He is the portrait of the gracious English gentleman and she is a saucy Dame-with-a-capital-D.
Together they are Britain’s reigning jazz couple, with more than a century of musical prowess between them. The pair, making a rare Bay Area appeance at the Rrazz Room this week, met in the mid-1950s when Cleo Laine auditioned for the already popular Johnny Dankworth Seven ensemble.
“It was a New Year’s Eve kiss,” recalls Laine, about what moved the professional partnership into a marriage, which marked its 50th anniversary this year.
“Occasionally I broke away because I couldn’t stand it anymore,” she says with wry humor, “and left for a year to do a musical or a play.”
They became so established as a couple, Dankworth adds, “people used to expect us both even if they’d only booked one of us. As if the other were some sort of gift. We determined to break that assumption!”
Laine jokes that the marriage proposal was prompted by her announcement a few years into their early collaboration that she was moving on: “He thought he was going to get a cheap singer and instead he got a very expensive wife!”
Born of Jamaican-British parents as Clementina Campbell, Laine received childhood musical training but didn’t take singing seriously until she was in her 20s. Dankworth was raised in a musical family and studied piano and violin before settling on the saxophone as his instrument of choice.
Laine also made a name for herself on the London stage in plays and musicals. Dankworth toured America as a bandleader for the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Nat “King” Cole in the 1960s, but Laine did not launch her conquest of the colonies until her appearances at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall early the following decade.
The pair have recorded regularly, either solo or in collaboration, for 60 years.
“John wrote an epic suite for me called ‘The Blues Ain’t,’ which I performed at Royal Albert Hall and will be out in autumn, I think,” Laine says.
Simultaneously, Dankworth is working on “World Jazz,” which he hopes to release in various international editions featuring premier jazz artists from different countries.
As evidenced by their current tour schedule, the Dankworths have no plans to slow down.
Laine feels as strong as ever vocally. “I don’t have a wobble. The only thing that might have changed a bit are the very high falsetto notes that I used to get, which are not as high as they used to be, but my basic voice is contralto anyway. Down in my boots,” she laughs.
“I honestly prefer the way she sounds in the last few decades,” he adds.
If you go
John Dankworth and Cleo Laine
Where: Rrazz Room, Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Sept. 14
Tickets: $50 to $65
Contact: (415) 468-3399 or www.therrazzroom.com