Graham Lyons; Playing with Amazing People.

John Robert Brown

Paradoxically, dropouts from the best universities form a distinguished bunch. Of above-average intelligence (they must have entered college to drop out), former students who ended up not finishing include Woody Allen, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs - and British musician Graham Lyons. "I was kicked out of Oxford after a year," he says, eschewing euphemisms.

To summarise Lyons' achievements is difficult. Famously, he invented the Lyons C Clarinet ('the sea lions' clarinet), and also wrote a book about the Kremlin2. Additionally, Lyons is an ardent atheist, produces English and Maths GCSE test books3, is competent at roller blading, keen on Esperanto and - for my money - could lay claim to be the best British jazz bassoonist. But for now, let's concentrate on Graham Lyons' abilities as a composer and arranger.

Many of Lyons' compositions, particularly New Sax Solos4, books one, two and three, will be known to single-reed players. Lyons' Clarinet Sonata5 has been on the ABRSM Grade VII examination list for a long time. Also well-known is one of Lyons' first publications, Useful Clarinet Solos6, a mixture of compositions and arrangements famous for having a recording of Jack Brymer on the accompanying cassette. Lyons remembers booking a studio in Reading for that recording. Brymer, 'a thoroughly pleasant chap', says Lyons, was 70 years old at the time. The great clarinettist lived in Croydon, travelled to the recording on his motorbike, and played beautifully.

Lyons began his musical studies on the piano. "After about three months - I never practised - my piano teacher changed, to someone who was actually called Miss Bloggs," he remembers. "I hadn't practised. She read the riot act, which really scared me. So after that I practised at least half an hour a day. In one week my piano playing improved more than it had in the last three months."

Composition was in his mind from the beginning, but without Lyons realising it. "I listened to a lot of music. I was very moved by pot boilers, like Grieg's Piano Concerto, popular Tchaikovsky pieces, and so on, and above all, jazz and big bands. I'd be wandering along making up big band music in my head. But I never thought of it as composition."

Lyons wasn't encouraged to compose. "It was assumed, I think, that people didn't compose. You learnt an instrument, you weren't a composer." His first compositions were done while he was learning the clarinet at Charterhouse school. "I was thirteen, it was the early fifties. I learned piano for a couple of terms, and then changed over to clarinet." Lyons' first clarinet teacher was George Draper7.

"I was listening all the time, mainly to jazz people like Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz, not so much classical music - though there was a particular piece I really liked, which was Elgar's Violin Concerto. That got my imagination. And above all, I enjoyed Brahms' Third Symphony. I listened to that over and over again. Not much chamber music; I didn't like the sound of solo violins. Then they seemed to me rather like nails on a blackboard. Now I love the violin. I loved the sound of the clarinet, and a cool saxophone, and trumpets."

Lyons is very clear about why he is fond of the clarinet. "The clarinet has an immediately appealing sound. As a child I was absolutely thrilled by clarinet, particularly by Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. I went through a period of liking the clarinet less (never disliking it) but particularly in Tchaikovsky where you have a very melodic phrase bandied about between the instruments, first on the oboe then the flute then the bassoon. To me the clarinet sounded less expressive than the other instruments, when they played the same thing. Now I'm keen on the clarinet again, in that it's completely wrong to judge it against other instruments. All instruments have their own character. The clarinet is an unbelievably useful instrument, a composer's delight, a solo instrument, with a huge range, such a good blender. Clarinets make a lovely harmonic background. No other wind instrument does that so well."

First, and not surprisingly, at Charterhouse he wrote some pieces in a Gerry Mulligan quartet style, for clarinets. "These things were quite simple. They were played by people who couldn't really play them. Nor could I. The occasion wasn't that terrifying, because there was no stake in it." He still maintains that he never thinks of himself as a composer. "One of the things I do is write music," he says, modestly.

"At Charterhouse I would play the piano to investigate chords, which is, I suppose, composing and improvising without thinking of structure. Towards the end of Charterhouse I did write a few things, though I didn't have an incentive to write. I had some melodies, but I didn't think it was my job to write them down."

Then came National Service, before going up to Oxford in 1956. "I got kicked out of Oxford after a year," he says, as a matter of fact. Nevertheless, that year had a shaping influence. "I played at the Union Cellars with the Oxford Jazz Band, a mainstream Ruby Braff-influenced band with no banjo, but with trombone, trumpet, and clarinet. I didn't play the saxophone then. I actually toured France with them. I was writing quite a bit more stuff there. I was listening to modern jazz then - Horace Silver, Art Blakey, and Miles Davis/Gil Evans Birth of the Cool.

At Oxford, the man behind much of the music making that involved Lyons was John Bassett8. "John and I were best friends. He got to the position where he ran the university jazz band that played in The Cellars. He was a real enthusiast, a very good organiser. His claim to fame was the getting together of Peter Cook, Alan Bennett, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller for Beyond the Fringe. Bassett was the person behind that, because he had a job as assistant to the producer of the Edinburgh Festival. Later on he became a television interviewer and producer. But all the time he was a real enthusiast for music. He played the trumpet, but couldn't read music and couldn't play by ear! But he did employ the very best people there were - together with his friends, like me. So I found myself playing with amazing people, from quite an early age

"Dudley Moore was known as a comedian, but he was an amazing, fantastic, musician. He played in the Errol Garner style, but had received a classical training. Dudley could play anything by ear, and could sight-read absolutely anything. The thing that impressed me was when he was just beginning to play jazz. He played I'm in the Mood for Love, and then improvised a four-part fugue on it! I don't know how exact the fugue was. It sounded very genuine.

"I did a series of dead-end jobs after I left Oxford, but playing music all the time. My first real writing was when I was with the Dick Williams Jazz Band, a mainstream band, but very open to anything. The band had two saxophones doubling clarinet. I played baritone saxophone then. Dick Williams was on trumpet. The most famous person there was Dick Heckstall-Smith. We did a television programme, Sunday Break, which was a 'muscular vicar' type religious programme, every Sunday. The band had a spot where Dick Williams9 would draw a cartoon ('The Dick Williams Cartoon Band') of the featured soloist. Every week there would be a different person. I did most of the writing for that. The band recorded for Parlophone. George Martin10 was the record producer.

Lyons insists that at that time he still wasn't a fully-fledged writer. Had he studied with anyone? "Nobody at all. Because of not thinking of myself as a composer, I'd just write. I imagined what it was going to sound like, and stretched my imagination on the rack to make sure that it's going to be right. That was how I learned, rather than by taking tuition. I approached it in the same way I approach composition now. You have an idea which you try to get down as clearly as you can. You think, 'I've got this chord I want to play. How shall I distribute it? What tone colour do I want? What on earth is it going to sound like if the trombone and the alto double compared with lead trumpet, or a muted trumpet and alto?' You desperately think: 'What's it going to sound like?' 'Is this going to be drowned?' I wouldn't have described it then as, 'Am I doubling the tonic?', but I'd try the chord on the piano. I'd hear this note, which is the tonic, coming out too strongly, making the tonic too heavy. These are things I've learned to think about through post-analysis. At the time, that's how I worked.

"Experience makes you able to articulate what you've done, not just instinctively but through extreme hard work and ignorance. Later on you use that experience, so that you know - for instance - not to double the tonic too much if you want to get a sense of lightness.

"Having got the sack from all these dead-end jobs, because I was just thinking about music all the time, I decided to go to the Guildhall [School of Music & Drama] to study clarinet and composition. By then I must have been really interested in composition. I changed to bassoon [to avoid competition], because 150 clarinettists were applying for the Guildhall, but no bassoonists. There I studied composition with Raymond Jones11. He was doing a lot of freelance work as an arranger for the BBC. With him I worked on very practical stuff, harmonizing chorales, analysing the harmony of Beethoven sonatas, and so on - and not a lot of composition, actually. Whenever I got a chance I'd try to write freely.

"I read Russell Garcia's book on composing and orchestration12, well-known at the time, and useful. What I got from Garcia was not to be afraid of parallel fifths, and to use them if you want more power in a line. I'd come across people who'd say: 'Oh, there's a parallel fifth'. I'm irked when I encounter academic musicians who've learned what they should and shouldn't do on some theoretical basis, yet they criticise people who actually get down and do it." So, how does he work?

"Always redrafting, endless redrafting, using the piano," he says. "What I used to do was look at pianists, hotel pianists, when on holiday or whatever. When I heard something that I'd like, I'd even annoy them by asking: 'What was that chord? In the case of classical music, I'd find out what it was from looking at the score.

"The first big break was to record some library music, using a reasonably sized band with strings and woodwind, done for Essex Music. The producer said, 'We're getting a number of young composers'. One of the others was Chris Gunning13, who has subsequently made quite a name for himself. The same firm asked me to write an LP of music that could be used for jingles, all exactly half a minute or a minute long, using woodwind, brass and saxes.

"At about the same time Johnny Gregory, a very popular arranger, extremely good, farmed out some work in my direction. His main business was writing middle-of-the-road stuff. The first one I did for him was for Vicky Leandros, who had won the Eurovision Song Contest. That was in the days when the competition used a huge band, with strings and eight brass. I scored a James Taylor song, I Always Thought I'd See You Again. I also did some instrumental albums, and some Muzak. Then Gregory got a job conducting the BBC strings. I wrote a lot of middle-of-the-road arrangements for him. In those days there were a lot of late night programmes that broadcast this stuff. There many BBC staff orchestras: the Welsh, the Scottish, Midland Radio, Northern Radio. I did some for Neil Richardson, and Angela Morley (formerly Wally Stott). The scores used to take me a long time. Stylistically, I didn't have models. I write what I'd like to hear."

The lack of a comprehensive British archive to cherish jazz and band materials is highlighted here. What happened to all the scores - a total of 120, he reckons - written for the various BBC orchestras?

"A bone of contention," says Lyons. "Occasionally I've sent an email to try and recover some of them. I get no reply, so lose interest. I heard that the whole collection had been destroyed, shredded. If it's true, that is a nuisance," he says, an understatement if ever there was one. Lyons points out that William Walton used to write for the BBC. Walton, and folk such as Benny Carter, wrote stuff for Roy Fox or Henry Hall. "What a pity to destroy such a wealth of music."

"In 1980 I moved to New Zealand for a year, to become chief arranger for New Zealand television. I did an enormous number of scores, about three a week. I speeded up enormously. The BBC scores would take me a week, to do one score. By the time I left New Zealand one would take me a day. The scores don't get better, but you recognise what's likely to be a blind alley. I wanted to stay in New Zealand, but the restrictions on immigration were very strong."

Back in England came another change of direction. "I had written Take up the Flute and Take up the Clarinet, and a few other things for Chester Music. They went down very well. So I started my own publishing business, Useful Music. I've been publishing through that since then.

"In 1984 it occurred to me that it would be a good idea to be included on the Associated Board (ABRSM) lists. I submitted a few things; some were accepted. I remember June Emerson14 saying to me - in 1986, I think - that the ABRSM were just adding the saxophone to their examination syllabi, that I was an ideal person to write some saxophone pieces. So I wrote New Sax Solos. They went on the syllabus. I've never lobbied the ABRSM. I submit pieces. If they like them, they like them. If they don't, they don't.

"I find writing long pieces extremely hard. So many factors of balance and texture come in to it. There's an inverse correlation between the attractiveness of a melody and the length of the piece. In a long piece, such as a symphony or an oratorio, if you have very attractive melodies they stop development. As soon as you develop that melody, it becomes worse! Therefore the listener feels slightly dissatisfied; you have this lovely melody, then take it away! Despite what people say, Beethoven's melodies aren't particularly attractive, for a very good reason. They allow him to do really serious in-depth development, making the whole piece something quite gigantic. Whereas pretty melodies wouldn't."

Lyons advises that a writer should never avoid the obvious. "Of course, if it sounds trite, then get rid of it. But if the obvious seems to be right at that time, go with it. When something seems to want to happen in a composition, get it down. You can always review it later on."

And still he has never had any instruction, apart from the early spell at Guildhall. "For classical music, the teachers are the scores," he says. "If you hear something you like, you look it up. So you could say that I've been taught by Tchaikovsky, or Beethoven!"

And the future?

"The new saxophone book I've written15, for Grades I to V, is to be restored to the list. I thought what I'd do is produce a series of books for wind instruments, graded, with a CD, on which I'm putting the piano parts, to be printed out, from a computer, using Adobe Acrobat Reader, software that is widely available and free. The sax book, for instance, contains forty-four pieces. The piano part takes up three times as much room as the saxophone part; it's bulky to post and to carry around. To me it seems a terrible waste of money, energy (and wood) to supply all these pieces, when the piano part can be printed by the purchaser should it be needed."


1. Clarinet for Children.

2. Lyons, Graham (ed.), The Russian Version of the Second World War, Facts on File, New York, 1976.

3. The English and Maths GCSE test books.

4. Lyons, Graham. New Sax Solos.

5. Lyons, Graham. Clarinet Sonata.

6. Lyons, Graham. Useful Clarinet Solos.

7. An article about George Draper appears in CASS Magazine, Summer 1998 - (Volume 23 No.2)

8. John Bassett's band The Bassett Hounds is available on Harkit HRKCD 8054, Dudley Moore & Richard Rodney Bennett: the First Orchestrations. Known as The Bassett Hounds, John Bassett recorded them privately in 1960. Arrangements by Dudley Moore and Richard Rodney Bennett.

9. Dick Williams (Richard Williams, b. 1933), later known for his work on The Return of the Pink Panther (1974) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, (1988).

10. George Martin. Born 1926, he is best known as the producer of most of the Beatle's recordings from 1962 to 1969. He was knighted in 1996.

11. Raymond Jones. According to composer Patrick Stanford, Jones was: "A talented commercial composer who had had the distinction of studying with Benjamin Frankel, himself a much underrated composer. His own film scores, West End shows and music for television showed some versatility, stemming from his thorough knowledge of widely varying types of music, ranging from Palestrina to Ravel and Schoenberg.

12. Garcia, R. The Professional Arranger-Composer. New York: Criterion Music Corp., 1979. Two Volumes.

13. Christopher Gunning is a composer of concert works and music for films and television. His film and TV compositions have received many awards. He has won three BAFTA awards for Agatha Christie's Poirot, Middlemarch, and Porterhouse Blue, and three Ivor Novello awards for Rebecca, Under Suspicion, and Firelight. His scores for The Big Battalions, Wild Africa, Cold Lazarus, When the Whales Came, and Winalot Prime have also received nominations for BAFTA and Ivor Novello awards.

14. Emerson is a specialist supplier of music for wind instruments.

15. Compositions for Alto Saxophone. Vol.1 Useful Music U132.

Compositions for Tenor Saxophone, Vol.1 Useful Music U132

This article first appeared in Clarinet and Saxophone Magazine, Autumn 2005. Used by kind permission. Not to be quoted from or used in any way without permission from the author.
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