Listener's Guide

Clueless Without Humph

Humphrey Lyttelton was born in 1921, his father a housemaster at Eton.

He was commissioned in the Grenadier Guards during World War II and saw action on the beach at Salerno. It was said that he arrived at the beach-head with a revolver in one hand and a trumpet in the other.

With his proud service background, friends would comment that being born at 1921 meant he always missed The Archers.

As the father of British jazz, Humphrey Lyttelton was the UK's most influential jazz performer. He played BBC Radio 4's long-running I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue panel game as a jazz riff, timing every word to perfection. The only chairman who could get a laugh from silence, who more than held his own with comedians including Tim Brooke-Taylor, the late Willie Rushton and Barry Cryer.

Both of his parents were amateur musicians and he began playing the trumpet in 1936, forming a school quartet later that year. On one occasion, when he should have been watching the school's annual cricket match against Harrow at Lord's, he was in London's Charing Cross Road, buying a trumpet.

On leaving school he worked for a time in a steelworks in South Wales. He could have made himself a trumpet and saved a few bob.

In 1948, he had a band with clarinettist Wally Fawkes. He went to the Nice Jazz Festival, where he met his idol, fellow musician Louis Armstrong. Armstrong always spoke warmly of the man he called that cat in England who swings his ass off.

The early 50s saw the Humphrey Lyttelton Club set up in a basement in Oxford Street in London, and during the next 35 years or so he became the elder statesman of British jazz. He composed more than 120 original works for his band, although some of his best-known numbers were When The Saints Go Marching In, Memphis Blues, High Society and the hit Bad Penny Blues. Barry Cryer would ask for a medley of his hit.

In 2000 he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the British Jazz Awards. Barry commented it was only just in time.

In 2001 he gained real street-creds when he joined rock band Radiohead for a session during the recording of their album, Amnesiac. The track, Living In A Glass House, left him exhausted.

He presented and performed in many jazz radio programmes - Jazz Scene, Jazz Club and The Best of Jazz, which started in 1968 and ended in March 2008. He was also chairman of BBC Radio 4's I'm Sorry, I Haven't a Clue, which billed itself as the antidote to panel games.

ISIHAC began in 1972, gained a huge and loyal following of listeners, delighted by games like One Song to the Tune of Another, Swanee Kazoo and the unfathomable Mornington Crescent. He turned down a knighthood he should have accepted, if only for Clue.

BBC Director General Mark Thompson described Humph as:

A unique, irreplaceable talent. Like his many fans, we owe him an enormous debt of gratitude. All of us at the BBC feel a tremendous sense of loss. One of the towering figures of British jazz, he excelled too as a writer, cartoonist, humorist and of course as a broadcaster on television and radio. On I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue all of his gifts were on show, his warmth and conviviality, his wit, his mischievousness. He was a unique, irreplaceable talent.

In 1993, he received a Sony Gold Award for services to broadcasting.

All our lives are a little richer for having heard Humph.