Jazz star Norma Winstone on growing up in Dagenham

Just over six decades ago a 10-year-old girl and her family moved from Bow to Oxlow Lane in Dagenham.

This little girl would go on to become one of Britain’s most prominent female jazz singers and play alongside a string of legendary artists.

Norma Winstone, born as Norma Short, is now 71 and still performing across the country, releasing albums and picking up awards. In 2007 she was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday honours for services to music.

The mum-of-two, who now lives in Kent, says her life may have been very different were it not for a Dagenham teacher.

“Miss Pamenter was my teacher at Alibon Primary School,” Norma explains. “She was wonderful. We were all girls in the class and she would treat us like ‘her girls’ and gave us advice about growing up.

“At some point during the year the council offered pupils the chance to apply for scholarships. I was interested in music and had played the piano a bit in Bow, but didn’t think I had a chance. But she spotted that I had a talent and told me to apply, so I did. I was then offered a scholarship to Trinity Music College.”

For the next few years Norma would take the train to London every Saturday where she was taught a variety of music styles.

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“Funnily enough I didn’t want to take singing classes as I wasn’t keen to sing classical stuff,” she says. “I loved singers like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, but no-one taught that kind of music then. Now Trinity have jazz classes, but not in those days.”

After passing her 11 plus exams, Norma was offered a place at grammar school Dagenham County High in Parsloes Avenue (now Sydney Russell).

“I just scraped in really as I wasn’t very good at maths, but not bad at English. I came from a very working class background and suddenly I was at a grammar school and attending music lessons at Trinity! It was expected.”

When Norma was in her first year at Dagenham County High, the late actor, comic and composer Dudley Moore was in his final year.

“I had a big crush on him,” she laughs. “Mainly because I thought he looked good.

“He had a music scholarship in London too - at the Guildhall School of Music - and I remember I was on the train on my way to Trinity one day when he got on at Barking and sat opposite me with his violin case. I didn’t dare say anything to him and tried not to stare, even though I wanted to.”

She says Moore, who used to play piano in assembly, was a bit of a joker.

“He used to act up a lot. I recall on a sports day once he was running around - limping a bit as he had a club foot - and he was wearing his blazer back to front.”

“I met him years later,” she adds, “in the 1970s, at a photo shoot for a group that was trying to set up a jazz centre. He told me he would still regularly visit the school, helping out in different ways. He also said he was in touch with our music teacher Peter Cork who died last month.”

Norma left school after her O-levels, declining an offer to stay on at sixth form.

“I just wanted to leave then and focus on music. I got some singing lessons from a man in Seven Kings called Al Dukardo and he taught me how to breath and how to make my voice heard as I was very quiet.

“I found work in an office and soon started singing in the pubs in the evenings. For a while I juggled working in the day and performing at night.

“In 1966 I was offered my first stint at Ronnie Scott’s, but it wasn’t until 1969 when I got a regular job in a club and became a full-time musician. Thankfully I’ve never had to do anything other than music since.”

Norma, who now lives in Kent with her partner, visited Sydney Russell last year as part of an annual school reunion in memory of Dudley Moore.

“I asked to look at the hall and they said I couldn’t because there was something going on there. But then I mentioned that I went to school with Dudley and said he used to play the piano in that hall, so they let me go in.

“Sitting in the hall was that very same piano that he played, looking a bit worse for wear, but still there.”