Grangemouth sax man takes a step back

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Grangemouth’s most famous saxophonist will be hitting all the right notes for ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ star Len Goodman’s new documentary.

Tommy Whittle (86) was born in the industrial town before his talent took him down to the bright lights of London and an amazingly successful musical career which saw him jam with jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie.

Now the sensational sax man will give his recollections of the golden age of big band music in the forthcoming ‘Len Goodman’s Dancing Feet: The British Ballroom Story’ which is scheduled for broadcast on BBC television on December 27.

The hour-long programme has Len dancing down memory lane to the mid 20th century when Britain went “ballroom barmy”.

Tommy was once of the featured players of that era, but he was much more than just a hot player providing backing tracks for youngsters looking to enjoy a waltz or a foxtrot.

The jazz man started out playing clarinet, but soon switched to his beloved tenor saxophone.

He said: “Listening to the radio when I lived in Grangemouth I first heard Benny Goodman and I was hooked. I used to like the sound of Victor Silvester’s tenor player, so I said that’s the instrument for me.

“I befriended Alan Davie, the famous Grangemouth painter. He played a saxophone so he lent me a spare one he had.”

From there Tommy never looked back. He moved down to Kent when he was only 16 and in the 1940s and 50s played in a number of prestigious dance bands – including Ted Heath’s well respected outfit and Cyril Stapleton’s BBC Show 
Band.

Voted the nation’s top sax player in 1955 by the NME, Tommy toured Europe and the USA extensively but admits his greatest musical moment happened on home soil.

He said: “I played with Jack Parnell’s ITV orchestra for the Royal Command Performance and then walked down the road to Ronnie Scott’s Club to play with my quartet opposite Dizzy Gillespie.”

In the last decade Tommy was awarded the prestigious medal of the Worshipful Company of Musicians for lifetime achievement in British jazz, while continuing to lead his own jazz quartet and work with his wife, vocalist Barbara Jay.

His advice to young musicians is as clear and concise as the notes he coaxes out of his sax.

“Make sure you get good tuition,” he said. “Don’t just rely on your talent.”

‘Len Goodman’s Dancing Feet: The British Ballroom Story’ will be broadcast on BBC4 at 9 p.m.