Rendell, Donald Percy [Don]
- Digby Fairweather
Rendell, Donald Percy [Don] (1926–2015), jazz saxophonist and composer, was born at Woodside Nursing Home, Plymouth, Devon, on 4 March 1926, the third and youngest child and only son of Percy Emerson Rendell (1883–1942), organist, choirmaster, and professional musical director, and his wife, Vera Cordelia, née Trewin (1898–1965), also a musician. At the time of his birth registration his parents lived at Kenmore, Old Park Villas, Palmer’s Green, London. The theatre critic Jack Trewin was his uncle, and the publisher Ion Trewin a cousin.
Rendell played piano from the age of five, and was educated first at the City of London School, then, after 1939, at Marlborough College, where he first heard jazz and took up the alto saxophone at fifteen. Two years later, in 1943, he turned professional, now specializing in tenor saxophone. During the next seven years he developed his craft with bandleaders including Duncan Whyte (1944–5), George Evans and Frank Weir (1946), Oscar Rabin (1947–9), with whom he made his first on-record solo feature on Ray Noble’s ‘Cherokee’, and briefly Leon Roy (1949), before joining the poll-winning John Dankworth Seven (1950–3). ‘There were constant headlines about us in the music papers, tours abroad [and] regular recording sessions,’ he recalled later; ‘it was all very exciting’ (Daily Telegraph, 3 Nov 2015). Meanwhile, on 27 March 1948 he married Joan Ruth Yoxall (b. 1928), daughter of John Thomas Yoxall, stationer; they had one daughter, Sally.
From 1954 Rendell led his own sextet (which accompanied Billie Holiday on her British visit that year), then worked briefly with Tony Crombie before joining Ted Heath’s orchestra from August 1955 to March 1956 to recoup (successfully) debts from his 1954 venture. By now he was fully established as a leading figure in British modern jazz, combining musical collaboration with drummer Tony Kinsey (1956–7) with self-led projects including his Don Rendell Sextet (1957, including the young Kenny Wheeler) which by 1958 had morphed into his Jazz Six, producing the outstanding Decca album Playtime (1958), featuring trumpeter Bert Courtley. By 1959, when he led a small band with Courtley again, Rendell’s professional skills and cool Lester Young-inflected style had also made him a firm choice for tours with both Stan Kenton (1956) and Woody Herman’s Anglo-American Herd (1959), but meantime in 1958 he had experienced a religious conversion and became a Jehovah’s Witness. ‘It occurred to me’, he said, ‘that I had been a self-indulgent man and a selfish husband, having an exciting time with no thought for others’ (Daily Telegraph, 3 Nov 2015), but for the rest of his life he would be notable for his gentleness, generosity, and personal humility.
Late in 1959, in tune with the jazz times which were embracing new energies rather than the once-fashionable ‘cool school’, Rendell formed his New Don Rendell Quintet with the explosively exuberant alto saxophonist Graham Bond (voted New Jazz Star in the Melody Maker poll of 1961; he would later join the rock-boom of the early 1960s leading his Graham Bond Organization). Their album Roarin’, released in 1961, vividly illustrated a new and urgent energy in Rendell’s own playing, to be further exacerbated by his meeting in London later that year with John Coltrane. ‘I simply went to his hotel’, he later recalled, ‘and was invited into his room where John, to my surprise, was playing a guitar! We talked for a long time and I was as impressed by his spirituality as I was with his music’ (personal knowledge).
During 1962 Rendell continued to lead his own quartet but in 1963 he formed a dynamic new partnership with trumpeter Ian Carr in the Rendell-Carr Quintet, completed by pianists Johnny Mealing and Colin Purbrook prior to Michael Garrick (from 1965), alongside bassist Dave Green and drummer Trevor Tomkins. From 1965 the group toured and produced five albums for the Columbia label, Shades of Blue (1964), Dusk Fire (1966), Phase 3 (1967), Live (1968), and Change-is (1969), which may easily be ranked as some of the greatest British jazz on record (these albums were later re-espoused by acid-jazz DJ Gilles Peterson in the 1990s and in 2018 original pressings were able to fetch over £500 a copy).
During the break-up of the quintet in 1969—the result of Carr’s espousal of electronic jazz-fusion and Rendell’s view of ‘the so-called marriage between jazz and rock (which) I don’t believe in’ (private information)—there were two more Columbia albums: Greek Variations (1969), featuring Rendell and Carr together with Neil Ardley’s fourteen-piece ensemble (and also leading separate smaller ensembles of their own), and Space Walk (1972), in which Rendell led the quartet he had shared with tenorist Stan Robinson for Greek Variations augmented by Peter Shade (on vibraphone and flute).
By 1973 Rendell had been signed to Tony Williams’s prestigious Spotlite label, a contract that would last for over a quarter of a century, thus ensuring Rendell’s continuing artistic representation during the enveloping rock years which would by the 1980s confine almost all British jazz musicians to specialist recorded outlets. From the 1970s and throughout the 1980s and 1990s he continued to lead his own groups—for both concerts and ‘the little gigs’ which, he said, ‘are part of our vocation’ (personal knowledge)—and work and record with Brian Priestley’s Special Septet, collaborate with Michael Garrick, and team regularly on and off the record with a rich new generation of younger musicians. Among these were Barbara Thompson, Pete Lemer, Alan Wakeman, Dick Pearce, Martin Shaw, Esmond Selwyn, Pete Saberton, Steve Waterman, Martin Shaw, Bobby Worth, Art Themen, and Chris Kibble; a roll call reflecting both Rendell’s continuously progressive artistic commitment and (in the words of double-bassist Dave Green) ‘how encouraging Don was … to all young players on the scene’ (The Independent, 28 Oct 2015).
Rendell’s recordings over the next quarter-century regularly produced a diverse and unfailingly creative series of albums including (to name but three examples) Earth Music (1979) by the Don Rendell Nine, If I Should Lose You (1991) by Don Rendell and his Big Eight, and Reunion (2002), featuring Ian Carr and Michael Garrick. In later years Rendell’s spiritual generosity and willingness to pass on knowledge also found him a new career as a teacher, first in London schools and later on summer courses (including at John Dankworth’s Wavendon) as well as Goldsmith’s College, the Royal Academy, and the Guildhall School of Music. Advancing age in a new century obliged him gradually to cut back on performing but he was musically active into his eighties before he finally sold his instruments in 2012. Dave Green, who joined him early in his own career, described him as:
a wonderfully inventive and commanding player. He was an inspiration—very warm-hearted personally with a great sense of humour. I shall always think of Don with great fondness and treasure the times I had with him both on and off the bandstand.(The Independent, 28 Oct 2015)
Having lived for many years in Edmonton, he died there at the North Middlesex Hospital of cardiopulmonary degeneration on 20 October 2015 and was survived by his wife, Joan, and daughter, Sally.
- D Williams, photograph, performing in a band, 1980, Heritage Images/Getty Images
- D. Williams, five photographs, 1980–1986, Heritage Images/Getty Images
- D. Williams, photograph, 1991, Heritage Images/Getty Images
- B. O’Connor, four photographs, 2007, Heritage Images/Getty Images
- D. Redfern, two photographs, 1960, Getty Images
- D. Redfern, ten photographs, 2004–2010, Getty Images
- D. Sinclair, photograph, Sinclair Jazz
- M. Stemberg, two photographs, 2010, All About Jazz
- photograph, 2014, Heritage Image Partnership/Alamy
- obituary photographs