Kathy Stobart, died aged 89, was a tenor saxophonist whose long career in British jazz included prominent roles in leading bands, most notably that of Humphrey Lyttelton; she was also a distinguished teacher and a popular director of student bands and taught at Allhallows. Kathy Stobart played with a broad, forthright tone and clear, unfussy phrasing, characteristics which often led critics to remark that she played “like a man”. Although well-meant, this accolade did not please her. “It’s supposed to be the ultimate compliment, but I wouldn’t apply it to myself,” she said. “I’ve got a good pair of lungs on me and I’ve got well matured emotions. I play like me.”
Florence Kathleen Stobart was born in South Shields on April 1 1925, into a musical family. Her mother was an accomplished pianist and two brothers played the saxophone, although “there was no jazz at all” in the house. She took up the saxophone aged 12 and, on leaving school at 14, joined Don Rico’s Ladies’ Band. As well as playing, she sang and did impressions. “My Gracie Fields was much admired,” she recalled. A year later she joined Peter Fielding’s dance band in Newcastle. This band often played at local air force stations and at one of these she met Keith Bird, a leading London saxophonist then serving in the RAF. He introduced her to jazz, coaching her in the art of improvisation and giving her a set of jazz records as a present on her 17th birthday. On returning to London in 1942, he wrote, offering her a resident job at a ballroom in Ealing. Once established in London, Kathy Stobart was soon accepted into the small inner circle of British jazz. After finishing work at 10.30pm, she would hurry to the Jamboree Club in Wardour Street, Soho, to sit in with trumpeter Denis Rose’s band. “I played jazz morning, noon and night. I used to stay up 24 hours, just playing and listening to music,” she recalled. Despite wandering around Soho in the wartime blackout, and encountering the gamy atmosphere of some of its establishments, she claimed never to have felt threatened. The other musicians protected her from harassment and even from bad language: “They’d say, 'Not in front of Kath’, and that was that”. In 1943, aged 18, she married the Canadian pianist Art Thompson and worked with his band at the Embassy Club. BBC Television was relaunched in 1946, and the husband-and-wife duo were featured several times during its first year. The following year they travelled to Canada, and from there toured the US, including a season in Palm Springs. After returning to England, Kathy joined the Vic Lewis Orchestra, a big band playing in the “progressive” style of Stan Kenton. She appeared with it at the 1949 Paris Jazz Fair, Europe’s first real jazz festival. Jazz was a fairly small element in early post-war British popular music, but Kathy Stobart was counted among its leading figures. She often played as a guest soloist in Ted Heath’s Sunday Night Swing Shop concerts at the London Palladium, and for a while led her own band, Kathy Stobart and her New Music. It was when trying to promote this that she claimed to have encountered the only serious example of anti-female prejudice in her career — from a BBC executive who turned her down.
Kathy Stobart and Art Thompson were divorced in 1951 and in October of that year she married the trumpeter Bert Courtley. Three sons were born in the early years of their marriage, which interrupted her career for a while, although she played until she was six months pregnant each time. “I never put the saxophone away with the idea of letting it stay in its case for long. I always knew I’d play it again.” In 1957 she joined Humphrey Lyttelton’s band, filling in for Jimmy Skidmore, who was ill. She and Lyttelton also recorded an album together, entitled Kath Meets Humph. A strong mutual regard formed between them, and she was to return many times as either a guest or full-time band member. The association certainly helped keep her name before the jazz public while her family was growing up. Less conventionally, she appeared for a while as a member of the onstage ladies’ band in the first London production of Cabaret, at the Palace Theatre. Bert Courtley died in 1969, and she was faced with the task of being the sole breadwinner for her growing family. She decided to add teaching to her musical activities and enrolled for a diploma course at the Guildhall School of Music, taking clarinet and flute as well as saxophone. When the journalist Les Tomkins came to interview her, there was a note pinned to the door: “When you come into the house, mind the dog, don’t fall over the kids and don’t let the cats into the kitchen. I’ll be practising the flute in the spare room.”
She proved to be a natural teacher and soon had a full diary of pupils. She also acted for some time as woodwind consultant at Bill Lewington’s, a large West End musical instrument dealer. All this was in addition to being a member of the Lyttelton band between 1969 and 1978. After leaving Lyttelton, she took over direction of the student band at the City Literary Institute in London. Here she was especially successful in tackling the gap which she had identified, “between becoming fairly proficient on one’s instrument and knowing how to put it into practical use in a band”. She held the post for 19 years. She also led several bands of her own, as well as appearing as a guest soloist at jazz clubs and festivals. In 1992 she rejoined Lyttelton for the third and last time, a stay which lasted for 12 years. Among her more unusual teaching jobs during this period was an engagement to impart the rudiments of the saxophone to Dame Judi Dench, for her part in the 2000 film, The Last of the Blonde Bombshells. The two were reported to get on like a house on fire. Kathy Stobart retired in 2004. Her place in the Lyttelton band was taken by Karen Sharp.
She is survived by her three sons.
Kathleen Stobart, born April 1st 1925, died April 6th 2014