Photo courtesy of Vortex Jazz Club
“He was a man who just got on with things.” DAVID MOSSMAN founded the Vortex Jazz Club in Stoke Newington in 1988. He passed away on Saturday night 8 December 2018. Oliver Weindling, who has done much in his own right to continue and to build on David Mossman’s work in the club’s current premises in Gillett Square, remembers and pays tribute to a figure who made a unique contribution to London’s jazz scene:
I am writing this on a Sunday afternoon where the London Jazz Orchestra is about to do its monthly performance, as it has done for the past 28 years, to be followed tonight by a benefit for the club of South African music run by Jason Yarde and Adam Glasser. It makes today seem extra special to the memory of David Mossman who has died of cancer last night, but it’s actually just another regular day at the club he founded.
It’s hard to pin down not just how much David Mossman helped the jazz scene in London by starting the Vortex in 1988. I doubt if that would even have been on his mind when he opened the doors in Stoke Newington Church Street. He just started putting on jazz as a way to make the cafe and art gallery work in an area known more for IRA bomb factories than what it is today. It’s not even that he understood so much about jazz when he started, but, as with so many things about him, he did it because of having a great ‘gut feel’, a love of music that reflects riskiness, and the patience to see the fruits of the hard work out later.
So, after a few years, we had a man who developed a full and broad understanding of the best about this music. It wasn’t about booking big names. And that’s why perhaps so many musicians got their first chances during his time running the club. But his generosity, as shown in his trusting of the musicians and their music, extended as far as his audience, whom he always welcomed with a smile. So here we had a true East Ender (from Bromley-By-Bow), who for the first 45 years of his life had been a black cab driver and committed mountaineer. I myself think that this love of taking risks in Snowdonia is what made him able to appreciate what jazz musicians give when they take the stage. It was a balance between musical quality and keeping going throughout. He was probably able to benefit that the club started at almost the same time that the Jazz Cafe moved from its original location in nearby Newington Green to Camden, so that there was a gap for these musicians who needed somewhere to help develop their skill on a regular basis.
But he was always eminently practical. He did work on the acoustics of both the original Vortex and also the new venue in Dalston. He kept the music to the fore, learning about the music through listening every night, giving him a taste that ran through all styles up to and including Evan Parker and the free improv scene. When I asked him what were his favourite gigs, he explained that it was usually when a musician would ask him if he could play with someone whom he had never played with before. “And did these gigs make money?”, I asked. And his immediate reply was “Sometimes”! At one stage, he had actually been planning to close up shop and move to the ill-fated Ocean in Hackney (now the Picture House). Many of us – musicians and fans alike – discouraged him and it was at that time that I myself became part of the team that helped move the club to Dalston (after an ill-fated attempt to buy the old building). So it became a life-changer for me too, in that from then on, it pretty well determined where I would be most nights!
He himself at that point, with his partner (latterly wife) Lesley moved to start a cafe in Margate. This was in 2003 well before it became the town that it is today. But again it was an intuitive sense of risk and adventure that brought him there. And immediately one of the first things that he did there? Start a jazz festival and put on gigs in his cafe. But even then he still came up to the Vortex every weekend and more, helping out at the door, going down to the Turkish supermarket to stock up for his Margate cafe, meeting his musician friends and giving his advice.
He was a man who just got on with things. So he never went with a begging bowl to organisations like the Arts Council, as he had a hatred of form filling and bureaucracy, but always worked out how to survive. For him it was about being able to earn enough to enjoy company of great music, musicians and to share with the fans.
David never received any of those awards that exist nowadays. In fact, for him perhaps one of the proudest moments was when Evan Parker presented him with an album with Barry Guy and Paul Lytton, called Music for David Mossman (Intakt). For all the recordings that had been made in the club, this was the first (and sadly only) one that recognised David’s role fully.
I hope that the way the Vortex exists today allows us to keep much of that respect for the music and musicians that he had, and that the club can continue to move and evolve without forgetting those principles of putting great music and musicians first, with an optimism about the long term.