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Tribute to Duncan Lamont

This tribute for celebrated Scottish jazz saxophonist Duncan Lamont, has been written by his son, Duncan Lamont Jnr.

Photograph of Duncan Lamont, celebrated Scottish jazz saxophonist
Duncan Lamont

4 July 1931 - 2 July 2019

When my Dad, Duncan Lamont, died earlier this year, I was overwhelmed by the wonderful tributes and recollections I received from the music community celebrating both his talent as a musician and his qualities as a human being.

I was nine years old when I went with Dad to work one evening. He’d got me a ticket for a gig he was doing at the Royal Festival Hall that night, playing in the orchestra backing one Francis Albert Sinatra. To be honest, Ol’ Blue Eyes wasn’t really on my radar at that age (he didn’t play for Chelsea, for one thing). Nevertheless, I found the whole evening magical. I was beginning to understand that when Dad went out of the front door every day, instrument cases under his arms, he was involved in a rather special world.

For him, it had all begun back in his native Scotland. He grew up in Greenock, back then a shipbuilding town on the River Clyde. His first instrument was trumpet and he clearly showed promise right from the start. His father played accordion and soon young Duncan was joining him on the many gigs that were going on all over town. He fell in love with music, practised all the time and started to make a name for himself. He formed a jazz band with some of his fellow teenage enthusiasts and after taking part in a ‘Melody Maker’ magazine contest, he received an offer to join Kenny Graham’s band and turn professional. Kenny Graham was one of the judges and, although largely forgotten now, at the time was one of the big names on the British jazz scene.

Initially, Dad turned the offer down as he was now working in the shipyards having left school. However, his friends persuaded him to take up the offer. Coming to London for the first time, he joined the band at the same time as a new vocalist, Bridget Harrison. Although they lost contact for a few years when she left, a chance meeting several later years ended in a marriage that lasted until her death in 2005.

Dad was beginning to find he was having technical problems playing the trumpet, specifically with endurance. As he told me, some nights were fine and other nights were a struggle with his lip. Depressed, he decided to hand in his notice. When Kenny Graham asked him why he wanted to leave the band, he said, “Kenny, I can’t play” to which Kenny replied, “I like what you can’t play!”. Dad insisted he wanted to go back to Scotland. Kenny said to him, “Well, okay, but mark my words, you’ll be back” which proved a prophetic statement.

Now 21 years old, Dad was back in Greenock. When a friend suggested he tried the tenor saxophone, he did so and found an affinity with it. He began to spend all his time working to master this new instrument and leaving the trumpet behind, began a new chapter in his musical career. He was still practising right up to the day before he died, so the drive to improve never left him.

This was the era of bands criss-crossing the country and Dad was now out on the road, loving the life and becoming known as a promising jazz saxophonist. Eventually he found his way back to London where he gravitated to Archer Street in Soho, which was the place for musicians to socialize and pick up gigs. He was now one of the many faces scuffling to make a living in the capital.

One day he got a call to take part in a recording session for one of the Ted Heath Band’s great arrangers, Johnny Keating. This was a big band album made up of the many wonderful Scottish musicians who had moved down South. It was, perhaps predictably, called “Swinging Scots”. Dad remembered being very nervous as he was playing with musical heroes he’d heard on broadcasts or seen in concert, quite apart from being a novice studio musician himself. However, Johnny fell in love with Dad’s playing and insisted on using him on all his recording work. As Dad said, it was really an “Open, Sesame!” to the world of recording studios.

For the next thirty years, session work for TV, films and radio was to be a big part of his life. In this capacity, it’s fair to say he worked with most of the 20th century icons of popular entertainment, from Bing Crosby to Paul McCartney. While he appreciated the regular flow of work which meant he was able to support his wife and two boys, musically his heart was still obsessed with jazz music and he would grab any opportunity to play any jazz gigs he could. During the 1960’s, he became a member of the Johnny Scott Quintet. John was a fellow studio musician, a wonderful saxophonist and flautist. The group was unusual because instead of a piano or a guitar, harpist David Snell provided the chordal part of the rhythm section. Dad loved being part of this group as he felt the sonorities suited his way of playing.

John also encouraged Dad to write for the band’s book. This proved to be the start of Dad’s interest in composition and a few years later he started to do BBC broadcasts with his own hand- picked big band, featuring the likes of Tubby Hayes, Derek Watkins, Gordon Beck and many other great players. Alongside this, Dad also began involved in writing library music. He always had very eclectic tastes, so enjoyed writing to whatever brief the company wanted. He was part of a recording band called WASP which consisted of Steve Gray on piano, Brian Bennett on drums, Dave Richmond on bass and Clive Hicks on guitar. He always said this was one of the happiest experiences of his musical career.

Probably his most enduring musical partnership was with trumpeter, Kenny Wheeler. They’d first met playing on commercial recordings and Dad said there was always something special about Kenny as both a player and composer. Dad was a part of Kenny’s projects over many decades and vice versa.

One of these projects was for the BBC children’s TV series “Mr Benn” in 1970. The creator, David McKee, was a friend who approached Dad to write the incidental music. All the music was recorded in one afternoon at Olympic Studios and Dad assumed it would be screened once and that would be the end of that. However, the series became a cult classic and was repeated for many years. Forty years later, David persuaded Dad to record a big band interpretation of the “Mr Benn” music. As Kenny Wheeler was on the original session, he was a featured guest in what turned out to be one of the final recordings of his long and illustrious career.

As studio work contracted in the 80’s, Dad began to develop a parallel career as a songwriter, not only as composer but also lyricist. By the time of his death, he’d written literally hundreds of songs. Many of them have been recorded by the likes of Blossom Dearie, Natalie Cole, George Shearing, Cleo Laine and a long list of great vocalists. As he observed, “You can play a good solo but it’s gone in an instant and if you can write a good song, it can stick around for a while”.

As my brother, Ross, and I entered our teens, we were both becoming more interested in music. Dad was naturally very supportive of both of us with our playing. We were lucky to have had that common interest as something to bond over. Once I was getting out and doing gigs, Dad encouraged me to join the MU. He knew the potential ups and downs of the music business and the value of help and support if needed.

Dad’s enthusiasm for music never dimmed even as he came to the end of his life. A month before he died, he returned to Greenock to perform a homecoming gig in the town of his birth with singers Esther Bennett and Daniela Clynes. There was real sense of everything having come full circle.

Dad’s personal qualities of gentleness, good humour and kindness were the same, whether he was at home with the family or working with his colleagues. I don’t think I’m ever likely to meet a more positive person. He loved his fellow musicians and being involved with music. Even when the business was going through one of its perennial crises, he would say, ‘Music will find a way.’ Music certainly provided Dad with a passion, a career and a pathway through his life.

A much loved, inspirational, great musician- I feel privileged to have had such a wonderful man as a father.

Duncan Lamont Jnr.
November 2019

Published: 06/12/2019

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