Obituary: Joe Temperley, jazz saxophonist and educator

Born: 20 September 1927 in Lochgelly, Fife. Died: 11 May 2016 in New York.

Joe Temperley, Fife-born jazz saxophonist and star of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Picture: Contributed
Joe Temperley, Fife-born jazz saxophonist and star of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Picture: Contributed

Joe Temperley was the jazz world’s most renowned baritone saxophonist and the first Scottish jazz musician to make it on the New York scene – as well as the man who put Lochgelly on the jazz map.

His seven-decade career saw him work his way through the best British dance and jazz bands before moving to States and doing the same there, starting with Woody Herman’s big band, then replacing his hero, Harry Carney, in the Duke Ellington Orchestra and, later, becoming one of the original members of the renowned Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, run by Wynton Marsalis.

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A swinging and soulful player, Temperley was held in the highest esteem by his much younger band-mates in the JLCO, and was regarded by Marsalis as being the very heart of the band. So much so that a concert was held in his honour last October.

In addition to his long association with that band, Temperley was also a much-loved and generous educator who taught at Juillard and the Manhattan School of Music, and was a guest mentor for the Fife Youth Jazz Orchestra during his regular visits back to Scotland where he kept up with his extended family and the jazz community here.

Until recently, Temperley was a big, imposing man who seemed physically to embody the history which he represented; a history that spanned the dance band era, the big bands, bebop – and was peppered with musical and social encounters with such icons as Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, in whose final concert he played.

Temperley may have had an often gruff personality and cut a burly, intimidating figure but he was famous for producing the most tender and romantic sounds (fellow saxophonist and jazz educator Tommy Smith yesterday compared his sound to “sweet velvet”) on his sax or on bass clarinet, which he was playing during his final visit to Scotland last year. He regularly reduced audiences to sniffles with his poignant performances of Duke Ellington’s ballad A Single Petal of a Rose, a tune that, on one occasion, earned him, his wife plus a pianist a first-class, five-day, trip to Paris to play it at the party being thrown by a woman in his audience.

The son of a bus driver, Joseph Temperley was born in the mining town of Lochgelly, in Fife, in 1927. The second youngest of the children, he left school at the age of 14 to work in a local butcher’s shop. By this time, he was already playing cornet alongside his elder brother, Bob, in the Cowdenbeath Brass Band – and it was Bob who bought the youngster his first saxophone, an alto, so he could join his dance band. As Temperley liked to tell it later, by the time he had had six months of lessons, he could play better than the teacher. So that was the end of his formal music education.

The teenage Temperley formed a band called the Debonairs, in which he played tenor sax. At the age of 17, he left Lochgelly for the bright lights of Glasgow where he played at the Piccadilly Club on Sauchiehall Street for 18 months.

When Tommy Sampson’s band, one of the most popular of the period, came to play at Green’s Playhouse, Temperley went along for an audition and was signed up on the spot. Not yet 20 years old, he moved to London to take the tenor chair in the Sampson band - “the first time I was in a band that was sort of regimented”.

He moved on to the Harry Parry band, with which he had his first experience of foreign travel, then moved on to Joe Loss’s band, then Jack Parnell’s and Tony Crombie’s (with Annie Ross on vocals) before joining Humphrey Lyttelton’s band, where he switched to the baritone sax.

Temperley’s first taste of New York, the epicentre of jazz, was with Lyttelton’s band in August 1959. “I arrived wearing a Harris tweed jacket. It was so hot, I’d sit in the bath all day and only go out at night!’ After returning from three weeks in jazz heaven, Temperley was desperate to get back – and in December 1965 he did so permanently, taking his wife and young son with him.

After six months, Temperley was signed by the Woody Herman band, but after two years on the road, he quit, returning to New York where he freelanced quite contentedly for several years, with a regular gig with the Thad Jones and Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra every Monday at the famous Village Vanguard club.

In the early 1970s, he worked with Frank Sinatra – an experience he alluded to during An Evening With Joe Temperley, a special duo concert-cum-trip-down-memory-lane he gave with Brian Kellock at the 2010 Edinburgh Jazz Festival. When Kellock interrupted Temperley’s roll call of stars he had met to ask if Sinatra was a nice guy, the audience got a typically frank reply: “The bass player who worked with him for 20 years was leaving the band. As he left, he said to Sinatra ‘I’m off’. And Frank Sinatra replied: ‘I don’t talk to the help’!”

A change of direction came in October 1974 when Temperley was asked to play at the funeral of Harry Carney, the great baritone saxophonist who had played in Duke Ellington’s band for 45 years.

“I played Sophisticated Lady at Harry’s funeral – and that’s how I got the job replacing him in the Ellington band,” recalled Temperley as he introduced that number at the 2010 jazz festival. Temperley spent ten years in the Ellington band – by now run by Mercer Ellington – before becoming one of the original members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in 1990.

Until relatively recently, he was still touring the world with the orchestra – always with his devoted wife Laurie at his side – and making as many trips back to Scotland as his schedule would allow. Despite his obvious frailty, he turned in a series of terrific and typically swinging performances, switching between the baritone and the bass clarinet during a mini tour with Brian Kellock which turned out to be his final visit to Scotland in March 2015.

He is survived by his second wife, Laurie, and by his sister Helen.