John Jack obituary
John FordhamLast modified on Sunday 24 September 2017 16.29 BST
John Jack, far right, at Dobell’s Jazz Record Shop, in Charing Cross Road, London. Its owner was Doug Dobell, seen here holding an LP
Jazz is often a noisy music, but some of the most quietly diffident people make it happen. John Jack, who has died aged 84, was one of British jazz’s most influential backroom visionaries. A fascinating source of oral jazz history, as well as a producer, promoter and enabler, John was appositely dubbed “the Zelig of British music” by his friend Mike Gavin for the nous that seemed unerringly to put him in the right place at the right time.
From his 20s to his 80s, John had his finger on the pulse of contemporary music, and of many of Britain’s wider cultural changes too. He was a trombone-playing participant in the birth of Britain’s “trad-jazz” revivalist scene as a teenager, an adventure that began with the purchase of Jelly Roll Morton’s Dr Jazz and Pinetop Smith’s Jumpsteady Blues records in Shepherd’s Bush market, west London, around 1947.
Following national service in the army, he became a bohemian habitué of the Soho nightlife that threw the ethnically diverse practitioners of jazz, African and Caribbean music together, an autodidactic British beatnik living in Paris bedsits amid the cafe intellectuals of the left bank in the 50s, an aficionado of anarchist politics in the Basque country, and later a student at the Slade School of Fine Art, London, who became an enthusiastic Gauguinesque painter of primitive art.
By the 60s, he had been a travelling salesman for early indie labels including Carlo Krahmer’s Esquire and Emil Shallit’s Melodisc, the former promoting emerging British jazz stars such as Humphrey Lyttelton, Acker Bilk and Ronnie Scott, the latter a variety of world folk forms, and calypso and mento styles from the Caribbean. He was a roadie for the Vipers skiffle band, and the sharp-eared promoter who in 1963 booked a rising young R&B quintet called the Rolling Stones to play the Manor House jazz pub in north London for a split of the door money.
From 1965 to 1968, John managed the original Ronnie Scott’s club in Gerrard Street, Chinatown, as an all-comers jamming haunt after the main venue had moved upmarket to Frith Street. The “Old Place” became a hothouse where bebop, R&B, jazz-and-poetry and South African townships jive joined hands.
John Jack set up the Cadillac record label with Mike Westbrook in 1973
In 1973, with the bandleader Mike Westbrook (who he was also managing), John set up the Cadillac record label and a distribution company of the same name. For the next three decades, his habitats changed to grubby London basements and warehouses rammed with bulging cardboard boxes. The goatee-bearded, coolly dapper and constantly preoccupied proprietor could prove an unexpectedly badtempered recipient of unscheduled phonecalls or visitors to his workplace. But the stormclouds of muttered expletives would quickly lift with peacemaking offers of tea, and murmured salutations of “What can I do for you, dear boy?”
A shy man with a big heart and profound empathy for the trials and insights of creative players, he used the role of producer/distributor to make a real difference to the accessibility of artists from many corners of contemporary music. The work of UK postbop originals such as Westbrook, Stan Tracey and Mike Osborne, the Jamaican free-jazz pioneer Joe Harriott, post-Coltrane American adventurers including the violinist Billy Bang and the saxophone virtuoso David Murray – they all found their way into the Cadillac catalogue, and they became artists who could count on John as friends.
He never found it strange to be a simultaneous fan of the 1960s Jamaican reggae-inspiration Prince Buster, the New Orleans revivalist trumpeter Bunk Johnson, and the free-improv saxophone master Evan Parker – they all chimed with his conviction that life was most usefully about seat-of-the-pants improvisation, not grand philosophical designs.
He was born and raised in Barnes, south-west London, the elder son of Don Jack, a motor engineer, and his wife, Joan, an occasional nightclub singer in her youth. As John’s youthful sociability on the music scene expanded, enthusiastic posses of guests would often find their way back to the parental home – his brother Roger recalled a 21st birthday party that lasted a week, with stray musicians, instruments and stocks of booze eventually even displacing the long-suffering Don and Joan from their own bedroom. John was a private man who followed his own muse, but that self-effacing sociability remained.
John is survived by his partner of 38 years, Shirley Thompson, and by Roger.
• John Michael Jack, jazz producer and promoter, born 25 May 1933; died 7 September 2017