Dr Graeme Garden, the former Goodie and regular on I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue: "He was on sparkling form a few weeks ago when we last worked together. We also spoke just before his operation. He was a great guy. He was an immensely loveable man and we are absolutely shattered by the news. You would be chatting to him and he would start telling anecdotes about Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington, both of whom he worked with. He had an amazing energy and get up and go. He only gave up his jazz programme this year, at the age of 86, because he wanted to devote more time to other projects – not because he was scaling back. He was a great advocate of silliness. Last time I spoke to him he had just watched Hell's a Poppin' on DVD – it is a comfort to know his sense of silliness endured till the end."
Mark Damazer, the controller of Radio 4, said Lyttelton encompassed "so many" of the virtues people wanted from Radio Four comedy. "He's just a colossally good broadcaster and possessed of this fantastic sense of timing. It's a very, very sad day but we should celebrate and be very grateful for how much he did for Radio Four because he really was one of the giants over the last 40 years, really terrific."
Jenny Abramsky, Director of Audio and Music at the corporation, said: "Humphrey Lyttelton has been one of the wonders of radio broadcasting for years. He championed British jazz with his weekly programme on Radio 2 introducing millions of listeners to the glories of the British jazz scene. At the same time his deadpan stewardship of I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue, the unique ringmaster of an anarchic world, ensured the programme became the jewel of radio comedy. Humph was warm, erudite, funny and scurrilous. His audience loved him. He was an irreplaceable voice on British radio."
Mark Thompson, the BBC Director-General, said: “Humphrey Lyttelton will leave an enormous gap not just in British cultural life as a whole but in the lives of many millions of listeners. He was a unique, irreplaceable talent. Like his many fans we owe him an enormous debt of gratitude. Like them, all of us at the BBC feel a tremendous sense of loss.”
Brian Peerless, 69, a university lecturer and jazz promoter who has been a Lyttelton fan for over 50 years, paid tribute, saying the trumpeter had helped him break into the business. "He was diagnosed with the condition [aortic aneurysm] about a month ago. I went to see him in hospital and he was the same as ever. We had a chat and he was talking about doing some more writing, he was very tough."
The late George Melly wrote shortly before his death last year: "Humph's intransigence, his determination to 'play as I please' was admirable; he was, like Ronnie Scott, the perfect ambassador for jazz."
Barry Cryer: His timing was like a razorblade. He was the only broadcaster I have ever known who could get a laugh from dead air, silence. An amazing gift. We hoped it didn't sound indulgent but we're all old friends and it was more like telepathy than anything else.
Adrian Mackintosh, a drummer in Humph's band: Humphrey Lyttelton was an immense talent, and not only as a trumpeter, but as a band leader. He was a great songwriter and lyricist. I'll remember his wit onstage with the band. It wasn't just I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue. He was a great friend. We all loved him.
Digby Fairweather, jazz trumpeter: He was one of my principal inspirations for taking up the trumpet. I think people in a sense looked to Humphrey Lyttelton as their principal spokesman, role model and the man that people regarded as the voice of jazz in Britain. When I started recording in the 1970s, Humph was one of the first people to play my records on the radio. He always encouraged young performers. He really was, in the best possible way, a jazz machine.
Sandi Toksvig: Occasionally, when the great and the good pass away, there is an unsavoury tendency for confessions to begin seeping out of the woodwork. There are those who seem to think the best time to kiss and tell is when one half of the couple in question can no longer refute the matter.
It is in this tradition that I wish to reveal that I was, albeit briefly, Humphrey Lyttelton's lover. I realise this is news that may surprise some people, not least my mother and anyone connected with the Daily Mail. Perhaps even more shocking, Humph and I conducted our sordid liaison in front of several hundred people on a West End stage.
It was Christmas in 2003 and we were recording a festive version of the Radio 4 "antidote to panel games" I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, entitled I'm Sorry I Haven't a Christmas Carol. Everyone played a lot of parts and the absence of any other available women meant that for about 30 seconds I was required to be Humph's lover.
With me at barely 5ft tall and him well over 6ft, we were an ill-matched couple, only able to share a microphone if he sat down and I stood while we exchanged our sighs of love. Sitting utterly relaxed at rehearsal, he giggled at what the tabloid press might make of the news of our unexpected and soon to be broadcast tryst.
Whether engaged in passion or not, sharing the stage with Humph was always an extraordinary experience. Journalists glibly write about "national treasures" as if there are certain people who could at a pinch be sold off to clear government debt. I always thought it a somewhat meaningless phrase until I first stood on a stage waiting for Humph to be introduced.
He stood grinning in the wings, the lights glinting off his glasses as the producer of Clue declared "and here he is… yes, he's still alive, it's the jazz trumpeter's jazz trumpeter… Humphrey Lyttelton". Barry Cryer, a man not noted for his athletic grace, immediately dropped to one knee in obeisance, Graeme Garden and Tim Brooke-Taylor bowed deep at the waist, and the audience rose to their feet with the sort of cheer celebrities of the modern age can only dream about.
Humph grinned like a schoolboy fresh from the tuck shop and began to tell us astonishingly indelicate things about his assistant Samantha, all the while feigning innocence about any double entendres.
There are things about Humph that I knew in the back of my mind - that Louis Armstrong had declared him the greatest British trumpeter and that he was a jazz legend - but he wore his accolades and his musical talent lightly. Whether fronting his band of genuine musicians or playing Winter Wonderland on his trumpet while the rest of us accompanied him on kazoo, he seemed to think that music was fun.
His delight in Jeremy Hardy's inability to hold a single note in his head was half the fun of listening.
Last Christmas the Clue team again recorded a holiday special, this time set in the world of Alice in Wonderland. Anyone who has ever thought showbusiness to be glamorous should have joined us before the show. A buffet had been laid out in a room below the stage. Humph had to mind his head as we descended into the bowels of theatre to eat our high tea. We ate off paper plates and sat on an odd assortment of boxes, folded curtains and plastic chairs.
I had some recollection that Humph had been to Eton and that the road to toffdom had once been open to him. Certainly he was a total gentleman, full of civility and charm, but there were no airs and graces. Everyone said he had once been offered a knighthood, which he declined. I don't know if it's true, but the story fitted the man. At an age when many are staring into the distance, he sat laughing and eating in a dingy hole as, above our heads, we could hear his faithful fans troop in.
Perhaps it was his musicality that gave Humph his glorious comic timing. Here was a man who could get a laugh not just from speaking but from silence. A sketch would conclude and the audience would applaud. Humph would then sit in a silence until he finally declared "Hmmm" as if he had never been more bored in his life and the house would once again rock with laughter. I doubt Humph was ever bored. He did more gigs in his eighties than I do now.
There is a curious connection between Humph and the other man in my life, the also sadly late, great Alan Coren. As a boy Alan was taught ballroom dancing by a retired sergeant in a north London pub. One day the sergeant became incensed because a jazz band in the room above was preventing them from hearing the Victor Silvester record they were dancing to.
He sent Alan upstairs to complain and, dressed in schoolboy shorts, the young Coren duly went to ask Humphrey Lyttelton to tone it down a bit. It is some tiny comfort that perhaps now they are together again cutting a rug somewhere splendid.
Humph never really did tone things down. Just a few weeks ago, aged 86, his mere presence brought a sold-out audience of several thousand at the Hammersmith Apollo to their feet. Did it go to his head? Not once. Will we see his like again? Not ever. Did I love him? Absolutely - and I don't care who knows it.
Barry Cryer: He was one of my oldest friends in every sense. I knew him for more than 50 years; we met in 1955. I was singing with the university jazz band in Leeds and Humph was a mere 34, goatee beard and sideburns, and he came to play. He always remembers us meeting but he didn't remember the year, and in 2005 I said to him, 'It's our anniversary, dear,' and he said, 'What? What are you talking about?' I said, 'Fifty years.' 'Oh, my God.'
I went to see him in hospital, bless him, with tubes in every orifice. They said the hearing's the last thing to go, so keep talking, and we were all saying silly things to him. It was very moving. I was saying, 'This is very inconvenient, you know. I'm a very busy man. I've just been for a walk - where were you?' We were doing all this nonsense around the bed.
The upside, as with my old friend Willie Rushton, is that you can't think of them very long without starting to smile and then actually laughing when you remember something. He was a man of such style. He said to somebody just before he went in the hospital, 'If all goes well, this year's drama is next year's anecdote.'
We've got a stage version of I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue and did a show without him, the first in 36 years, in Bournemouth last Tuesday, when Rob Brydon deputised brilliantly. What Rob didn't know was our great producer Jon Naismith got Humph to record an introduction in hospital, and what the audience heard was: 'Good evening. This is Humphrey Lyttelton. I can't do the show tonight because I'm in hospital; I wish I'd thought of this earlier. Will you give a big welcome to Rob Brydon?' Rob was very touched by that. It got the show off to a great start.
He was the coolest man I knew. It was the jazz thing; that was the abiding love of his life. If he had come through this op, he wouldn't have been a well man and probably wouldn't have been able to play the trumpet. Now that is just heartbreaking. I don't think he could have stood that, God rest him. It may be a blessing, I don't know.
It's too soon to consider the future of I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. There's got to be an agonising reappraisal. He was the very hub of the show: I think it was the Humphrey Lyttelton show, the urbane man in the middle of the idiots. He was the only man I know who could get a laugh with dead air, silence on the radio. Who else would get a laugh with 'Mmmm?'
Jeremy Hardy: Much has been made of Humph's timing, but he has robbed this nation by leaving us so cruelly early at the age of 86. The fact that he would not live for ever has been on the minds of everyone involved in I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue for as long as I have been a part of it. But, somehow, I imagined he would see us all off. I would have liked him to play at my funeral.
Humph was 40 years older than me, but when I saw him in hospital a few days before the surgery that we all hoped would keep him with us his restless energy was visible in every pore and whisker. For someone who could keep such a straight face, he was the least static person I've ever known. Even when perfectly still, he was absolutely vibrant. It's not unusual to leave a hospital infected with something, but rare to leave one infected with such a spirit of fun and mischief as I did that day.
He was a very emotional man, and it's hard to imagine that he was not frightened about the operation – but every time he spoke of it, he would say that, if he didn't survive it, he would not know anything about it, so he was a winner either way. His age was a constant source of humour on the show, but in the last few months we all started to treasure him more dearly, and the jokes had an uncomfortable edge.
We have been touring a theatre show of Clue since August, and, in the Past few months, I found it impossible to go to bed if Humph was still up chatting – about his family, his ancestry and, of course, music. He stopped chatting only if jazz music was being played in the hotel bar, because he had to listen to jazz – it could never be in the background. And it was lovely to see his relationship with his band, who took it in turns to drive him when he was told to stop driving himself.
He started to enjoy being driven, even though he had enjoyed being in the driving seat so much. Barry Cryer and I got a lift with him from Ipswich to Oxford in October. Sitting behind Humph, tall and elegant as he was, in his flat cap and driving gloves, we were like two children on a family outing, only slightly embarrassed when he went round a roundabout twice.
I think everyone who knew him felt both reverence toward him and great warmth from him. He was a true gentleman in the very best sense of the word; he made everybody around him feel special. And he smiled with a twinkle in his eye that would melt a heart of stone.
I loved being on stage with him. Just to catch his eye was a treat. And I loved to be in the presence of so loving a man. He adored his friends, his family, his late wife Jill, and Sue da Costa, his new partner, who had been his manager and rock for many years.
Humph personified the best of English values. He was without a trace of snobbery. His politics were of the left, and he loathed prejudice and discrimination. He was passionate about music and musicians, and was in no way trapped in the past, despite having been working for such a very long time. He was always acquiring new musical friends. Lately, he'd expressed an interest in the work of Amy Winehouse. It's a shame they never met. They'd have made great music. But she'd have fallen in love with him, and she's got problems enough. Still, he'd have turned her down very tenderly, I'm sure.
The Observer: In 1979, a one-hit-wonder pop song confidently predicted that video had killed the radio star. It hadn't.
While the world seems to fill up with ever more media platforms and shows no signs of saturation, radio, a technology originating in the late 19th century, holds its own among all the 21st-century interlopers.
So The Observer marks with sadness the passing last week of Humphrey Lyttelton, jazz musician and broadcaster. Lyttelton's career on air spanned 40 years. From 1972, he chaired I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, the gently absurdist panel game, more comedy collaboration than competition, in which were trained successive generations of aspiring British wits.
For many of its listeners, Clue was much more than a game - it was a reminder of the pleasures of being part of a club with its in-jokes and its ongoing themes, a club that anyone could join.
The benefits of membership were obvious: you could, for half an hour, eavesdrop on a conversation in which old friends were having the time of their lives.
That is a peculiar power that only radio seems to command. It can be enjoyed collectively, unlike a newspaper which, even when shared, absorbs people's attention one at a time. Radio suffuses the environment more completely than television, but without resorting to the seductive and stultifying hypnosis of the screen. It can capture the attention without holding it hostage.
The best spoken-word radio retains an uncanny kind of intimacy. It draws to our mind that other root of the word 'medium': an individual held to be a channel of communication between the earthly world and a world of spirits. Television is a diversion; radio is immersion.
And then there is the internet, which offers many strands of experience. But it so often demands immediate response and interaction. That, of course, is a magnificent innovation - a revolution in media. But we do not necessarily want revolutions to be playing as we fall sleep, or have them wake us up, or keep us company on long car journeys. That sort of relationship is something we generally reserve for radio.
Humphrey Lyttelton called his recent autobiography It Just Occurred to me ... It was a modest reference to the wisdom his voice always carried - that the best kind of broadcasting is not unlike the best kind of jazz: improvised, individual, entirely alive to the moment, something, within playful limits, that you happily make up as you go along.
Steve Voce in The Independent: Humphrey Lyttelton excelled at everything that he chose to do. He was a trumpeter, bandleader, calligrapher, cartoonist, writer, journalist and broadcaster. Well, not quite everything. He admitted to being no good at ice-skating, but attributed his lack of success to the failure of anyone to make size 13½ skating boots to suit his feet.
His career began when he gained fame for his declamatory trumpet style and he ended up contributing more to the British jazz scene than anyone else, bestriding it for more than half a century. His unique humour permeated a long radio career which was capped by his chairmanship of the Radio 4 panel game I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, where he became exalted for the finest dead-pan in radio since Jack Benny.
Lyttelton came from a respected family, filled with eccentrics, that had distinguished itself over the centuries. It was, he said, “a long line of land-owning, political, military, clerical, scholastic and literary forebears. Not a musician amongst them”. His ancestor Humphrey Littleton was notorious for having been, after an atypically bad career move, hanged, drawn and quartered for his part in the Gunpowder Plot.
Lyttelton liked to claim that Littleton was subsequently buried in Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire and Buckinghamshire. Sadly, or perhaps happily, the account of the original Humphrey’s fate has subsequently been discredited.Lyttelton was born and educated in Eton College, where his father George was an illustrious housemaster.
“My father often said that his decision to call me Humphrey – a name eschewed in the family since my namesake let the side down in the 17th century – was regarded by my grandparents as a rather perverse joke. But it later emerged that there had been more than one. The 17th century was actually peppered with Humphrey Littletons.”
When the family attended the Eton and Harrow cricket match at Lord’s in 1936, the 15-year-old Humphrey and his mother slipped away from the game to the Charing Cross Road and bought the boy his first trumpet. His interest in jazz had begun a few years before and, though an early failure at piano lessons, Humphrey already had a “band” at Eton, which he led on mouth organ.
The change to trumpet was a matter of moment. He already worshipped the playing of Louis Armstrong and one of the first records he loved was Armstrong’s “Basin Street Blues”: “I had discovered that the chorus of ‘Basin Street Blues’ can be played, without too much drastic alteration, on the bottom three notes of the scale of C. So we played ‘Basin Street Blues’ for a week or two. As my trumpeting became more ambitious we added new tunes – of four, five and even six notes – until I began to acquire some fluency.”
Humphrey Lyttelton’s first interest had been in military band music and at Eton he had been surrounded by it, with the Guards stationed nearby at Windsor and the Eton Officers’ Training Corps regularly marching up and down behind a band. The boy took lessons in military drumming from an ex-Coldstream Guards drum major and was soon appearing as a percussionist at school concerts. His early gift for cartooning also took him to the school stage drawing “Lightning Caricatures”.
On 6 June 1941 Lyttelton enlisted in the Brigade of Guards at Caterham and took his commission at Sandhurst. He landed on the beach at Salerno as a signals officer with a pistol in one hand and his trumpet in the other. He saw some savage fighting before being invalided first to Africa and finally home. He travelled to London for the celebrations on VE Day where he was pushed about in front of Buckingham Palace in a wheelbarrow whilst playing his trumpet. His inelegant blaring on “Roll Out The Barrel” can be faintly heard through the crowd on the BBC recordings of the event.
He finally broke with family tradition in 1946. “When I got out of the army I was 25 and didn’t feel like going back to anything very academic, so I went to Camberwell School of Art for a couple of years and round about the same time started playing jazz in various low dives,” he recalled. “I’m sure there was a buzz in the family going round about me, but I was oblivious, sloping off to places like the Nuthouse on Regent Street with my trumpet and a dirty mac over my uniform.”He soon found the required subjects at the School of Art tiresome and concentrated on the comic drawings that came so naturally to him. But his devotion to the trumpet grew ever stronger.
Wearing his army battledress, now dyed navy-blue, and sporting a beard and sandals, he played at jam sessions with professional dance-band musicians and began to travel to the Red Barn, a pub in Bexley in Kent, where the pianist George Webb’s band played every Monday night.
“The music played by the George Webb Dixielanders was rough and ready, and by the best standards today it was undoubtedly primitive,” he recalled. “Yet it had the spirit of real jazz, which was lacking from the music of the professional dance musicians.” Lyttleton joined the Webb band in March 1947, cementing a life-long friendship and musical partnership with its clarinet player, Wally Fawkes, himself a brilliant cartoonist who worked under the name of “Trog”.
Fawkes was employed by the Daily Mail to draw column-breakers, humorous or decorative drawings that were inserted in the text. When the paper promoted him to produce a full-size strip cartoon, Lyttelton inherited the column-breakers job and, working under the name of “Humph”, was eventually put on the staff. When the demand for cartoons slackened he reviewed jazz and eventually, after having invested in the six volumes of Grove’s Dictionary, classical records, for the paper.
The paper eventually divested itself of the reviews as being “frivolous” and Lyttelton took on the job of providing the storyline for a strip cartoon that chronicled the adventures of a small animal called “Flook”, which was already being drawn by Fawkes. This job lasted until 1953.
Lyttelton left the Webb band and formed his own band in January 1948, taking Fawkes and eventually Webb himself with him. The following month Lyttelton joined briefly Derek Neville’s band to appear at the Nice Jazz Festival, where, for the first time, he was able to hear Louis Armstrong and to play with some leading American jazz musicians like Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines and Rex Stewart. A year later the classic front-line of the new Lyttelton band was completed by the arrival of two brothers from Blackpool, Keith and Ian Christie, who played trombone and clarinet respectively, and the group soon became famous as Europe’s leading traditional jazz band.
“It seems incredible now that we used to play the Royal Festival Hall, just with my band, and sell out within hours of the box office opening,” said Lyttelton.“The first time I really grasped the full extent of my own notoriety,” he wrote in the austere days of meat rationing, “was when I heard that my cousin Charles, 10th Viscount Cobham and lord of Hagley Hall in Worcestershire, had received an under-the-counter portion of steak in a Birmingham restaurant on the strength of being Humphrey Lyttelton’s first cousin.”
In late 1947, the Graeme Bell band, a group of itinerant Australians, came to Europe to look for work. They came to Britain on their way home in early 1948 and stayed for some time. Their music was less hidebound than the British jazz. They used popular songs from outside the jazz repertoire and, to the horror of the local jazz buffs, encouraged dancing to their music in the jazz clubs. Lyttelton found a musical soul-mate in Bell and the bands not only worked together but the Australians, with typical antipodean informality, moved uninvited into Lyttelton’s home. “I had Australians the way other people had mice,” he said.
Keith Christie was the first of a long line of musical giants who matured in the ranks of the Lyttelton band. It also included the saxophonists Tony Coe, Danny Moss, Alan Barnes, Joe Temperley, John Barnes and Karen Sharp, the trombonists Roy Williams, Pete Strange and John Picard and similar lists of pianists, bass players and drummers. Lyttelton treated his musicians well and showed them great loyalty.
As his music moved ahead and outgrew some of them, they left on good terms and returned often as guests. He also welcomed established veteran musicians like Kathy Stobart and Jimmy Hastings into his ranks.After recording for several small companies the band was granted a recording session by the major Parlophone label in November 1949. The resultant 78rpm records, in the label’s “Super Rhythm Style” series, sold so well that a new one was issued each month from then until the advent of the long-playing record a few years later.
The multitude of records the band made for Parlophone remain classics and they sound fresh to this day, with the sublime partnership of Lyttelton and Fawkes presenting a jazz parallel to that of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres in Liverpool’s football team.
In 1949, despite a ban on American jazz musicians playing in Britain, the jazz giant Sidney Bechet, accompanied by the Lyttelton band, played at a London concert and subsequent recording session for the Melodisc label. The line-up persisted for some time until 1951 when the two Christies left to form the Christie Brothers Stompers. From that point onwards Lyttelton himself took up the clarinet and began a gradual movement from traditional jazz to the mainstream style.
“People wrote in and accused us of going commercial when we wore uniforms for the first time rather than moth-eaten turtle-necked sweaters.”The alto player Bruce Turner joined the band in 1955, bringing in the first saxophone to the front line and giving outrage to the “purist” traditionalists upon whom the instrument had the same effect as a crucifix on a vampire. At a concert in Birmingham Town Hall they waved a banner emblazoned “Go Home Dirty Bopper”. “I got fed up with continually being accused of being a traitor, so I just left the whole trad thing behind,” said Lyttelton.
In 1956 his simple riff composition “Bad Penny Blues” became the first jazz record to reach the Top 20. “It climbed to number 19 and then fell back exhausted,” he said. Early on Lyttelton’s skills as a composer became apparent. He wrote well over 200 tunes and was never given proper recognition for this substantial one of his talents.
The band made trips throughout Europe, the Middle East and, in 1959, the United States, where it toured with Thelonious Monk and Anita O’Day and was welcomed with enthusiastic reviews by the New York critics. The British Council sponsored several of the trips.
Lyttelton was now successful enough to begin bringing over American stars to work with his band. They included the gospel singer Marie Knight, blues singers Jimmy Rushing and Joe Turner, tenor man Buddy Tate and trumpeter Buck Clayton. Several were ex-Count Basie musicians, and Lyttelton established a special affinity with Clayton, who made several tours and recordings with the band. The two men became close personal friends and on-stage rivals in trumpet battles.
Although the band never had a regular vocalist, Lyttelton toured with several singers from time to time, including Neva Raphaello, Elkie Brooks, Helen Shapiro and Stacey Kent, all of whom recorded with the band. In 1977 Lyttelton toured as a soloist in the “Salute to Satchmo” package and appeared as a guest with the Alex Welsh band when the show toured Australia.
A spell as the writer of the restaurant guide for Harpers & Queen caused him much unease. “I was never a proper gourmet. I’d come home starving after travelling on a gig with the band and go straight to the kitchen where I’d mash up powdered potato and fish fingers and scoff it, all the time looking guiltily over my shoulder in case someone should see me.
”Unlikely, since Lyttelton, obsessive about his privacy, had built his house in Barnet, Hertfordshire, around a square. The outside walls were blank and the windows faced into the square. No one was supposed to know his home telephone number. At one stage in the late Fifties I rang him on it and he immediately had the number changed. Some years later he explained to me why he liked to use other means of communication. “If you phone me it means that you’ve decided that what you want to talk to me about is more important than what I’m doing at the time. I’d rather keep that decision to myself.”
No matter, for the masterpieces of calligraphy that popped regularly through my letterbox were compensation enough. I was saddened when, much later, our correspondence switched to the more facile but less momentous e-mail and indeed, when he outgrew his grumpy bear stage and became a delightful old buffer, we were all allowed to make free with his mobile phone number.
Lyttelton was famously reticent and guarded about his personal life. One asked at one’s peril if he had ever been approached to accept an honour (he had, by Prime Ministers Callaghan and Major but turned them both down). In 2007, when an edition of The South Bank Show was devoted to him, it was absorbing and colourful but as always it contained little detail about him and less about his family.
His many books, like his radio programmes, have, amongst everything else, explained jazz to the non-musical listener. They include I Play as I Please (1954), Second Chorus (1958), Take It From the Top (1975), The Best of Jazz 1 (1978), The Best of Jazz 2 (1981), Why No Beethoven (1984) and It Just Occurred to Me. . . (2006). Honorary doctorates in were awarded from the universities of Warwick (1987), Loughborough (1988), Durham (1989), Keele (1992), Hertford (1995) and de Montfort (1997).
In 1983 he formed his own record label, Calligraph, and commissioned recordings from many of his musical associates, British and American. He continued to record his own bands whilst rounding up as many as he could of his early recordings for reissue on the new label. The Parlophones from the Forties and Fifties form the diadem of the catalogue, providing relief to collectors who had sought complete collections and great pleasure to younger followers who enjoyed them for the first time. During the Fifties Lyttelton was BBC Radio’s main jazz presenter and he broke new ground when he compered BBC 2’s Jazz 625, a remarkably consistent series featuring the best American jazz musicians of the time. He was the leading light on Radio 2’s Jazz Score, a panel game that also featured George Melly and guests including a newly eloquent Acker Bilk.
“I wasn’t fond of doing that programme,” Lyttelton said. “In the quite early stage I discovered that they gave every contestant the answers to the questions in advance except me, believing that I knew too much about jazz and that it wasn’t fair. The result was that all the other members of the panel were able to come up with carefully prepared or plagiarised stories, while I was left to say something amusing about Fud Livingston or Jimmy Giuffre in a moment’s notice. I wonder if anyone knows anything amusing about Jimmy Giuffre.”
His Radio 4 programme The Best of Jazz began in 1967 and ran continuously for more than 40 years, guiding and profoundly influencing the musical tastes of his listeners, most of whom had been listening to him for half their lives. He had the same producers, Keith Stewart and Terry Carter, consecutively throughout that time.
In the early days with Stewart the BBC atmosphere was more congenial and the programme flourished happily. But Lyttelton was frustrated by the non-jazz trails that he was later forced by the system to make room for each week. He first cut the broadcasts to two 12-week series a year and earlier this year decided to give them up altogether.
It was in 1972 that, against his better judgement, he took on the chairmanship of Radio Four’s I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. Nobody imagined that his role, somewhat like a naïve and despairing schoolmaster who was forced to read out double entendres that he never understood, would last for the rest of his life. His sharp humour was hilarious and yet without malice.
Ian Pattinson wrote his scripts for him, but they came alive only with the application of Lyttelton’s superb deadpan and his perfect timing. I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue went touring Britain, playing to vast, sell-out audiences, with one London date having an audience of more than three thousand.
“Nowadays when people say to me ‘I enjoy your show’, they’re more likely to mean I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue than the Monday night record programme that I’ve presented for so many years,” he said. “If it wasn’t for the fact that I took out my trumpet and played at the end of each gig, thousands of people would have thought of me as the chairman of I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue without knowing that I was a trumpet player.”
He professed to be eternally harassed by the members of the team. “If you hear this noise,” he said at one recording whilst waving a hooter, “it means I’ve lost the will to live.” But the years dropped away from him when he was on air or leading his band. When my daughter moved to live in Barnet he wrote, “If she’s in or near High Barnet, she may well see me one day in Waitrose – I’m the stooping, shuffling human wreck clearly wishing he was dead. That’s what shopping does to me. When people say to me, as they often do, ‘Can I ask you a personal question – how old are you?’ I answer ‘Forty on a bandstand, 120 in Waitrose.’”
In 2002 he played with Radiohead before a crowd of 50,000 and also appeared on one of the band’s records. He continued to develop his band, bringing in new talent like the saxophonists Karen Sharp, Robert Fowler and Jo Fooks, and to tour and record new albums.
The continuing success of I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue and his devotion to the band meant that he had little free time. What he had he devoted to his writing, latterly working on a book on calligraphy, which, along with bird watching, was a lifelong hobby. The book was to be called “Delivered By Hand”. “It’s written from the shop floor, so to speak,” he said, “from the point of view of someone who enjoys the hobby and is still learning.” The book will include many pieces from his collection of italic writing. He had been elected President of the Society for Italic Handwriting in 1990.
When I told him that I was preparing his obituary in advance, with typical generosity, since he was at the time writing yet another book and arranging the recording of more new CDs for his band, he agreed to help me with it. I read some of it out over the phone to him. “I do wish I could be there to read it when it’s published,” he said wistfully.
Humphrey Richard Adeane Lyttelton, trumpeter, clarinettist, bandleader, broadcaster, writer, journalist and calligrapher: born Eton, Berkshire 23 May 1921; cartoonist, Daily Mail 1949-53; chairman, I’m Sorry I Haven’t Clue 1972-2008; married 1948 Pat Braithwaite (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1952), 1952 Jill Richardson (died 2006; two sons, one daughter); died Barnet, Hertfordshire 25 April 2008.
The Telegraph: Humphrey Lyttelton, who has died aged 86, was a prominent figure in British popular culture for more than 50 years, originally as a jazz musician, but also as a cartoonist, humorous writer, broadcaster, calligrapher and proprietor of his own record label.
For the last 35 years he was the famously deadpan chairman of I'm Sorry, I Haven't A Clue on Radio 4, giving a panel of four comedians "silly things to do" in what was billed as "the antidote to panel games".
For all his varied talents, Lyttelton was a remarkably modest and unambitious man. He always claimed that his career had simply happened to him as he went around pursuing his interests. But his famously languid manner concealed an immensely agile mind and an inexhaustible capacity for simple enthusiasm.
It was this last quality which prompted one member of his band to remark, on the occasion of Lyttelton's 75th birthday: "Humph is the world's oldest teenager."
Humphrey Richard Adeane Lyttelton was born on May 23 1921 at Eton College, where his father, George Lyttelton, was a housemaster. One of his grandfathers was Lord Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire, while the other, according to Lyttelton himself, "owned half of Worcestershire".
Humphrey Lyttelton recalled his life as a child of the landed gentry mainly as a round of visits to stately homes, with endless changes of costume according to the time of day. He found the whole business so irksome that for the rest of his life he avoided pomp and ceremony wherever possible.
When it came to choosing a career, it was proposed that he join his uncle, Oliver Lyttelton (later Lord Chandos), in his City office. When this was turned down, a career in industry was suggested and he was packed off to observe the workings of a South Wales steelworks. The experience turned him into a lifelong Socialist. The problem was finally settled by the outbreak of war and a commission in the Grenadier Guards.
By this time he was already a keen amateur jazz musician, having absconded from the Eton-Harrow match at the age of 15 to buy his first trumpet in the Charing Cross Road. The trumpet went with him throughout his military career, even during the assault and eventual landing at Salerno.
On leave in London, he would sit in with bands at nightclubs, a practice which would probably have been forbidden by King's Regulations had it not been so bizarre as to be unimaginable. As a young Guards officer, Lyttelton was required to fulfil various social duties. These included attending balls at Windsor Castle, at one of which he found himself dancing with Princess Margaret, 13 years old and half his height.
Lyttelton greeted the end of the war by blowing euphorically while being trundled around the West End in a handcart. In the surviving BBC recording of the VE celebrations, presented by Wynford Vaughan Thomas, a distant trumpet rendering of Roll Out The Barrel can quite clearly be made out.
The career problem loomed once more. Taking stock of his talents and interests, Lyttelton identified two: he enjoyed doodling, and had achieved some proficiency on the trumpet. Accordingly, he enrolled at Camberwell Art School and joined George Webb's Dixielanders, a semi-professional band devoted to re-creating the music of the early jazz pioneers. The other members, mainly skilled workers who had worked in munitions during the war, were suspicious of his accent and background and at first he found it difficult to make friends.
Nevertheless, in 1948 the Dixielanders had become Humphrey Lyttelton and his Band, the first in an unbroken line of 60 years. At the same time, the doodling had turned him into "Humph", cartoonist on The Daily Mail.
The rise of "traditional" or "revivalist" jazz was a British post-war phenomenon, and Lyttelton soon became its leading figure. When his name appeared in the press it was usually accompanied by the tag-line "old-Etonian, ex-Guards Officer jazz trumpeter", a fascinating and outlandish combination for the time, and invaluable from the point of view of publicity.
In fact, Lyttelton soon showed signs of restlessness with the strictly revivalist approach and he began a series of bold musical experiments. In the early 1950s he made some of the very first records combining jazz with African and Caribbean music. Seeking variety of texture, he dropped the usual trumpet-clarinet-trombone set-up of traditional jazz in favour of various combinations featuring saxophones.
As early as 1951 Lyttelton exploited the new multi-track recording technology to produce the record One Man Went To Blow, on which he played trumpet, clarinet, piano and washboard. Almost by accident his 1956 record, Bad Penny Blues, became the first British jazz record to enter the pop charts. By the late 1950s, when traditional jazz was enjoying brief mass popularity as "trad", Lyttelton had left revivalism far behind and was leading a kind of pocket-sized big band, playing out-and-out swing in the Count Basie manner.
Of all Lyttelton's excellent bands, this was probably the finest. When it was joined by visiting American stars, such as the singer Jimmy Rushing and the trumpeter Buck Clayton, the band always rose to the occasion, producing performances of superb power and authority. Lyttelton's own playing grew steadily more impressive under the influence of Clayton, and the two men remained close friends until Clayton's death in 1991.
Towards the end of the 1950s the BBC began allowing bandleaders to make their own announcements on air. Lyttelton proved to have an instantly recognisable radio voice and a perfect broadcasting style: friendly, informal and gently humorous. Soon he was a regular broadcaster and, in 1966, began his weekly record programme, The Best Of Jazz, which continued until March 2008.
His elevation to the status of "radio personality", however, came with the spoof panel game I'm Sorry, I Haven't A Clue, launched in 1972 with Lyttelton as chairman. The most notable feature of this was an incomprehensible game entitled Mornington Crescent, the rules of which were said to be a closely guarded secret, known only to himself.
The show was voted Best Radio Comedy in the 1995 British Comedy Awards, and Lyttelton himself received a Sony Gold Award in 1993 for Services to Broadcasting. Between 1993 and 1996 he held an honorary Professorship of Music at the University of Keele. Unlike most honorary posts, this entailed giving a lecture each term, a task which he relished. Surprise was often expressed that his name had never appeared in an Honours List, although friends believed that he had once been offered an Honour and refused it as a matter of principle. Lyttelton always declined to discuss the matter.
Throughout his career Lyttelton kept up a parallel occupation as a writer. He produced two volumes of lightly humorous autobiography, I Play As I Please (1954) and Second Chorus (1958); three books of assorted memoirs, Take It From The Top (1975), Why No Beethoven? (1984) and It Just Occured To Me (2007); and two books of jazz criticism under the title The Best Of Jazz (1978 and 1981).
He also wrote occasional articles for the press and served for a while as restaurant critic on Harper's & Queen. For several years during the 1950s he wrote the "balloons" for Flook, the Daily Mail comic-strip drawn by his friend and clarinettist Wally Fawkes under the pen-name Trog. He eventually handed the job on to another jazz man, George Melly.
Among the effects passed to Lyttleton on his father's death was a set of calligraphic pens. Lyttelton took up the hobby, becoming so keen and adept that he was elected president of the Society for Italic Handwriting. All his correspondence was conducted in this medium, including his VAT returns. He hated the telephone, and allowed only his manager and members of his family to know his phone number. Letters were always his preferred form of communication, even for such tricky tasks as hiring and firing members of the band.
In 1983 Lyttelton founded his own record label, Calligraph Records, principally to record and release his own work. Among its most successful releases were the many albums, released throughout the 1990s, featuring Humphrey Lyttelton and his Band and the singer Helen Shapiro. This long-standing partnership was good for both of them, bringing added cachet to the band and confirming Shapiro's status as a first-rate jazz singer.
He received lifetime achievement awards at the Post Office British Jazz Awards in 2000 and at the first BBC Jazz Awards in 2001, and continued as a road-going trumpeter until his death . In 2007 he remarked: "The embouchure isn't what it used to be; I'm not as steady (as a player) as I was; my range isn't as great. Not that this matters particularly, as it was never my greatest asset."
Humphrey Lyttelton married first, in 1948 (dissolved 1952), Patricia Mary Braithwaite, with whom he had a daughter. In 1952 he married Elizabeth Jill Richardson, with whom he had two sons and a daughter. His second wife died in 2006.