|John Jack earlier this year
Photo by Leo Hoffmann courtesy of the Vortex
JOHN JACK – Mike Westbrook writes
At an informal gathering in his honour at The Vortex recently, John, who had not been in good health, was a little frail and short of breath. The gathering was organized by Hazel Miller with John’s partner Shirley Thompson, and friends Matthew Wright and Mike Gavin. The evening brought together a small cross section of the jazz community. Present were a few of the legions of musicians, promoters, journalists and fans whose lives had been touched and enriched by John’s support and friendship over the years. John’s speech showed that he had lost none of that ironic, world–weary humour. He always had a keen sense of the ridiculous. His passion for jazz was marked by honesty and integrity. To pretentiousness and pomposity he gave short shrift, and he was forever amused and/or outraged by the follies of this world.
John and Shirley continued to attend the much-loved Vortex until, following a check-up, it was decided to keep him in hospital. The breathing got worse, and within a week he passed peacefully away. Hazel observed that John’s death ‘marks the end of an era’. This is a sobering thought on which many of us will want to ponder. The generation that I shared with John has begun to suffer the grievous loss of jazz musicians, colleagues and friends. The era in which we cut our musical teeth, the late 1950s through ’70s, was one of a new-found freedom of expression, the breaking of barriers, and the hope for cultural and political change. Jazz music epitomized the spirit of the times. We took our cue from the astonishing records coming out of the States, and from hearing great jazz musicians ‘live’ for the first time. Thus inspired, we started to do our own thing. John was at the epicentre of all the changes going on. In the years that followed, he never faltered in his belief in the music, despite finding himself increasingly embattled by creeping commercialism when even some musicians were embarrassed to use the ‘J’ word.
I first met John in 1966 when I turned up with my sextet to play the Saturday All-Nighter at The Old Place. When Ronnie Scott and Pete King moved the club to Frith Street, 18 months remained on the lease of the Gerrard Street premises. In a gesture of enlightened arts patronage Ronnie decided to keep the Old Place open as a venue for the newer bands. Pete King gave John the keys and told him to get on with it. Musicians who played there were paid £5 a show. Ronnie had offered me the Saturday night gig. With my band we played it every week till the club closed in May 1968.
Soon after their arrival from South Africa, Chris McGregor’s Blue Notes were installed on Friday nights. John’s approach to programming the other nights was flexible and the club became a platform for experimentation. He was always open to new ideas, and many, many musicians took their turn on that small stage. Then there were the all-night rehearsals. I remember we rehearsed Marching Song there after hours, and that was where Chris McGregor first got together The Brotherhood of Breath. John, who had probably never been in charge of a club before, was the perfect manager. Everything was laid back and relaxed, but it all seemed to function perfectly well. And at 6am, at the end of the all-nighter, John cooked bacon and eggs for the band.
John was the most generous, most loyal and honest friend I could ever have wished for. He was crucial in helping me to keep my life and my music together in difficult times. When The Old Place closed, he and I continued working together. It was an exciting time. The music was exploding in many directions. But, lacking the central meeting place of the club, the scene became more fragmented. In a sense every musician had to fight their own corner and much of that collective spirit that had united musicians of different styles, backgrounds and persuasions, was lost.
From the mid ’70s, though we were always in touch, I saw less of John, which is something that I regret. I know that I never managed to express my gratitude to him. Others may well feel as I do that he did so much for us that was not adequately acknowledged. But John didn’t do what he did for personal glory, or for thanks. He did it out of the goodness of his heart, for the musicians he respected, and for the greater glory of jazz. His reward was to hear us play. And he had high standards. Nothing short of total commitment would do. He knew that what we all wanted most was to be listened to. And he understood that it was not always in the big sell-out concert halls, but often before small audiences in clubs and the back rooms of pubs, that the most creative, cutting edge music is to be found.
I think the best way we can celebrate John’s memory is to continue to make and to fight for the music that we love.
FOOTNOTE: Mike Westbrook has also kindly explained the origins of John Jack’s label Cadillac Records:
In 1972 I made a ‘live’ recording with my five-piece band. At that time I had a contract with RCA and, as a follow up to Metropolis, I was due to make another album. I offered RCA the ‘live’ album but they turned it down. John Jack was managing the band at that time, and he and I both felt that this music deserved a wider hearing.
We decided to release it ourselves and started a new label. By then the group had evolved into Solid Gold Cadillac. Hence Cadillac was the name we gave the new company.
Mike Westbrook–LIVE was the first album to be released on Cadillac Records. Under John Jack’s management Cadillac, alongside Hazel Miller’s Ogun Records, went on to build a catalogue of some of the most important contemporary Jazz generated in the UK.
Mike Westbrook- LIVE 1972 is now re-issued on Hux Records