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John Jack 1933-2017

John Jack 100 Club 1Jazz never had a more faithful friend than John Jack, who died on September 7 and whose life was celebrated at the 100 Club yesterday, following a committal at the Islington and Camden/St Pancras crematorium. Among those musicians and poets queuing up to pay tribute by through performance were Mike Westbrook and Chris Biscoe (pictured during their duet), Evan Parker and Noel Metcalfe, Jason Yarde and Alexander Hawkins, Steve Noble (with Hogcallin’, one of John’s favourite British bands), Pete Brown and Michael Horovitz. Many others were present, along with scores of faces familiar from countless nights in dozens of clubs down the years, all of us having trouble believing that we won’t be seeing John again with his beloved Shirley at their usual table in the Vortex.

It occurred to me the other day that John probably heard more great music than the rest of us put together, and he knew the value of it. I met him on my first night in London, one Monday in the autumn of 1969. Earlier in the day I had reported for work at the Melody Maker and was told to go and review Westbrook’s band at the 100 Club. It was one of many great Monday nights there over the next few years, and John was a fixture. Maybe those sessions were a continuation of the work he’d done while running the Old Place in Gerrard Street for Ronnie Scott and Pete King between 1965 and 1968, offering a home to the new developments led by the generation of Westbrook, Chris McGregor and John Surman.

“The last of the Soho anarchists” was how the humanist celebrant, Jim Trimmer, described him during the committal ceremony. John was that, and more. He had been a roadie for the Vipers skiffle group; he had tried his hand as a painter; he had worked at the 2 Is, where British rock and roll was born; he had spent time at the Beat Hotel in Paris; he had been a founder member of CND; and much, much more, long before I ever met him. While working at Dobell’s Jazz Record Shop he took a flat opposite, in Charing Cross Road, and there he stayed for the rest of his life — on the side of that lovely street that wasn’t torn down by developers.

I was privileged to be one of his pallbearers, along with Matthew Wright, Mike Gavin and Glyn Callingham, all three of whom had known him when they worked at Ray Smith’s jazz record shop in Shaftesbury Avenue, where John ran his Cadillac Records operation from the basement. His co-worker in that venture was the wonderful Hazel Miller, who had known him longer than any of us and sat alongside Shirley in the chapel. On a beautiful bright day up in East Finchley, it felt like the end of an era.

* Here’s John Fordham’s fine summary of John’s life

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. Matthew Wright #

    Thank you Richard. The event was a moving tribute to a modest and underrated man whose contribution to the London jazz scene has been immense.

    October 6, 2017
  2. John Kieffer #

    Yes, thanks indeed for this Richard.
    I bought a lot of stock for the Public House in Brightpn from Cadillac in the late 70s. The trips to see John were great fun. Although I would call first, John always forgot I was coming, and was incredibly grumpy when I first arrived. The actual business then probably took about 10 minutes but several hours later I would eventually return to the south coast full of stories. He helped me a great deal back then, as I know he did many others.

    October 6, 2017
  3. MJG #

    His absence at that table in the Vortex was all too apparent when I was there for Louis Moholo-Moholo’s 4 Blokes recently. I never had any dealings with him but he was so obviously a doyen of the London scene, evidenced by how many of the musicians always took the time to speak with him

    October 6, 2017
  4. Colin Harper #

    What a shame he never wrote a memoir.

    October 6, 2017
  5. Good morning from my room next to the Pacific in Valparaiso.
    I always enjoy reading your posts Richard, but am afraid to say that I am usually ignorant when you write about the jazz scene.
    Not on this occasion though, as I remember John from when I used to go to London with my friend Ray Bolden for the Christmas drink-up. At the time I was very young and was unaware of the stature of my drinking colleagues.
    I have fond memories of those trips with Ray, who was a great jazz fan, photographer and former Dobell´s employee.
    Thank you for reminding me of those times.

    October 6, 2017
  6. I’ve blogged a couple of times about JJ on my website. I only met him towards the end of his life, but found him a very helpful, approachable font of knowledge, and it was a privilege to have visited his home on a few occasions (he showed the the marvellous views over Soho on his roof!). RIP, John (and my commiserations to Shirley, another welcoming figure to the world of modern jazz.

    October 6, 2017
  7. geoffn #

    John Jack was a regular at the Jazz Centre Society’s weekly gig at the Phoenix, Cavendish Square which I ran for a year with Mary Grieg in 1976. His gruff manner (shyness perhaps?) was accompanied by a dry wit.

    Many musicians, industry types and journalists would drop by for a drink at the bar, often shouting over the music.

    John always gave the band his full attention, listening intently throughout. As did John Fordham and Miles Kington.

    October 7, 2017
    • Colin Harper #

      Whatever happened to the Jazz Centre Society? Did they ever get a ‘jazz centre’? I’m guessing not, though wasn’t there something at St Katherine’s Dock at one point?

      October 7, 2017
      • geoffn #

        A long and sad story, but briefly: The permanent home was to have been at Floral Street Covent Garden, a stone’s throw from another JCS venue, the Seven Dials on Shelton St. Plans were drawn up (Sandy Brown Architects), funding obtained and work started on site, but costs escalated and the job ground to a halt, with the charity eventually being wound up in the mid-80s.

        October 7, 2017
      • Colin Harper #

        Am I right in thinking the jazz pub circuit of the 60s and 70s is pretty much all winding up now too? (I don’t live in manland GB – these things are all observed from afar.)

        October 7, 2017
      • John Blandford #

        I think there is less jazz in pubs now – it was too dependent on the whims of landlords and very few pubs these days have pianos. But there is still a circuit of volunteer run jazz clubs in various venues across the country, some of them long established.

        And the Jazz Centre Society…..yes it’s a long and sad story. Around 1982 the financial problems of the Floral St building were such that they threatened to bring down the whole organisation, so it was decided to legally separate the building from all the other activities. The other activities evolved into Jazz Services (also RIP).

        October 11, 2017
    • Colin Harper #

      It’s curious, isn’t it, that both jazz and folk music in Britain, from similar-period beginnings in the 1950s, began in ‘amateur’ group/committee-run clubs and in pubs that for many years (decades) was effectively the essential (and still amateur) infrastructure for many professional musicians’ careers.

      I daresay it’s all arts centres and pizza restaurants and funding applications these days, though I visited a determinedly old-school folk club in the wilds of Cornwall earlier this year – two sets from the (excellent) visiting pro performer, endless (mostly dreadful, instruments out of tune) floor singers before each set. It was an interesting experience, like finding a Coelocanth or something from another age. You understood perfectly why it had (mostly) died out, but you could imagine in your mind’s eye how exciting and community-creating it must have been in its heyday, in a simpler time.

      I like to think the same of British jazz, although the journals of the time (the 50s-60s) are full of people whingeing – in the midst of a sea of jazz clubs, BBC bookings and nightclub residencies – about few the opportunities were!

      October 11, 2017
      • John Blandford #

        To my mind, the big change over the last 20-30 years has been the growth in the number and scale of jazz festivals. Various reasons for this, but in large part I think because they are seen as ‘prestige’ projects and therefore find it easier to attract funding. Festivals are good in many ways, in particular they attract audiences who might not go to club/ pub venues. However they generally last a maximum of 7-10 days; what happens for the other 51 weeks of the year?

        In London and some other big cities there are year round, professionally staffed music venues (Ronnies, Pizza Express etc.) But outside of the big cities the whole jazz infrastructure is dependent either on Arts Centres who are not jazz specialists but put on jazz alongside other performances, or, more often, jazz being sustained by voluntary promoters running gigs with no or minimal outside funding. So I would argue that the voluntary promoter is still an essential part of the UK’s jazz infrastructure.

        A final thought; although voluntary promoters are amateurs in the sense that they aren’t paid, many whom I know have been in the game for some time and are highly professional in the way they operate!

        P.S. We seem to have got a long way from John Jack, who was an acquaintance of mine but not a close friend, but that’s the beauty of threads like these!

        October 12, 2017
  8. The story of the Jazz Centre Society is a little more complex than John Blandford relates. Having separated the building development from the concert and club promotions around early 1980 the Jazz Centre Society (JCS) actually thrived for a while. It had a lively Manchester-based Northern Branch headed up by Ian Croall promoting weekly at the Band on The Wall and supporting jazz in the North and North West including Sheffield where John Blandford was promoting. It also had a developing Midlands branch supporting jazz across nine Midlands counties which I ran. On separation of building projects and music promotion, we decided to set up a national jazz touring circuit and we staged I think 13 national tours each of 1 – 3 weeks long in 1980-1 and 11 national tours in each of 1981-2 and 1982-3. I wish I had kept the tour schedules as I can’t now remember all the bands we toured (I did the tour management on all of them). Aside from top quality British acts, each year we brought over an American ‘name and toured them with a British band and those included Jimmy Knepper with Bobby Wellins, Hannibal Marvin Peterson with Don Weller (a magical pairing) Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson with the John Burch Trio and Jimmy Giuffre with Geoff Castle, Ron Matthewson and a young Steve Arguelles. In addition John Cumming, the JCS concerts organizer put together shorter tours by Carla Bley, Gil Evans and Garbarek, Haden Gismonti amongst others. However the JCS finances were never robust and continual requests to the Arts Council for extra funding were always declined (see also Richard’s tribute to John Muir who was our Arts Council lead officer).

    In late 1982 the JCS Board which included regional representation, was advised that the organisation was insolvent and, if memory serves me correct, voted to wind itself up (I do recall a rather heated and chaotic meeting in the wood panelled cellar bar of a London pub that decided this). In the Midlands, our JCS branch under the Chairmanship of George West, (also then Chair of Birmingham Jazz), decided we weren’t going to throw away three years hard work. Following a prompt from George I pitched the idea of an independent regional jazz agency to my two Midlands Arts funding bodies. They agreed and sold the idea to their music officer colleagues and then to the Arts Council. A new network of regional jazz organizations was consequently born and partially in place in early 1983 giving, in time, England-wide jazz development coverage and support. These new funded jazz bodies lasted up to 15 years before a different breed of Arts Council culled them, though there are now signs of a reinvention/revival of the idea.

    Just as the Jazz Centre Society was getting into financial difficulty it was also negotiating to buy Manchester’s The Band On The Wall which proved a taxing financial and legal exercise but was ultimately successful and is one of the very happy legacies of the Jazz Centre Society’s work.
    Jazz Services was the London-based organisation with the unenviable role of trying to tie together and make sense of this new regional jazz network. Under their founding Director, Chris Hodgkins, they lasted rather longer. Though for how much longer, is open to question.

    To return to John Jack, I well remember Wednesday jazz nights at The Phoenix in Cavendish Square in 1974 some of them quite memorable – in particular the Pat Smythe Quintet with Allan Holdsworth. I occasionally encountered John Jack a few years later when at the Jazz Centre Society when I was an early twenty something. He came across as quite intimidating to a comparatively ignorant youngster. I wish I had had the time and courage to get to know him, even a little.

    Important aspects of our distinctive British jazz history are slowly disappearing, sometimes without any proper documentation. Your pieces and tributes help hugely Richard, thank you.

    October 11, 2017
    • Colin Harper #

      Fascinating, Paul. Thank you for talking the time to explain all that.

      October 11, 2017
  9. Steve Barrow #

    I knew John Jack when he distributed records from Ray’s basement, but I also remember him from Dobells – if I remember correctly, he worked in the Dobell’s shop next door, that sold blues and related music. When I started dealing in reggae music in the mid-1970s, John introduced me to Emil Shalit, founder of the Blue Beat label. He also gave me several original 1960s pressings of Prince Buster material, now extremely rare and musically great,….
    In fact John once asked me if I knew the whereabouts of 1 million records – which had to be in company bags, for an export deal Mr Shalit was doing. I happened to know the location of a stack of Woolworths ‘Embassy’ pressings, cheapo covers of hit records, but all in company bags. I accompanied Mr Shalit wn in his chauffeur-driven Bentley to the place where these records were stashed – in a de-sanctified church on Deptford Broadway [now a giratory system!] , and he bought all that stock.
    I also bought wholesale records on John’s label Cadillac, for the original Honest Jon’s in Camdene Town, when I worked in HJ’s Monmouth Street shop, juts opposite Ray’s. John Jack was a kind guy, in my experience – I certainly won’t forget him, genuinely one of a kind… .

    November 16, 2017

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