In a career lasting almost 60 years, Don Lusher was one of the very few British trombonists whose name came to be recognised around the world. His unexpected death on 5 July 2006 at the age of 82 came as a shock to everyone in the music business and he will be sadly missed.
Born into a Salvation Army family in Peterborough in 1923, he was learning trombone at 6 and at 15 joined his father and grandfather in the senior band where his mother was the Songster Leader. Being a Salvationist, it never entered his mind that he might earn a living from music but all that was to change with the outbreak of war in September 1939.
Called up at 18 and waiting to join the D-Day landings, the troops were treated to a concert by one of Britain's top dance bands, Geraldo and His Orchestra in West Ham Football stadium. The musicians in their Crombie overcoats seemed to Don to be the epitome of wealthy sophistication and there and then he vowed that he too would play in a band like that one day. Little did he know at the time that the lead trombone in Geraldo's band that evening was Ted Heath whose band he would eventually lead.
His request to be allowed to audition for the band of the Royal Artillery having been turned down, he had little opportunity to play again until VE Day when he volunteered to join a 12 piece band for a concert party, remaining in the army for another six months, during which time he learnt to read the bass clef and chords!
Following his de-mob Don answered an advert in the Melody Maker and successfully auditioned for Joe Daniels and His Hotshots. From then on it was a case of moving ever upwards, one step at a time. A stint with Lou Preager at Hammersmith Palais followed, where he met and married the band's vocalist, Eileen Orchard. He played in the Squadronaires alongside George Chisholm and Tommy McQuater, joined Geraldo on fourth trombone in 1951 and the following year was poached by the band that was to make his name, Ted Heath.
Overseas tours to Australia and New Zealand in 1955, preceded Ted Heath's first visit to the States in 1956 with their much acclaimed appearance at Carnegie Hall. The atmosphere that night was electric, everyone nervous, including the leader who half off the microphone hurriedly announces "It's Don Lusher and his trombone to play the Carioca", beating it in faster than ever before! The tremendous applause from a capacity audience, including many of America's top jazz musicians and bandleaders, said it all.
That coast to coast tour in 1956 was the first of five such tours, the kind of happening that young musicians today can only dream about. As indeed was the UK session scene at that time with players of the calibre of Don Lusher spending their life in the studios, morning, noon and night. No sooner had one session ended, it was into the car and on to the next one and life was full of surprises as Don discovered one evening, when having been recording all day, he arrived at London's EMI studios to discover the singer was Ella Fitzgerald.
Over a period of 20 years Don was a member of the orchestra that accompanied Frank Sinatra on all his European tours and had vivid memories of the very first concert when he stood up to take the famous solo on I've Got You Under My Skin. He once described that moment as forever etched on his memory, "I glanced at Sinatra and those blue eyes were going right through me and out the back of my head and it put the fear of God into me!"
After leaving Ted Heath in 1961, Don Lusher joined Jack Parnell at Elstree, playing for all the big television specials including The Muppet Show. Being first call in the studios, he has been heard on the sound tracks of all the James Bond and Pink Panther films and worked with Henry Mancini on both sides of the Atlantic. During one of his visits to America while staying with Dick Nash in Los Angeles, he was asked to dep, or sub, as they say over there, in the orchestra conducted by Mancini at the Hollywood studios which he always said was a huge thrill.
The big band and session scenes were only a part of what was a truly remarkable career for a musician who had no formal training as such. In 1975 he gave the first performance of Gordon Langford's Rhapsody for Trombone at London's Royal Albert Hall, and has performed it on numerous occasions all over the world. Other premiered works included Gareth Woods' Dance Sequence and Gordon Carr's Concerto for Trombone.
In 1979, BBC Television presented him with the ultimate musical accolade, an hour-long show entitled The Musical World of Don Lusher with the Don Lusher Big Band, top brass band Black Dyke, and special guest Nelson Riddle, who described Don as "a consummate craftsman and one of England's national treasures".
Having already formed his own big band in the 1970s, he was asked by Ted Heath's widow Moira, to take over the leadership of the Heath Band, which he did for 25 years until the final concert at the Royal Festival Hall in December 2000. His own line-up, the Don Lusher Big Band, gave its final performance at Leicester's De Montfort Hall in December 2005.
He was a founder member, along with Kenny Baker, of the Best of British Jazz, a group with whom he was playing up until the time of his death and in recent months had been playing with the Great British Jazz Band. He was booked as the featured soloist to appear with John Dankworth's band at Wavendon on 1 July, a date he regretfully had to cancel on going into hospital for an operation, not expected to be life-threatening, but from which he was unable to recover.
Don Lusher left a legacy to inspire all trombone players; not for nothing was he referred to as 'the gentleman of jazz' although he was never a jazz player as such, ballads being his forte. Many young students of the trombone in the 1950s and 1960s will tell you they were inspired by the instantly recogisable Lusher sound. Jack Parnell once described him as "probably the most immaculate player I have ever come across". I recall being in the audience at London's Barbican Theatre for a concert by the Don Lusher Big Band when he tripped coming on stage resulting in an almost imperceptible split on his first note. "Something must have happened" whispered the trombonist sitting next to me "Don Lusher never splits notes".
Topping many a Melody Maker poll in the 1950s, his list of awards included BBC Jazz Society Musicians of the Year, British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors Gold Badge of Merit, the Freedom of the City of London, the Alan Dell Award and the Worshipful Company of Musicians Jazz Silver Medal.
In 2003 he was awarded the O.B.E and the following year was presented with an Honorary Doctorate of Music by the University of Portsmouth.
He was to have been presented with the ITA 2006 Award at the International Trombone Festival in Birmingham on July 22.
Don Lusher began playing trombone at the age of six, becoming the third generation of his family to play in The Salvation Army band in Peterborough. We have decided that the fund should rest with the Salvation Army, because of Don's early involvement and because the Salvation Army has tremendous experience over many years, both in working with disadvantage young people, and in music performance and composition.
Without his early involvement with The Salvation Army, it is quite possible that Don would never have learned to play the trombone. That is why, when Don's family and I were thinking about what would be appropriate by way of setting up a fund in Don's memory, we decided that this should rest with The Salvation Army and be used to enable disadvantaged young people to access musical training. The Salvation Army has tremendous experience over many years, both in working with marginalised people, and in music performance and composition.
Initially some form of bursary scheme at a music college was considered, but it was felt that this would benefit only a few young people, and it was recognised that there are already several such bursary schemes available. Therefore, in order to maximise the impact of the Don Lusher Memorial Fund, it will be used to support music projects run by The Salvation Army to help disadvantaged young people.
These projects have been set up to enable marginalised young people, including some with special needs such as autism, and others who are excluded or at risk of exclusion from school, to explore and create music and thereby develop a variety of skills. Many of these young people are struggling to deal with a lack of self-esteem and hope for the future. Through offering them instrumental and theory of music lessons, training in writing, arranging and recording music, and in how to organise and develop a band, The Salvation Army is able to help these young people to develop a wide range of skills, build relationships and work towards reaching their full potential. The Don Lusher Memorial Fund will enable The Salvation Army to fund extra instruments, equipment and hours of tuition, and thereby help even more disadvantaged young people build a better future through engaging with music.
Donations may be sent to:
The Don Lusher Memorial Fund
The Salvation Army
Freepost KE 3466
Please make cheques out to "The Salvation Army" and mark on the back "The Don Lusher Memorial Fund". If you are a UK taxpayer, please indicate this because the tax can be claimed back and added to the fund.
Telephone Donations: 020 7367 4800.
For donations from outside the UK, please send to:
The Don Lusher Memorial Fund
The Salvation Army
101 Newington Causeway