Humphrey Lyttelton's last interview

First published in News Daily Echo: Photograph of the Author by

WHILE most of us are asleep Humphrey Lyttelton is dreaming up new tunes.

For Humph, as he is affectionately known to his legions of jazz loving fans, cannot get music out of his head.

This very youthful 86-year-old is celebrating 60 years as a trumpet-playing bandleader and is still on the road.

His latest musical stopover was The Concorde at Eastleigh.

Before stepping on stage to play to a full house Humph explained how his passion for making music got in the way of his shut eye.

This father figure of jazz already has more than 200 compositions to his name. But he can count on more sleepless nights as his inventive musical brain constantly goes into overdrive.

As he rests his trumpet by his chair in the Stoneham Lane club's band room, Humph says: "I am thinking of music all the time. Some times I wake up in the night with this tune I am thinking over.

"It is a curse because I cannot get back to sleep!"

The jazz legend is no stranger to The Concorde.

He first played there in the early '60s and says: "I have lost count of the times I have been at The Concorde. The first one I did was when it was in a pub in Southampton."

He recalled it was while he was touring in the '60s with American jazz great, trumpeter Buck Clayton.

Humph said: "I think The Concorde is a fantastic place. It is just right."

He is writing the foreword to The Concorde Club: The First 50 years, a book which chronicles the history of what has become an international jazz mecca.

It was in 1936 that Humph's mum bought him his first trumpet.

Fondly recalling that day, which was to put him on the path to a musical career, he said: "I had never played a trumpet before. It was brand new and came in a case. It had a free lesson and there was also an autobiography of one of my early idols Nat Gonella.

"I was at school when he was touring around and I never met him until much later."

Gonella was 90 when he died in Gosport nearly ten years ago.

He was one of the first British musicians to establish a major reputation as a jazz soloist.

Nat, who was a trumpet player, singer and bandleader, influenced a subsequent generation of British musicians, including Humph, Kenny Ball and Digby Fairweather.

Humph has fond memories of sharing stage with Nat and co-hosted a television tribute, Fifty Years of Nat Gonella.

It did not take long for the teenage Humph to master the C key of the trumpet.

I asked him what made him take up the trumpet and he said: "It really took me up. It just grew on me and became a necessity."

Humph was born in Eton and attended that famous public school where his father was housemaster. Although he is quick to point out that he was not in his dad's house.

It was at Eton that Master Lyttelton was to sow the seeds for a career that was to make a him a household name. He formed his own quartet and on drums was Ludovic Kennedy who later was to become a big noise in the broadcasting world.

During the war Humph served in the Grenadier Guards and saw action at Salerno.

On VE Day - May 8, 1945 - he joined in the celebrations by playing his trumpet from a wheelbarrow. Little did he know it but it was his first broadcast performance. The recording is still in the BBC archives.

At the age of 86 Humph, who is a great-grandfather, has also become a jazz legend. He has just celebrated 60 unbroken years as a band leader.

Although he recently retired as host of Radio 2's The Best of Jazz he shows no sign of slowing up.

His decision to leave the programme after more than 40 years was, "to clear a space for some of my other ambitions".

As we chatted at The Concorde he explained: "The whole thing about my post-war career is that I have done a whole lot of different things.

"So I have no specific ambitions. But I have an ambition to remain free enough and with time enough to pick up on things which I would like to do as they come."

He said: "At the moment I have one of the best bands I have ever had."

His enthusiasm is as keen as when he first picked up a trumpet in 1936.

And in the autumn he is planning to go back into the recording studio to complete a collection of CDs.

As the minutes ticked away to the first of his two Concorde sets, this very lively octogenarian said: "I still get a buzz out of going on stage. I am blessed with a lot of energy.

"Obviously you pace yourself. I make a point of not blowing myself out on the first three numbers!"

Fans will be pleased to hear that there is no danger of him hanging up his microphone on a programme that has made him something of a national treasure.

For more than 30 years he has been chairman of the hit Radio 4 comedy panel game, I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue.

Chairman Humph reads the script introducing the programme and segments in an utterly deadpan manner. He says the secret is just to read what is front of him without understanding why it is funny.

He does occasionally depart from the script, often bringing the house down with a razor sharp ad-lib. Humph is credited by the regular panel of humourists for being the chief reason for the show's long-running success.

He says that everyone has tried to analyse the reason for the show's popularity.

"Although it has gone on for 35 years people who take part in it do not quite know what is going to happen next and that includes me."

Humph says that the stage version of I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue, which has toured the length and breadth of the country, has been a great success.

He says that he never aimed to be famous - "I have always been a radio person so people recognise me more by my voice."

Away from the busy jazz circuit at one time Humph would unwind by getting in a round of golf between gigs.

He said: "Four members of my band, including myself, were fanatical golfers, and we played in all weathers.

"Once we played on a course just outside Nottingham and it was so foggy that we altered the rules of golf to suit the weather conditions."

It could have been straight out of a I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue script as Humph explained: "If anybody found a ball of any kind they won the hole. It did not matter if it was your ball or one that had been lost weeks ago or even a football that had come over the fence.

"We battled on and did a few holes but then we had to surrender."

His golfing days are well and truly over.

He added: " The golf has given me up. I have got a really good upswing but I am not too confident of being able to get down from it !

"I don't want to give the undertaker a problem because it might be difficult to measure me for a coffin."

In 1948 Humph blew a trumpet in the presence of the great Louis Armstrong who was so impressed that he said: "That boy's really comin' on."

Asked about retirement Humph says: "The word retirement. I cannot even spell it."

After more than 70 years of playing jazz this modest musician says: "I am getting the hang of it."

A nice punch line from the oldest current panel/game show in the United Kingdom.

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