John Jack – 1933-2017


John Jack was one of those figures who seem to have always been on the London jazz scene, and it's hard to imagine it without him. Right up to his death he was a regular, with long-standing partner, Shirley (pictured above left with John, middle, and Jack Docherty, right), at the Vortex, where a tribute was recently given to him. Many of his close friends and colleagues attended to celebrate his life and contribution to the music, and John's friend of many years, Mike Westbrook, gave a solo piano performance dedicated to him. In response, John addressed the gathering, showing he had not lost any of his wit and sharpness, but also his warmth towards the people and the music in which he had spent his life.

Born on 25 May 1933 in Barnes, his interest in music came from his mother, an occasional singer in nightclub bands, and he bought his first 78s around 1947/8 from Shepherds Bush Market – Jelly Roll Morton's 'Dr.Jazz' and Pinetop Smith's 'Jumpsteady Blues' on Brunswick. John did National Service in the Army before embarking upon what might be described as a 'bohemian' existence in the 1950s. He painted, wrote, played in a skiffle group, trombone in a trad band (his regard for Bunk Johnson extended throughout his life), and travelled, at one point living in Paris and mixing with Beats such as Allen Ginsberg.

He worked as a salesman for several jazz labels in the late 1950s/early 60s: Colin Pomeroy's Jazz Collector, Emil Shallit's Melodisc, Doug Dobell's 77 Records and Carlo Krahmer's Esquire, and at Dobells Jazz Shop in London. Then came a turning point in British jazz when Ronnie Scott opened his new club in Frith Street, and John was asked by Pete King to run the Old Place in Gerrard Street, putting on the new generation of improvisers.

"It was a stroke of great fortune," he later recalled. "Pete said: 'Here John, you've got a club. You look after it. You get on with it. Here are the keys. Do what you want with it'. And they paid the rent and we got on with it. Not many people get that kind of luck."

He had it for its last 18 months, often assisted by his brother Roger, and it saw some of the most exciting players to come out of the jazz scene, including the South Africans who were based in London and with whom he forged a strong and lasting relationship, especially Dudu Pukwana, Harry Miller and his wife, Hazel. From that emerged the Jazz Centre Society, with a committee which initially included John, Charles Fox, Brian Blain and John Fordham. At first based at the 100 Club, it expanded to the Country Club and other venues. He also wrote a regular jazz column for Sounds.

Soon after, John formed Cadillac Music, starting with a Mike Westbrook release in 1973, on, as he described it, "the day VAT broke out" and it soon expanded to include the distribution of numerous independent labels. In the mid 1970s he worked from the basement of Collets Jazz Shop (later Ray's) in Shaftesbury Avenue, and Cadillac releases included those by George Lewis, Bruce Turner, Stan Tracey, the Christie Brothers Stompers, Bobby Wellins, Dudu Pukwana, Mike Osborne, Joe Harriott, Trevor Watts' Moiré Music, Ken Colyer & the Crane River Jazz Band, The Jazz Doctors (Billy Bang & Frank Lowe) and David Murray; it reflected John's wide appreciation of jazz styles, the constant factors for John being "improvisation, honest expression of emotion and creativity". Visitors to the basement ranged from Willem Breuker to Prince Buster, and although he was known for his explosive outbursts, it disguised John's generous and hospitable nature.

He finally wound down the distribution side in 2009 but kept Cadillac going. In his final few moments he was with Hazel Miller and friend/associate Mike Gavin listening to, appropriately, Bunk Johnson's 'A Closer Walk With Thee'. John joined Bunk on Thursday 7 September.

– Matthew Wright

Photo courtesy Mike Gavin