John Ellson, music man

We said goodbye to John Ellson last week. A lovely humanist service, with John Harle performing a piece by Johnny Hodges. I was one of the speakers. Here’s part of what I had to say. Thanks to all the people who contributed their reminiscences.

johns-funeral-serviceA couple of weeks before he died John was helping out at a country festival called Nashville Meets London. Country isn’t the kind of music you’d associate with him, but he loved that weekend, meeting the artists and getting to know people backstage. After it was all over, he was still putting Nashville albums on the CD player at home. It reminded me of the old story about Buddy Rich being admitted to hospital when he was seriously ill. When the nurse asked if he was allergic to anything, he just said “Country and western.” I don’t think John was allergic to anything. Music was music. That was all. He loved being with musicians, and they loved being with him.

You can’t talk about him without mentioning his partnership with another John, John Cumming. In their years together at Serious, they created the blueprint for much of the jazz scene today. They met at the Bracknell Festival in the late Seventies. John was just helping out at first. I was talking to him about this period a couple of weeks before he died. He told me that the first time he saw the other John, he had his hands around the neck of one of the staff and was throttling him. All in jest, of course. It was the start of a long partnership. They also worked on the Camden Jazz Week, and soon decided to try producing their own concerts. Which was how they ended up based in a room above an off-licence in Soho – a perfect location given all those famous long lunches

Andy Sheppard and John Surman were two of the artists they went on to manage. Our John would be off on the road, with Liz as his assistant, touring with the likes of Ray Charles, BB King and the Philip Morris Superband. Some of the work took him to the old eastern bloc just as it was breaking up. Back in London the other John might get a phone call in the middle of the night saying “My taxi’s just been shot at.”

John helped build the music infrastructure that we take for granted nowadays. One legacy is the London Jazz Festival, launched in 1993, and now one of the most important events in the world calendar. It was some years after the festival began that the two Johns parted company, although they remained good friends. John went off to launch his own company, Esip. Manu Dibango and Avishai Cohen were two of the artists he worked with. And a few years later he was also running Global Mix, the label he set up with Emma Perry. As usual with John, it was all about putting the artists first, allowing them to retain ownership and copyright. The album that had the biggest impact was The Amadeus Project by Guy Barker, which won the Parliamentary Jazz award for best album in 2008.

That CD also summed up a central truth about John – he didn’t really care about categories of music. I think that was one of the reasons he was drawn to an artist like John Harle. And although he’d worked with his share of celebrities – and had some great stories about them – he got real pleasure out of introducing audiences to the unfamiliar. It was all about sharing. You can see that philosophy at work in another of his legacies – the Made in the UK concert series, which took British performers to the US and Canada and gave them a chance to reach an entirely new public. He was working with another John there – John Nugent. The series started at the Rochester Jazz Festival in New York state in 2008. I can give you just a few of the musicians who went over in the years that followed: Gwyneth Herbert, Liane Carroll, Neil Cowley, Yolanda Brown and many, many more.

Even with all the funding problems and the visa complications, John
was in his element. I spent some time at his house towards the end, and I remember how many phone calls he made as he was setting up the next season. He would grab a golf club, practice a few swings in the garden, and then he’d be back on the phone. Sue Edwards summed it up in her tribute on Facebook: everything was based on trust and a handshake, and he always favoured people over paperwork. John Nugent added this: John was a beacon of light for those who cared about the music first and the bank account second.


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