Liveryman Keith Howell – a Tribute

Keith Howell – RIP
Jazz journalist and member of the Musicians’ Company’s Jazz Committee

A tribute by Nigel Tully

Brian Lemon w Keith Howell Keith Howell and Brian Lemon

Although I had encountered Keith’s dulcet and gently authoritative tones on long haul in-flight jazz music commentaries, I first met Keith in the late 80s, broadcasting for LBC, when he interviewed me about my rock band “The Dark Blues”. At that stage he was a radio DJ and music journalist, having been a music industry PR person and jazz fan for many years. We got on well, and I realised how knowledgeable he was about jazz, so when the Musicians’ Company decided to institute annual prizes for jazz in the early 90s, I went to Keith for advice. It soon became clear that he was a genuine expert, with immense knowledge of the art form & the musicians, many of whom he had known personally during the great jazz years of the 1960’s and later.

As the Company established its Jazz Committee and made decisions on what to do and how to do it, Keith was the adviser behind the scenes who made sure that the Company acted wisely and with insider knowledge. With Gavin Barrett’s help, we inveigled him into becoming a Freeman and then a full Liveryman, of which he was very proud although I don’t think he would ever have initiated joining the Company.

Everyone who knew Keith starts by saying that he was a gentle man, and a true gentleman. He was kind and tactful, but nevertheless held strong opinions which he would ensure informed the decisions that the Committee took, without ever offending anyone. He was a great fan of jazz vocalists, but felt strongly that English singers should not use fake American accents even when singing Ella or Sinatra classics. He was also a huge fan of Oscar Peterson, whom he had accompanied on UK tours in the 60’s, and continued to look for ways to bring him to the UK with Company support until Oscar sadly died. He greatly influenced the Company’s selection of Lifetime Achievement Award winners, such as Tony Kinsey, Don Lusher, Tony Coe and Stan Tracey, and his amusing and creative interactions with Sir John Dankworth – also a loyal attender of Jazz Committee meetings until his sad death – were a joy to witness. And he introduced the Company to NYJO and its founder Bill Ashton, out of which grew the Company’s enduring association with NYJO and my own commitment to that great cultural and educational institution. Keith had a clear view of Bill & his occasionally difficult personality, but that didn’t stop him admiring and supporting the institution which Bill created. And finally, he loved dogs, and never failed to bring treats for mine when he came to my home.

Two of Keith’s great pleasures were booking the Finalists for the Company’s annual Young Jazz Musician competition, and writing the programme notes for the annual City of London Festival gigs curated by the Company every summer in Finsbury Circus Gardens until CrossRail construction forced the event to move. Even Keith’s best friends have to admit that he took the concept of “meeting the deadline” to its absolute limit, as company advisor George Derbyshire will undoubtedly testify, but somehow the results – a beautifully written Programme, and an annual competition of invariably superb quality – made us forgive him.

We will miss Keith and his quiet wisdom dreadfully, but the work of the Worshipful Company’s Jazz Committee and its continuing bonds of friendship in the name of jazz will be a lasting tribute to him.

Pastmaster Nigel Tully