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Tony Coe, jazz saxophonist and clarinettist of ‘extreme instrumental skill’ – obituary

Tony Coe at the Hammersmith Odeon in the 1960s - David Redfern/Redferns
Tony Coe at the Hammersmith Odeon in the 1960s - David Redfern/Redferns

Tony Coe, the clarinettist and saxophonist, who has died aged 88, played with many of the jazz greats, including Humphrey Lyttelton, John Dankworth, Stan Tracey, Derek Bailey, Mike Gibbs, Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillespie, and in 1995 became the first non-American to win the Jazzpar Award, otherwise known as the Jazz Nobel, for his “extreme instrumental skill”.

The awards committee cited his “exceptional stylistic versatility, and the profound peculiarity of playing”, while Humphrey Lyttelton described him as simply “one of the most brilliant musicians in the world”. In the 1960s Coe famously rejected the overtures of Count Basie, who wanted him to join his band.

For many, Coe was best known for playing the tenor sax theme tune to the Pink Panther films starring Peter Sellers as the hapless Inspector Clouseau. Its composer Henry Mancini flew Coe to the US especially to record the soundtrack.

Tony Coe (left, with arm in a sling) and Humphrey Lyttleton in 1960 - Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Tony Coe (left, with arm in a sling) and Humphrey Lyttleton in 1960 - Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Yet Coe never became a household name, partly due to shyness and because he never confined his gifts to a particular genre. In addition to his work with Mancini and early work with Lyttelton’s trad band, he collaborated with the avant-garde free-jazz guitarist Derek Bailey, proving himself to be an improviser of superlative gifts, and with the European art music chamber group Matrix. He had a chair in the saxophone section of the Clarke-Boland Big Band for several years and was a long time member of the Melody Four, a “Dadaist” trio also featuring Lol Coxhill and Steve Beresford.

He won a reputation as a composer, producing several large-scale works, including Zeitgeist (1976), an ambitious composition for a 24-piece orchestra, blending jazz, rock and classical music, which was recorded and released by EMI in 1977.

Tony Coe, right (with Sandy Brown), playing the clarinet with the Sandy Brown All Stars at the 1963 Manchester Jazz Festival - National Jazz Archive/Heritage Images via Getty Images/Hulton Archive
Tony Coe, right (with Sandy Brown), playing the clarinet with the Sandy Brown All Stars at the 1963 Manchester Jazz Festival - National Jazz Archive/Heritage Images via Getty Images/Hulton Archive

As Ronald Atkins observed in The Guardian, Coe’s reputation had suffered because he was so versatile: “A sweepingly extravagant tenor saxophonist in the tradition of Duke Ellington’s Paul Gonsalves, he complicates matters by mixing with free-blowers and by writing pieces in which abstract improvising meets the sharp end of straight music.”

Anthony George Coe was born on November 29 1934 in Canterbury, where his father George ran a silk screen printing business with his brother after the Second World War. George also had his own small dance band which played at local events.

Young Tony learnt the clarinet but taught himself tenor sax. At the Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys, he played in the school’s trad jazz band and after leaving aged 17 joined Joe Daniels’s jazz band.

During National Service in the Army he played clarinet in a military band and saxophone with his unit’s dance band. After time spent in France with the Micky Bryan Band, he rejoined Joe Daniels.

His breakthrough came in 1957 when Humphrey Lyttelton invited him to replace Bruce Turner as the alto saxophonist in his eight-piece band. Coe’s early work had mainly been on the clarinet, but it was his saxophone playing with Lyttelton that established his reputation. “Within a few months of his joining,” Lyttelton recalled, “Tony Coe was regularly stopping the show with assured and wildly extrovert alto solos.”

But he was clearly not the easiest band member to manage. In 1960, Coe was fined £5 for assaulting a policeman and £10 for possessing an offensive weapon (an air pistol). The police were undercover and believed Coe’s instrument case contained stolen cigarettes; they broke one of his fingers in the course of arresting him. For his part, he believed they were muggers after his saxophone. Lyttelton told the court that Coe was a “timid creature” who lived “largely in a world of his own – a nervy person”.

Coe left Lyttelton at the end of 1961 to form the first of a series of groups of his own, though he continued to play with Lyttelton on and off for several more years. During the next two decades, playing clarinet, bass clarinet and tenor sax, he shared stages with such stars as Count Basie, John Dankworth, Dizzy Gillespie – and Stan Getz, who once told him: “I don’t like you – you’re too good.” Duke Ellington also complimented him, asking him light-heartedly: “When are you going to join my band?”

As well as a four-year spell (1968-72) with the Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland Big Band, he had a long association with Stan Tracey. In the 1970s he formed a close association with the classical clarinettist Alan Hacker, fronted a small group with Kenny Wheeler and explored the avant-garde with Derek Bailey.

He continued to play into this century, including touring with his own quartet in 1995-96 and a five-year stint with Malcolm Creese’s trio Acoustic Triangle (1995-2000).

He wrote and played on film soundtracks, including for Superman II, Leaving Las Vegas and Victor/ Victoria, and composed a two-hour piece for chamber orchestra to accompany the Marie Epstein silent film Peau de Pêche.

He played clarinet on Paul McCartney’s 1982 song I’ll Give You a Ring and worked with Marianne Faithfull and the guitarist Ali Farka Touré on Les Voix d’Itxassou, a world music album which featured several of his compositions.

In addition to the Jazzpar award, Coe won the British Telecom Jazz Clarinet Award four times. His playing can be heard on dozens of albums, both as band leader and as part of other ensembles. One of the highlights of his career was Captain Coe’s Famous Racearound (1996), the title track named after a toy invented by his father.

Tony Coe married Jill Quantrill in 1963; they had two sons, Gideon, a DJ with BBC 6 Music, and Simon, but divorced in 1970. In 1984 he married Sue Stedman Jones, who survives him with his sons.

Tony Coe, born November 29 1934, died March 16 2023