Jazz legend John Dankworth dies at 82

LONDON (Reuters) - Saxophonist Sir John Dankworth, one of the leading figures in British jazz for more than half a century, has died, his agent said Sunday. He was 82.

The saxophonist worked closely with jazz legends like Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson and composed the music for a string of films and television programs.

His wife, the singer Cleo Laine, announced the death from the stage during a concert to mark the 40th anniversary of a music venue they founded next to their home in Buckinghamshire, north of London.

The musician, described by Jazzwise magazine as “one of the totemic figures of British jazz,” died in a London hospital on Saturday after a short but undisclosed illness.

Stephen Clarke, chairman of the charity that runs The Stables music venue, said in a statement: “It is a fitting tribute that on the day of Sir John’s death that we celebrated on stage...with some of the many artists who have performed with Sir John.”

Seen as Britain’s first international jazz musician, he influenced generations of British performers. Singer Jamie Cullum said Dankworth was a “genius.”

“A great man and one of our finest musicians and composers has died,” he wrote on his Twitter page. “Rest in peace, Sir.”

Born in Essex in 1927, Dankworth played the clarinet as a boy before entering the prestigious Royal Academy of Music in London at 17.

Inspired by the American jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, he switched instruments and soon began composing, arranging and recording music on both sides of the Atlantic.

In 1959, Dankworth and his jazz orchestra began touring the United States and they performed with Duke Ellington, who later became a close friend.

Over the next decade, he wrote scores for 1960s films like “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” and “Modesty Blaise.”

He composed the original theme tune for “The Avengers,” the spy drama. His jazzy work was later replaced by composer Laurie Johnson’s more upbeat theme.

Dankworth, knighted in 2006 for services to music, met Laine in 1950 during auditions for his band. They married eight years later and had two children, Alec and Jacqui, both jazz musicians.