Phil Robson (from Facebook)
East Londoner and ex black cab driver David Mossman was a gambler, through and through. The story of how he came to run the original The Vortex Jazz Club was symptomatic of that. He’d entered into a business in the Vortex building in Stoke Newington to run a second hand bookstore downstairs (a good racket at the time!) while his business partner ran a jazz club upstairs. When the partner pulled out of the business shortly after, David inherited the club and decided to give it a go. Back then, he had no previous experience in that world and very little knowledge of the music. Despite this, he fell in love with it because, as he told me later, the musicians and the excitement of the music reminded him of his favourite pastime, climbing which he was very serious about. The musicians soon came to love David too. He rapidly established the Vortex as a serious new venue, which was desperately needed at the time, following the closure of the bass clef/tenor clef. It became the home of a very alternative scene to the more established venues such as Ronnie’s etc. In the 90s it was organised into different evenings and became equally the home of free improv greats (Rumours) such as Evan Parker, Louis Moholo, Derek Bailey, etc – alternative caberet (Pirate Jenny’s) -Blow The Fuse and lots of contemporary jazz with a host of amazing musicians too numerous to mention, encouraged to play original music. Meanwhile the club still welcomed the great players of the previous generation such as Stan Tracey, Bobby Wellins, Harry Beckett and so on plus the London Jazz Orchestra and much much more. Wow! What a place it was! Ramshackle, chaotic and wonderful. David’s style, occasionally brusque and unorthodox – “chuck it in the bucket mate” became legendary! I remember he once charged entry to a classical singer who had showed up to work in one of Huw Warren’s projects because he didn’t know him in such a forceful way that the guy actually paid. 😂. I saw him fearlessly fly out from behind the bar and chase bag snatchers on a more than a few occasions. One must bare in mind that David was a very slim man. However, I’ve never seen anyone with energy like him and he was super streetwise. The mice were largely kept at bay by the incredible Vortex cats!
As a young up and coming musician, I began to work more and more at the club, plus I lived in the area so it became my musical spiritual home. I remember being so excited to get the call to work there with great musicians such as Julian Argüelles in the early days. In 1996 we formed Partisans, co-led by myself & Julian Siegel, still in existence today. We were encouraged to do whatever we wanted musically and the more we went for it, the more David loved it. Over the years I played some packed nights, gigs to ‘2 men and a dog’, got double booked (🙄😂) and got involved with a huge spectrum of music and musicians. I treasure every single memory. The era also coincided with the beginning of my life and musical partnership with Christine Tobin so we share this history. David was impossible to get hold of, so to get a gig you had to turn up before a gig started and try to get him to get his huge diary out of the attic! It was a truly great time and I would not have missed it for anything. On top of playing there myself, I saw countless amazing gigs and would drop by just for the hang, even if I didn’t know who was playing. I met many lifetime friends. This is all down to him. The level of trust from David with his staff and musicians was incredible and he’d often leave them in there to hang and close up themselves! I could recount endless stories!
When the old Vortex closed in 2004 after a huge battle with a property shark by all the community, it was a very sad day. However, David’s great legacy continues with the new Vortex in Dalston, Margate jazz festival and much, much more. Myself and Christine were later encouraged by David (and Oliver) to move to Margate in Kent, as he had done. We eventually did, thus beginning another chapter in our relationship with him. Needless to say, lots of great times, laughs and music there too.
I mentioned his energy earlier but I can’t stress enough that he was the most dynamic and restless person I ever knew. He was amazingly charismatic, charming and funny and in short, we all loved him. We even supported him when he acted and sang in his later amateur dramatic ventures, so we really must have done! He never ever gave into his long battle with cancer for a minute. He knew how to absolutely live life to the full. I’m happy to hear that he passed away peacefully with the people closest to him present. As I stated elsewhere, it was a great privilege to know him.
Our sincere best wishes to Lesley, Tonia, Jayne, Les and all of Dave’s family and many friends. Bye Mosschops! Thanks for everything, RIP
– Phil Robson (as posted on Facebook)
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 (from Jazzwise)
Hank Roberts, the American jazz cellist who played with stars such as Bill Frisell and Tim Berne, is here, playing in guitarist John Etheridge’s band, for the start of my last month. It doesn’t seem to matter that we can’t afford such a legend. “Put an extra couple of quid on the door and we’ll give Hank the extra,” Etheridge says. Roberts is amazing; he plays on his feet with the instrument crawling up his inside leg. Five thousand pounds would have been cheap for that kind of performance, and we got it for the door money.
Sunday May 2
Our monthly karaoke night, aka Sonnie Mann’s Chapel of Karaoke. I tell jazz people about this and some of them look horrified. But small jazz clubs like the Vortex need income from other sources. Weddings, barmitzvahs, private parties, funeral receptions. Sometimes I think the higher the guest’s profile, the less the fans spend – they get so absorbed in the music they sit on one glass of mineral water all night, and then get indignant that their jazz club puts on “trash” like karaoke.
In the office, doing the VAT and looking up musicians’ phone numbers in the box of toffee papers and old programmes I’ve jotted them on over the years. I have to reach the office on a ladder because we needed some more fridge space a while back so I took out the staircase. I always think of Quentin Crisp when I’m up here; I don’t think I’ve ever cleaned the windows. I’m famous for cleaning the club-room windows myself though, out on the ledge over Church Street. I used to climb a lot: climbers and jazz musicians have the same taste for danger, I think. They’re always searching for new routes – the old way has already been done; let’s find a difficult approach. I like listening to musicians setting up before a gig; it always reminds me of climbers checking their kit.
I get nostalgic about the jazz photos I have around the walls, some for sale. I need to sell some. The new arts centre we’re hoping to move into nearby in Dalston has glass walls. We also need £100,000 to fit it out – the national lottery turned us down so we have to raise it ourselves or it won’t happen. Selling the pictures might be a drop in the ocean, but it all helps.
Wednesday May 5
Austrian bass virtuoso Peter Herbert is in with the amazing pianist/accordionist Huw Warren. Huw twists himself into such strange shapes he looks like musical notation, a treble clef maybe. You could probably learn music from just watching him. Frank Sinatra apparently used to like watching trombonists. Maybe that was his secret.
Saturday May 8
I’m talking to the cat upstairs in the office. He’s the only living thing I’m not embarrassed to share the place with. I sometimes ask him what he thinks about different players. He’s got strong opinions. He’s called Mr Jolson. He sometimes sleeps on the padding of the bass drum while people are hammering the skin off it. The pianist Veryan Weston always brings a tin of cat food on gigs, and Mr Jolson has a lot of friends.
Sad news that Shino’s, a new jazz club on the South Bank, is apparently closing. I think of the number of people I’ve met over the years who say this place turned them on to jazz by accident – they’d just come in for a drink. If you could hear jazz in more places, especially on TV and radio, far more people would realise how amazing it is. Why do we go on doing it? Gigs like tonight’s, that’s why. Stan Tracey is in. I always introduce him as the godfather of British jazz. I always know when he’s having a good time: he sings along with Monk and Ellington – and when he’s happy he sings louder.
Sunday & Monday, May 9 & 10
Radio 3 come in on Sunday to record Ken Vandermark, the American saxophonist who plays in about six genres at once. Branford Marsalis is in London and drops in to check Vandermark out – he’d never come across him until now, and he isn’t an easy man to impress. Monday night brings Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel’s group, including the fantastic drummer Brian Blade. It’s standing room only, but we still lose some money on the gig – it’s the catch-22 of jazz promoting in the kind of small spaces that really suit the music. I wonder if the band knows its wages and expenses come from funeral parties and karaoke?
Wednesday May 12
I leave the music to the musicians here, but this Wednesday’s performance is by a one-off band I thought of myself – 10 young up-and-coming tigers of jazz in a band called Spiderclouds. I’m conscious we’ll lose them to other jobs if more places like the Vortex can’t flourish. Afterwards, young trumpeter Tom Arthurs thanks us. And he’s never worked for anything but door money here.
Sunday May 16
Sounds from singer Martha Lewis and the shanty towns of Athens in the 1920s. Martha’s Greek bouzouki player says to me after the gig: “That’s Greek jazz.” I leave Martha and the band the keys to the club to lock up afterwards. They want to stay on and relax and have a few beers. But the money’s in the till the next morning. We’ve broken down the them-and-us philosophy. Perhaps this is the reason that some venues are run by musicians or former musicians themselves, like Ronnie Scott’s.
Tuesday May 18
Crass Agenda’s night – the veteran punks who, in their day, made Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious look like choirboys. Penny Rimbaud, Eve Libertine, Steve Ignorant and Gee Vaucher also run a cottage out in Epping called Dial House where musicians who are down on their luck or need a bed can go – they kept it out of the hands of property developers by making an appeal to all the now successful musicians who’d ever used it. Penny (he’s a bloke) has started a petition to keep the Vortex in Stoke Newington, and puts up a notice in the club saying: “This Is the Spiritual Home of Jazz and We Ain’t Leaving.” The resulting petition ends up going to the council with 3,000 signatures on it. We’re committed to going to the new arts building in Dalston now if we can raise the cash – maybe there’ll even be two Vortexes?
Saturday May 22
It’s always been the singers, like Ian and Carol Grimes and Claire Martin, who have regularly packed the Vortex because they bring in jazz and non-jazz fans alike. Carol seems to have been around forever, but she’s still getting better and everybody loves and respects her. Ian Shaw’s in for his solo cabaret act. He jokes that he doesn’t know how he’ll pay his mortgage when we close. He knows I’m a lifelong Neil Diamond fan, which he can never resist telling the audience. Then he goes into Sweet Caroline or Love on the Rocks, except he changes it to Jazz on the Rocks. I get my own back by introducing him as the Boy George of jazz. He doesn’t sing an encore, which is unusual. His manager tells me later it’s because he was overcome with emotion.
Sunday May 23
A benefit night led by the film director Mike Figgis, who also plays pretty good guitar and trumpet for someone who rarely does it now. He’s apparently been anxious about tonight, and practised hard all week – he talks little before the show, but looks very relieved when I offer him a beer. But his blues set, with a great band including Peter King on alto sax, Mark Mondesir on drums and Christine Tobin singing Bessie Smith songs, is a big hit with the audience. Figgis tells them: “I’m privileged to be up here with these geniuses.” That’s how I’ve been feeling these past 20 years.
“He was a man who just got on with things.” DAVID MOSSMAN founded the Vortex Jazz Club in Stoke Newington in 1988. He passed away on Saturday night 8 December 2018. Oliver Weindling, who has done much in his own right to continue and to build on David Mossman’s work in the club’s current premises in Gillett Square, remembers and pays tribute to a figure who made a unique contribution to London’s jazz scene:
I am writing this on a Sunday afternoon where the London Jazz Orchestra is about to do its monthly performance, as it has done for the past 28 years, to be followed tonight by a benefit for the club of South African music run by Jason Yarde and Adam Glasser. It makes today seem extra special to the memory of David Mossman who has died of cancer last night, but it’s actually just another regular day at the club he founded.
It’s hard to pin down not just how much David Mossman helped the jazz scene in London by starting the Vortex in 1988. I doubt if that would even have been on his mind when he opened the doors in Stoke Newington Church Street. He just started putting on jazz as a way to make the cafe and art gallery work in an area known more for IRA bomb factories than what it is today. It’s not even that he understood so much about jazz when he started, but, as with so many things about him, he did it because of having a great ‘gut feel’, a love of music that reflects riskiness, and the patience to see the fruits of the hard work out later.
So, after a few years, we had a man who developed a full and broad understanding of the best about this music. It wasn’t about booking big names. And that’s why perhaps so many musicians got their first chances during his time running the club. But his generosity, as shown in his trusting of the musicians and their music, extended as far as his audience, whom he always welcomed with a smile. So here we had a true East Ender (from Bromley-By-Bow), who for the first 45 years of his life had been a black cab driver and committed mountaineer. I myself think that this love of taking risks in Snowdonia is what made him able to appreciate what jazz musicians give when they take the stage. It was a balance between musical quality and keeping going throughout. He was probably able to benefit that the club started at almost the same time that the Jazz Cafe moved from its original location in nearby Newington Green to Camden, so that there was a gap for these musicians who needed somewhere to help develop their skill on a regular basis.
But he was always eminently practical. He did work on the acoustics of both the original Vortex and also the new venue in Dalston. He kept the music to the fore, learning about the music through listening every night, giving him a taste that ran through all styles up to and including Evan Parker and the free improv scene. When I asked him what were his favourite gigs, he explained that it was usually when a musician would ask him if he could play with someone whom he had never played with before. “And did these gigs make money?”, I asked. And his immediate reply was “Sometimes”! At one stage, he had actually been planning to close up shop and move to the ill-fated Ocean in Hackney (now the Picture House). Many of us – musicians and fans alike – discouraged him and it was at that time that I myself became part of the team that helped move the club to Dalston (after an ill-fated attempt to buy the old building). So it became a life-changer for me too, in that from then on, it pretty well determined where I would be most nights!
He himself at that point, with his partner (latterly wife) Lesley moved to start a cafe in Margate. This was in 2003 well before it became the town that it is today. But again it was an intuitive sense of risk and adventure that brought him there. And immediately one of the first things that he did there? Start a jazz festival and put on gigs in his cafe. But even then he still came up to the Vortex every weekend and more, helping out at the door, going down to the Turkish supermarket to stock up for his Margate cafe, meeting his musician friends and giving his advice.
He was a man who just got on with things. So he never went with a begging bowl to organisations like the Arts Council, as he had a hatred of form filling and bureaucracy, but always worked out how to survive. For him it was about being able to earn enough to enjoy company of great music, musicians and to share with the fans.
David never received any of those awards that exist nowadays. In fact, for him perhaps one of the proudest moments was when Evan Parker presented him with an album with Barry Guy and Paul Lytton, called Music for David Mossman (Intakt). For all the recordings that had been made in the club, this was the first (and sadly only) one that recognised David’s role fully.
I hope that the way the Vortex exists today allows us to keep much of that respect for the music and musicians that he had, and that the club can continue to move and evolve without forgetting those principles of putting great music and musicians first, with an optimism about the long term.