I was very saddened last night, to hear of the death of John Jack, about whom I have had occasion to blog previously in these pages (in January 2016, and which was entitled Jack of Clubs). Most people will not have heard of Jack, ‘’a mainstay of Soho jazz life in the 50s, 60s and 70s’’, as I remember describing him in this previous blog.
I got to know John a little bit in the last few years of his life, through my research into my first book on early English free improvisation. It was Evan Parker who recommended that I talk to him, due to John’s involvement with the operation of Ronnie Scott’s Club, The Old Place (the site of Scott’s first venture into management) and The Little Theater Club. All three venues played incredibly important roles in the music’s beginnings. John soon proved to be both extremely helpful and informative, despite an initial impression of brusqueness, which was probably occasioned by failing health in his latter days. He asked me to visit him and Shirley in their flat in the Soho area of London’s West End, where he had lived for over 50 years, in a location that had placed him at the absolute epicenter of the English jazz scene for the second half of the last century, and an area which, he sadly reflected, was changing inexorably, but not in a good way
I paid three visits to John’s aerie (the roof offered unparalleled views over Soho’s highways and byways, which investors would pay millions of pounds to enjoy nowadays), and on the last of these, late last year, he gave me a collection of pamphlets and posters, which I will treasure, as a small sample of his long and productive life in jazz (including such items as a hand-printed Little Theater Club flier, for example). We saw each other on several occasions at The Vortex,, and had an evening-long chat at an Evan Parker quartet gig (with Shabaka Hutchings, the subject of another recent blog, December 2016) at this venue last year, but this was to prove the last time that I saw or talked to him. We made promises to be in contact in the following year, but you know how it is…..a reminder that we all need to keep in touch with our friends and allies as much as possible, as life is fleeting (John’s, however, wasn’t so short, thankfully). I always thought that it was a great shame that he didn’t commit his experiences and knowledge to paper, as he was an incredible historian, and he takes with him so many valuable recollections and reflections. I, for one, was amazed at just how many clubs, well-established and one-offs, that Soho had in its heyday, and which all which rolled off John’s tongue, an archivist’s dream interviewee, even though his memory for names was becoming slightly occluded at the end,. Much has been made of the portions of rock history within this small area, but a reification of John’s memories in book form would have been a thing to behold. It would have been a comprehensive helicopter view of British jazz in its most profound era of change and creativity.
Jazz is full, as is any history of any art form, of hidden heroes. As John’s main tangible creative legacy is the Ogun and Cadillac record labels, it may be left to formats such as this blog, to celebrate and consign his contributions to the music. I hope (against hope) that there will be obituaries for him in the specialist, or even non-specialist, magazines, but one would be foolish in the extreme to assume that this will be the case. It should be left to the people that knew him best to ensure that his very full life is not forgotten, as so many jazz lives have been. Still, with a resurgence of interest in 1950s ‘Soho Noir’ (which I have briefly discussed in recent posts), it may be that his love and facilitation of the music may be acknowledged and celebrated in the future. But don’t count on it.