As is the way of these things, I’d been speaking about him the day before the news came through that John Ellson had died. Some musicians were looking to apply for Made in the UK and I’d assured them that, if successful, they’d be in the best possible hands.
They would also be joining a long, long list of musicians that John had expertly guided across the world, not just to Rochester International Jazz Festival in New York where Made in the UK has given British jazz a platform since 2008, but to just about everywhere jazz is played.
John was one of these people who take on the physical attributes of a geographical feature. We weren’t in touch that often latterly but it was easy to assume he would always be around and when we did bump into each other, it was always the same John you were dealing with. He was as steady as a rock.
We’d met in the 1980s when I was organising tours for Jazz Services in Covent Garden and John was working out of the office space over the dividing wall. Sometimes, if we were both in town, we’d share the walk from Waterloo over the Thames in the morning and compare notes.
I’d be sending bands to Sheffield, Manchester and Newcastle, or maybe Barnstaple, Exeter and Eype, and John would either be dealing with something similar on the considerably larger scale of the Contemporary Music Network tours or plotting some mammoth itinerary for all-star teams on transglobal jaunts sponsored by cigarette manufacturers Philip Morris. On these trips there invariably seemed to be a Hammond organ, complete with Lesley speaker cabinet, to shunt around the world’s airports. It sounded nightmarish but John dealt with it all as if it was no more onerous than a golf outing, something that he also enjoyed.
Eventually I moved back to Scotland to another jazz company that wasn’t quite as long for this world as I’d hoped and when it went under, John was one of the first to get in touch. He offered me a job which, not ungratefully, I turned down, sensing a move in another direction. I remember his response: I’d be back, running some tour or other. He was right, although it took a while and it hasn’t become a full-time occupation. Certainly not like John’s, which went on to include festival programming and production and overseeing recording projects plus many, many more waits by airport carousels.
The last time we met was at the Scottish Jazz Awards, at which John was presenting, I think, the live band of the year prize. That would have been the most appropriate category anyway for someone who thrived on making jazz happen, who saw no obstacles in its way and who loved dealing with everyone involved, especially the musicians. And they loved him back. How could they not love someone who came up with the idea of flying British musicians to America to play at a major jazz festival and then make that the springboard for concerts deeper into the U.S. and Canada?
One of the things we dicussed on those walks across Waterloo Bridge was the Musicians Union exchange system which required incoming Americans’ gigs to be matched by MU members playing the same number of U.S. dates. Imagine if, instead of trading a whole UK tour by Jack Walrath for a weekend of Simple Minds gigs (as once happened), we could actually send British jazzers. John Ellson made that fantasy a reality. The jazz world has lost a big friend indeed.
Facebook has carried eloquent tributes from Sue Edwards , John Harle, Kerstan Mackness and John Nugent