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George Melly

Jazz musician, art collector and writer

Born: 17 August, 1926, in Liverpool.

Died: 5 July, 2007, in London, aged 80.

GEORGE Melly had a delightfully unconventional and colourful career. He always gave the impression of thoroughly enjoying life; he had penchant for wearing loud suits with garish ties while belting out a jazz number, his Fedora always at a jaunty angle. He would chortle gleefully after telling an invariably risqu story on a chat show. Unperturbed, Melly would laugh loudly and start on another, equally indiscreet, tale.

Underneath, however, lay a man with a deep love and knowledge of music and paintings, especially Surrealism - works of which he built up a fine collection. Throughout his life, Melly remained a major force in British jazz both as a performer, recording artist and champion of traditional jazz. Melly wrote extensively: several books, film scripts and was an Observer critic for many years.

But into this unusual cocktail was a third passion; fishing. Melly bought a house in Wales with a trout river flowing through the garden. Indeed, he sold a valuable Magritte to buy the house. He wrote an excellent book on angling (Hooked!) which won the 2000 Angling Book of the Year. It gave an insight into Melly's deep love of the sport and how much it meant to him. For good reason, Melly was nicknamed, Goodtime George.

Alan Heywood "George" Melly was born into a middle-class family and educated at Stowe where he first encountered jazz. He joined the Royal Navy in 1944 (covered in his book Rum, Bum and Concertina, published in 1977) after he told the startled recruiting officer that "the uniforms were much nicer", but only got to sea once. However, his naval career was somewhat blighted as he was almost court-martialled for distributing anarchist literature.

When he was demobbed, Melly joined a London gallery specialising in contemporary art and became a keen follower of the Surrealists. In 1949, he bought a Magritte, a Miro, a Picasso drawing, a Klee and a Lucien Freud for 900. Over the years, he cashed them in to finance his love of good living. Melly spent evenings in jazz clubs and sang with various bands in Soho clubs. Over the years he has joined several bands but performed most often with Mick Mulligan and John Chilton's Feetwarmers.

From his youth, Melly enjoyed the unusual, and buzzed around London on an ancient moped. His lifestyle (until middle age he claimed he was bisexual) and dress were always wonderfully outrageous; though latterly the suits were replaced by kaftans of many colours.

Along with his singing, Melly wrote prodigiously. He was a highly regarded critic on The Observer for many years and contributed to magazines and periodicals. In 1970, he was voted Critic of the Year and in that year he adapted Kingsley Amis's Take A Girl Like You for the screen. It was directed by Jonathan Miller and the cast included Oliver Reed, John Bird and John Fortune.

In 1967, he wrote the script of the satirical film Smashing Time (with Lynn Redgrave and Rita Tushingham) and for many years contributed the words for the Daily Mail's cartoon Flook.

But along with his jazz concerts, Melly made several classic recordings - notably The Ultimate Melly, Goodtime George, Anything Goes and The Pye Jazz Anthology. All display the man's remarkably acute musical timing and his strong sense of rhythm. On television he was seen in shows such as Wogan and Have I Got News For You - his wit as a raconteur greatly adding to such programmes.

He often appeared in jazz clubs in Scotland and came to the Edinburgh Jazz Festival regularly. His last appearance, in 2006, was a rather sad occasion as by then Melly was losing both his sight and his hearing.

However, the audience warmed to his musicality and gave him a rapturous welcome. Melly first visited the Brecon Jazz Festival in 1984 and went on to celebrate his 80th birthday at the venue in 2006 with a session with Humphrey Lyttleton. In recent years, he toured mostly with Digby Fairweather's band.

He wrote his autobiography as a trilogy under the title of Owning Up. His honest appraisal of his life told of wayward relationships, his unhealthy life-style - 70 cigarettes a day and a fondness for Famous Grouse - and little exercise. "I have been seriously ill once and not quite well often," he quipped. But cancer was diagnosed in 2006 and Melly adopted a more modest life.

He had a zest for life that was unbeatable and was performing on stage until a month ago. He collapsed on stage in Brighton in January this year which, many thought, was entirely appropriate for this most exuberant of performers.

He was an honorary associate of the National Secular Society and President of the British Humanist League (1972-74). His love of Bessie Smith saw no bounds and his passion for jazz, fishing and modern art were total. "I think of myself," he recently said, "as a plump masculine Edith Piaf. Je ne regrette rien."

Melly was twice married. His first marriage was dissolved and he is survived by his second wife, Diana, whom he married in 1963, a daughter of the first marriage and a son of the second.

 
 
 

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