David Mossman – 17 July 1942 - 8 December 2018

Ahead of starting the Vortex in 1988, there is nothing in the early life of David Mossman, who died on Saturday at the age of 76, that would naturally make us think that he was ‘destined’ to run a jazz club in a relatively unrecognised part of London. Here was an East End-born black cab driver with a love of mountaineering, a grandfather at the age of 34, with a love of the music of Neil Diamond. His only experience of jazz previously had been going to see some gigs in the 1950s. But he was a man with a sense of flair and intuition, who could take calculated risks in terms of what he did, which musicians played at the club and how it looked. He knew how to survive, and take so many of us with him.

In so many ways, he had a lot in common with another person who was as influential in his own way on the London scene: John Jack. Both of them were ‘improvisers’ – not in terms of the pure jazz sense, but in terms of working out how to get the music heard. Meanwhile, on the other side of London, Steve Rubie has been doing the same at the 606 for 40 years. (In fact, David sought out Steve’s advice when the club first opened.)

Most vital of all, once the club had started, he had to find musicians whom he could trust to put together the groups and perform the music. He worked it out through listening carefully and working out who had the right feel. He wasn’t hoodwinked by groups with great marketing nous, nor by pure technical wizardry. But it seemed to work, as he gave slots to many who have gone on to greater things. I have spoken to so many musicians grateful for getting first opportunities. This has also come up in many of the contributions on social media over the past day since he died. Some of those who got major early ‘breaks’ at the Vortex include Partisans, Ingrid Laubrock, Tom Arthurs and Christine Tobin. He somehow managed to squeeze in extra large Kenny Wheeler Big Bands and I am surprised that the floor, precarious at the best of times, survived the numbers who turned up to a benefit gig for Steve Buckley with Delightful Precipice.

Once he trusted musicians, then he would give a pretty free hand in what they did, and he had them back regularly and through these he found more connections. Jazz Umbrella, Blow The Fuse, The London Jazz Orchestra, the Vortex Jazz Quartet led by Huw Warren and John Parricelli. The list is endless. And not to forget the themed seasons by Billy Jenkins.

But it also extended to giving at weekends a more ‘commercial’ stability with Ian Shaw, Stan Tracey and more, and the improv scene around Elton Dean, Derek Bailey and Evan Parker. I am grateful that he helped me in my own first experiences of live music promotion, having been mainly just a record label founder till then.

The musicians repaid his faith, and helped out to create a club that felt like what a club should be, as a place for musicians, fans and people wanting a great night out. He wasn’t a form filler, and so it never became a place reliant on an Arts Council life support system. He was generous to his friends, which is really how he regarded the musicians, but also he was concerned that the public got nights to remember. Through that commitment, generosity and passion, he likewise found the audience and similarly changed many of their lives (my own being no exception).

The Vortex had built up a position of being a loved community hub. So it was a group of fans and musicians that dissuaded him from moving to Ocean in Hackney, a short-lived over-funded arts centre disaster, and started looking first to buy the existing building (now a Nando’s if you are looking along Stoke Newington Church Street) and then find the present place in Dalston to where the club moved in 2005.

The aim was to keep as much of that imaginative, social and creative side to the club but take some of the weight off David’s shoulders. He was in the process of moving to Margate with his partner Lesley, well before the town became ‘Hackney-on-Sea’. And soon his new cafe there was putting on jazz gigs and he started the Margate Jazz Festival.

Nevertheless he still came up regularly at weekends to the Vortex to help out, to sort out the seating, to check that we were behaving right and introduce the bands at “London’s listening jazz venue”. And this went on even when his cancer, which was first diagnosed 15 years ago, was worsening. The Vortex to him was as powerful as any drug that was keeping him going and he had a real survivor’s instinct even in this.

We are proud that we have continued to keep much of what made the Vortex under David’s stewardship. David created what a jazz club should be – a living room owned by everyone. A place where musicians can be creative and interact with audiences. It has changed to being more of a social enterprise mainly run by volunteers. Of course it has needed to continually adapt to survive. The legacy is there in terms of the support given to so many. And together let us ensure that this is not forgotten. The Vortex is more than just a brand name. I myself am proud to have got to know David and have been regarded as a friend as well as a business associate.

David has given his body to science, in gratitude to all that the specialists at UCL did for him over the years. I am sure that there will be a problem finding a new home for his heart which was so big that there is no space large enough for it.

Oliver Weindling

Photo by Mark Hewins – www.flickr.com/photos/mark_hewins/

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