revealed themselves during her schooldays too – and she played violin, flute and sang. “The music teacher thought I was talented. He wrote these incredibly difficult musicals and my mum remembers feeling gob-smacked when they came to hear me sing in these musicals because it was really difficult music, and I was nine or ten.”
It was only in her thirties that the naturally shy Dankworth began to focus on singing. “My passion was acting and it was when I met my first husband and he said ‘Let’s form a band’ that I got into doing more music, but when I started singing a lot I found it very difficult. It was easier when I was acting as I had to be someone else. In fact, I remember having this conversation with Paloma Faith once and I asked her how she was able to be so outrageous onstage. She said: ‘Jacqui, I’m so shy, if I were just me up there everyone would feel shy and embarrassed’ so in a way she has a persona that gets her through. She’s approaching her stage persona in the way an actor would approach a part – and I identify with that.”
* The Frank & Ella Show/Todd Gordon & Jacqui Dankworth is at the City Halls on Friday. Visit www.jazzfest.co.uk for details and ticket links, or call 0141 353 8000.
* First published in Scotland on Sunday on June 22nd