Many aspects of the 1970s hit-movie franchise The Pink Panther have long passed their sell-by date, but Henry Mancini’s title theme might well outlive them, lurking among the opening credits as a tenor saxophone refrain that elegantly caught the tiptoeing cat-burglar stealthiness required by the original storylines. For all but the first of the series, the saxophonist was Tony Coe, one of the most accomplished British jazz and contemporary-classical woodwind players of the second half of the 20th century.
Coe, who has died aged 88, developed a tone on the tenor saxophone that was sultry, smoky and insinuating, his phrasing idiosyncratically spaced, his timing a constant tease to expectations. As a clarinettist (on which instrument, in his era, he was widely regarded in jazz as one of the world’s best) he could be as pure as a violin, but sometimes seemed to be lost in thought in improvisations, toying with soft, low-end sounds that would burst into fast, flaring ascents and wailing falsettos before evaporating in delicate, quivering retreats.
From the mid-50s onwards, those virtues made Coe a sought-after sideman in front-rank British bands led by Humphrey Lyttelton, John Dankworth, Stan Tracey, Mike Gibbs and others, and he worked in star-packed European lineups including the United Jazz + Rock Ensemble, as well as the big band co-led by Kenny Clarke and Francy Boland. As an improviser he was at ease with swing, bebop and even the most abstract free-improvisation, and he was also an imaginative composer of jazz pieces, film music and contemporary-classical chamber works, as well as a subtle and sensitive arranger.
Coe was born in Canterbury, Kent, as the only child of George Coe, a caretaker, and Ellen (nee Robson), a waitress. He was rigorously taught classical clarinet as a child and was playing in the Simon Langton grammar school jazz band in Canterbury at the age of 15. At 17, having also begun to teach himself the alto saxophone, he became a full-time professional in the Dixieland band run by the drummer Joe Daniels – a job he sustained either side of national service in the Royal East Kent Regiment (serving in its regimental band) between 1953 and 1955.
His father, a jazz clarinettist who had long recognised his son’s precocious talent, then approached Lyttelton as a possible employer, resulting in Coe becoming a member of Lyttelton’s pioneering trad-to-mainstream band as an alto saxist and clarinetist between 1957 and 1961, and sporadically in the years following.
An inspired and inspirational collaborator but a reluctant frontman, Coe made relatively few records under his own name but during the 60s – with the pianist Lennie Felix, or in Lyttelton-based quintets co-led by the band’s trombonist John Picard – he released several small-band sessions that confirmed his growing stature as a swing-to-bop improviser.
Shifting more or less exclusively to the tenor saxophone and clarinet in the 60s, he also revealed a maturing genre flexibility in that decade, writing and recording the album Tony’s Basement as an elegant jazz fusion with a classical string quartet in 1967. In 1967-68 he performed regularly with the John Dankworth band, and from 1968-72 with the classy Clarke/Boland orchestra in Europe.
In the 70s and 80s he increasingly ventured outside his comfort zone, dedicating an album called Zeitgeist (1977, composed for multiple reeds, cellos, jazz rhythm section and brass) to the Viennese 12-tone composer Alban Berg. Moving into free-playing, he recorded an impromptu set of clarinet improvisations with the American composer/pianist Roger Kellaway in 1978 (released in 2000 as British-American Blue) and recorded the album Time, with the abstract-improv guitarist Derek Bailey, in 1979.
In 1978 he had also begun a lastingly empathic playing partnership with the British pianist John Horler on the melodically boppish Coe-Existence album, and the relationship with Horler thrived on mutual respect for the rest of his playing life.
In the 70s Coe regularly performed and broadcast with the classical clarinetist Alan Hacker’s Matrix ensemble – adapting readily to a repertoire from 11th-century hymns to the modernist works of Harrison Birtwistle. And in the 80s and 90s he threaded his inimitable tones into the soundtracks of Superman II, Blake Edwards’s Victor Victoria, and Mike Figgis’s Leaving Las Vegas.
During this period Coe also played regularly in Mancini’s orchestra on tours to Europe. Coe and Mancini had been mutual admirers ever since the former’s replacement of the original Pink Panther saxophonist, Plas Johnson, on the theme tune, and the Englishman’s subtle version of the saxophone part was an audience favourite on tours.
Performing The Pink Panther, and Mancini’s The Creature From the Black Lagoon, at Crystal Palace Bowl in London in the 80s, Mancini offered £50 to any adventurous audience member willing to surface from the lake in front of the stage while it was playing. Coe tried to persuade his son, Gideon, an impoverished recent graduate, to take up the offer, but without success.
Coe also wrote a chamber orchestra accompaniment for the 1929 silent film Peau de Pêche and in 1990 composed, arranged and played on all the tracks of Les Voix d’Itxassou, a multilingual collection of global protest and political songs performed by an 18-piece orchestra and vocalists including Ali Farka Touré, Marianne Faithfull, the Syrian singer Abed Azrié and many others.
In 1995 the music world paid Coe due respect for three decades of accomplishment when he became the first non-American to receive the prestigious Jazzpar prize. In celebration he composed a fine extended big-band work, Captain Coe’s Famous Racearound (named after a childhood toy, and a venture he would come to regard as one of his lifetime favourites) for a performance conducted by the American jazz composer Bob Brookmeyer at the Jazzpar awards ceremony in Copenhagen.
In the 2000s and beyond he would continue to play sporadically and to record with compatible partners and friends, including the trumpeter Gerard Presencer, Horler, the pianist Nikki Iles and the singer Tina May, as well as the saxophonist and bandleader Alan Barnes. In 2021 Coe and Horler belatedly released Dancing in the Dark, a long-neglected tape of their appearance at the 2007 Appleby jazz festival in Cumbria, for which Coe had made a last-minute decision to perform entirely on the clarinet.
He is survived by his second wife, Sue Stedman Jones, whom he married in 1984, two sons, Simon and Gideon, from his first marriage to Jill Quantrill, which ended in divorce, and three grandchildren, Nat, Louis and Ruby.
• Anthony George Coe, musician, born 29 November 1934; died 16 March 2023