Joe Temperley, who has died aged 86, was a jazz saxophonist who, after a successful career with Humphrey Lyttelton’s band in Britain, moved to New York, where he continued to flourish, playing with, among others, the Duke Ellington Orchestra .
His principal instrument was the baritone saxophone, renowned for being stolid and unwieldy, but capable of great beauty in the hands of a master. Temperley was one of those rare individuals. Humphrey Lyttelton described his tone as “cello-like in its sonority, delicacy and deep intensity”. Some, he added, “are astonished to hear such tender sounds coming from a man built in the mould of a grizzly bear”.
Joseph Temperley was born on September 30 1929 at Cowdenbeath, Fife, the son of a bus driver. At the age of 12 he took up the cornet to play in the town band, but later switched to the saxophone and joined his elder brother’s dance band. Leaving home aged 17, he moved to Glasgow, where he played with, among others, the Tommy Sampson Orchestra, and left for London 1948.
Once there, he rose quickly through the various levels of the dance-band business and was soon playing with some of the top names of the period, including Harry Parry and Joe Loss. At this time he was playing tenor saxophone. He played baritone for the first time in 1955, with Tommy Whittle’s band.
In 1957, Humphrey Lyttelton found himself short of a tenor saxophonist and Temperley joined his band as a temporary replacement. When the ailing player, Jimmy Skidmore, returned, Lyttelton was so reluctant to lose Temperley that he asked him stay on, if he was willing to play the baritone. Thus was completed what is widely considered to have been the finest of all Lyttelton’s bands. It also set the seal on a lasting friendship.
In August 1959, the Lyttelton band visited New York. The brief experience of being at the epicentre of the jazz world made a big impression on Temperley and it became his long-term ambition to try his luck there. Almost six years passed before he took the plunge. He left the Lyttelton band, amid the fondest of good wishes, in December 1965.
Joe Temperley (centre) playing with Humphrey Lyttelton (right) Tony Coe (left) CREDIT: REX FEATURES
After six months of doing odd jobs, musical and otherwise, he was offered a permanent place in Woody Herman’s big band. He remained for two years, touring almost constantly, before settling once more in New York, where he built a successul freelance career.
In October 1974, Harry Carney, the “father of the baritone saxophone” and mainstay of Duke Ellington’s orchestra for almost half a century, died (only five months after Duke himself). Joe Temperley was asked to play at the funeral. He played Sophisticated Lady, Carney’s great feature in the Ellington repertoire. Impressed by the similarity in tone, Duke’s son, Mercer Ellington, who was now leading the band, invited Temperley to take Carney’s place.
He remained a member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra until 1990. The effect of his presence on the sound of the saxophone section, when recorded, is uncannily true to the original, notably on the soundtrack of the film The Cotton Club (1984).
In 1992, Wynton Marsalis was appointed the first artistic director of Jazz At Lincoln Centre, and Joe Temperley was one of the first musicians he recruited. He was also by far the oldest, and Marsalis seemed particularly to value his breadth of experience, together with the Ellington connection. For his part, Temperley was impressed by the fact that, for the first time he had “a real job, with health benefits, dental benefits and a pension”.
He was also able to do a certain amount of teaching at the Juillard and the Manhattan schools of music, and had time to make regular visits home to Britain. During these he made a series of superb albums. Outstanding among these are Nightingale (1992) and With Every Breath… (1998). The first contains the piece with which he often ended his solo concerts, a moving, unaccompanied version of My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose.
Temperley remained a fervently patriotic Scotsman throughout his eventful life, his moustache bristling dangerously at any suggestion that he might be anything else, least of all English. He followed the progress of Cowdenbeath FC regularly on the internet.
Joe Temperley was married twice. He is survived by his second wife and a stepson.
Joe Temperley, born September 20 1929, died May 11 2016