John Myatt, 1931-2011

Very sad to hear of the passing of John Myatt, my beloved bassoon teacher of 40+ years ago and so much more – clarinettist, fixer, conductor, source of inspiration and outrageous jokes, printing master, guru, family friend, clown, surrogate crazy uncle…

Aged 80, John had not been well for some time.  He had been living in retirement in Suffolk, with his devoted wife Janet and their equally devoted dogs.  I feel very fortunate that we were able to drop in and see him in March this year and catch up after so many years.  He was still on great form!

Happy memories of those days in Hitchin, and later in Cambridge, when he taught me almost all I knew about how to play the bassoon (and then generously passed me on to be finished off by Roger Birnstingl, who was another huge inspiration – I managed to catch up with him too at the recent William Waterhouse celebration at the Wigmore).

On Saturday mornings I would get on my bike and pedal across Hitchin to work with John on his printing press – a monster 10×15 Heidelberg – backed up by a Victorian treadle-operated press which was my domain.  Learning about traditional type-faces and printing techniques, putting pages together in letterpress by hand (on a ‘composing stick’ – I was always proud of my black thumbs!) – what a great education.  John would pay me 5/- an hour, which went into a tin to save up for my first bassoon of my own – an East German Chinese Howarth which cost £90 and played magnificently (on a Heckel crook) until the insufficiently seasoned wood started shrinking a few years later.

And what a great house:  St Bridget’s was a former nunnery, and John had been tickled to find a stash of holy lamp-oil in a cupboard.  The Cellar Press occupied the front hall;  upstairs was the huge music room, with his lovely old Erard piano and all manner of clarinets, saxes, slide trumpets and other instruments dotted about.

Later, when I was at Cambridge Tech, John would come over to do the woodwind teaching and would drop in to our family’s house for tea and a chat – always welcome, and great company.  The world-famous Woodwind and Brass Shop came later – testament to John’s enormous energy and entrepreneurial skills. 

Our sympathies go to Janet and Polly, and the brood of Myatt sons scattered around the globe (some of whom I baby-sat for when they were very small!).  Not only I and my contemporaries but several generations of musicians – not only woodwind players – will miss him terribly.  The world will be less fun without him, but he was the one who taught us to enjoy it.  Goodbye, John, bless you and thanks for everything.

John’s thoughts from an earlier era…

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16 Comments on “John Myatt, 1931-2011”

  1. Andrew Morris Says:

    I have very similar feelings to you Jo. I feel downhearted to hear this sad news and regret that I didn’t get to see John recently.

    In addition to all your recollections of St Bridgets and the printing press and our journeys to Youth Wind Bands and Youth Orchestras, I remember his pranks and laughter. I went on a one week sailing holday in 1966 with him and an overly serious sailor who was in charge. John managed to hide in front of the forward sail in such a way that he could flap it by hand just when it was supposed to be steady, yet remain unseen by Captain Fred at the helm. Fred’s consternation at the inexplicable flapping of the sail finally ended when John’s laughter overcame him.

    He took me home to St Bridgets one day, full of enthusisam about a new flute player. He played a 10/- recording of an unknown William Bennett playing Handel with extraordinary strength of tone. He then spotted a concert by Bennett in Comberton Village College, took me and my Dad to it, introduced himself and me to Bennett and arranged tuition for me. John loved to remind me that my Dad had said ” I know where we will find a musician immediately after a concert – having a pee!” And sure enough we waited outside the gents until Bennett appeared. So my audition was impromptu, outside the gents loo at Comberton village college. Just one of the many huge and generous gifts John gave to us lucky kids in North Hetfordshire.

    Andrew Morris

  2. jonathanburton Says:

    Thanks, Andy, and bless you for those memories!

    What a lovely man — kind, funny and generous.

    See you soon, I hope. Surely there will be a mega memorial concert?

    • Andrew Morris Says:

      Hi Jo
      Yes I will be at the funeral.

      As you saw him earlier this year can you tell us how he was?

      A mega-concert (interspersed with funny stories?) in Hitchin would be a great idea.


  3. jonathanburton Says:

    Sorry I won’t be — just too far to get there from here. Please say hi to everyone.

    As you see from the photo, John was very thin but still smiling. Happy to chat, full of reminiscences, but got tired easily. Colin and Gordon had warned us he might not have long.

    I keep remembering more things, e.g. his Volkswagen camper vans — first the green and white one (such a rare sight that if he saw another one they would acknowlege each other), then the very smart black one which he said had started life as a hearse… Many are the trips we all had in those, to various locations around the country!

    If any news of concert plans, let me know…

    • Andrew Morris Says:

      Hi Jo

      Yes I can see he looks thin. It is tricky place to get to as I have been finding out today! I’ll give people your regards. I don’t know who will be there from the old days, probably quite a few.

      I was thinking of old days with you and Tony as I cycled through Hitchin the other week. I still go that way often as my mother lives in Ashwell and brother in Wallington near Baldock.

      I had no idea you had moved to the south coast till i saw this website.

      I’ll let you know how it went.

      Talking of Hitchin days, I gave a concert with the Galliard Trio somewhere recently where somebody talked to me about John Toll who apparently died a few years ago. Do you know about this?


  4. jonathanburton Says:

    Bless you — really sorry not to be there. Colin says if there are no plans to organise a memorial concert he will try to set it in motion.

    This is what I wrote about John Toll in an article for Hitchin Grammar school Old Boys a while ago:

    John Toll – a Bunterish figure with thick glasses and mop of ginger hair – was one of a bewilderingly large musical family who feature constantly in reports of music at the School throughout the Sixties; he played the solo part in John Field’s Rondo for piano and orchestra at the 1963 Christmas Concert, and also played the horn. While still at school he gained his ARCO (Associate of the Royal College of Organists), and then spent a year at the Royal School of Church Music, picking up an FRCO, before taking up an Organ Scholarship at Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1966. After some years working in music for the theatre, he caught the Early Music ‘bug’, working first as harpsichordist to the Bournemouth Sinfonietta and then becoming one of the most sought-after keyboard continuo players of his generation, with countless performances and recordings to his credit. He also taught at the Royal Academy of Music and in Dresden, and was appointed Musical Director of Kent Opera in 1997. Sadly, he died of cancer in May 2001 at the age of 53, and is much missed. According to his obituary in The Guardian, John was ‘one of the best continuo keyboard players in the world… an unselfconscious figure who exerted a quiet authority on the concert platform as someone who very clearly knew exactly what he was doing and was able to convey the inner essence of the music… straight to the heart and mind of the listener.’

  5. Andrew Morris Says:

    Hi Jo

    Thanks for this about John Toll. I remember him well and still have programmes of concerts we all did together in the HItchin area some printed by John Myatt at the Cellar Ptress with its unmistakable typeface. Very sad to hear this confimed about John Toll.

    John Myatt’s funeral was a moving occasion – humanist, with a celebrant from Hitchin retelling his life. Gordon was there and Colin and Anita and Peter Smith and his wife. I bumped into Paul Chapman on the train to Great Yarmouth and, as both of us had cycles, we cycled and reminisced on a ride through the country lanes to Lowestoft. It was very positive atmposphere with many photos and letters remembering John and his positive infleunce on so many lives. It was good to see old friends,

    All his off-spring were there, Peter’s band playing, and Patsy’s three sons and Polly greeting people. Fascinating to see them all after a gap of about 30 years! Patsy was also there and she had remained at St Bridgets until only a few months ago.

    Let’s hope a memorial concert gets underway somehow.

    Best wishes


  6. Polly Myatt Says:

    Hi Jonathan and Andrew,

    It’s been such a pleasure to read your brilliant memories of Dad. There has been talk of getting a memorial concert together maybe in a year when we’ve all had time to recover a bit from the loss and will have more energy to put into arranging it. Any ideas and help will be gratefully received I’m sure!

    Lots of love,

    Polly xxx

  7. jonathanburton Says:

    Thanks, Polly – bless you for that. There will be more memories in Double Reed News shortly.
    Colin Beak has talked about being involved in arranging a memorial concert, so please keep in touch — looking forward to it!

    Much love (and to Janet),

    Jo xx

  8. Pete Myatt Says:

    Hello Jo,

    Some lovely memories here! Patsy asked me to pass on how much she enjoyed reading through you and Andy’s recollections and is also very keen on the idea of some kind of memorial concert and I any input on this would be most welcome! Sad that you were unable to get to the funeral as it was a lovely day …….

    Best wishes,


    • jonathanburton Says:

      Hi Pete! Good to hear from you after all these years 😉

      Thanks for your kind comments. Have you seen Double Reed News? More tributes in there.

      Please keep in touch with Colin Beak and Janet re possible concert plans. Maybe around the first anniversary — i.e. next Easter-ish — would be a good time?

      All best, and much love to Patsy — Jo

  9. Mary Sutton Says:

    Sorry to hear about John – David and I bought an oboe from David Kyle and he told us the news. The Myatt family go a long way back with my lot – John’s sister was a lodger with my mum’s family in the 1950s, my brother-in-law learned the clarinet with him in the 1960s and I married David Sutton, who had previously been married to John’s wife Alma. He was a legend….

  10. Petrena and Jonathan Ash Says:

    Having just googled Myatt’s Woodwind shop in Hitchin to find their phone number, we were very sad to read of John’s death last May. Thank you Jonathan for the photo of you both. Good to read of so many memories. My contact with John goes back to Mid-Herts Youth Orchestra days and the weekends in Offley, and being taken to play in concerts in the very early 60s in John’s van – can’t remember the colour! And later much appreciative contact with the wonderful Hitchin shop as a flute teacher.
    We’d be glad to know of any memorial concert arrangement.
    Petrena and Jonathan Ash

  11. jonathanburton Says:

    Thanks, Jonathan and Petrena — don’t we all rememember those days well!
    And I remember the quintet that rehearsed in our front room in Hitchin — you, my brother Tony, Gordon Davies, Colin Beak and Ted Chance. And me and our labrador, Scamp, sitting at your feet… With John Myatt as a kind of guardian angel, because without him we’d probably none of us have been doing what we were doing!
    Colin is working on a memorial occasion — I will email you separately.
    All best…

  12. Peter Valentin Says:

    I remember John very well from my time as a member of the North Herts Wind Band in the 1970s and as a passenger in his VW camper van on numerous vists to see Luton Town play! John was very witty and generous and often let me come around and use his snooker table. He was highly irreverent, which made being in the windband so much more interesting. A truly unique character!

  13. jonathanburton Says:

    Thanks Peter! I guess our paths never crossed, as my Band days ended around 1967 or so, I guess.
    What did you play? Was Jim Hibbert still in the band? Saw him at the Myatt Memorial concert (see later blog post) a month ago.
    Great that so many people have amazing memories of John!

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