JOHN ELLSON 1952 - 2016
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Founder/Director Made in the UK
2008 - 2016
John Ellson, who has died aged 64 of a heart attack, was a manager and concert producer who believed completely in the freedom of musicians to express themselves. Unlike many on the edges of the music business, John, who was my friend for 30 years and my manager for the last five, was not a musician manqué with a trumpet on which he secretly played Miles Davis solos, but a dedicated professional who never interfered in music programming unless he disliked the music personally, which was rare. Selflessly, generously and humorously, he just let everything happen, and was there at the end to pick up whatever pieces there were.
In the 1980s John produced global tours featuring such huge stars as Ray Charles, BB King, Oscar Peterson and Sonny Rollins – all of whom he became close to. He was also a piece of old Soho furniture, a friend and collaborator with Ronnie Scott’s club for decades, and producer of the venue’s 40th-anniversary celebrations at the Barbican in 1999.
He worked with a fellow producer, John Cumming, on the Camden jazz festival in the 1980s, and as a partner with Cumming in Serious Productions helped to expand it into the now world-famous London jazz festival, as well as managing saxophonists John Surman and Andy Sheppard. From 1998, as producer at ESIP (Ellson Scoble International Producers), he worked closely with the Afrobeat star Manu Dibango and the composer and bassist Avishai Cohen.
In 2006, with Emma Perry John set up Global Mix, a record company that let musicians retain ownership and copyright of their albums, and which supported the work of Dibango and the British musicians Guy Barker and Tim Garland. Dedicated to giving newcomers a free rein, he also brought his pioneering Made in the UK series to the Xerox Rochester international jazz festival in the US from 2008, thereby helping to launch the careers of young British jazz artists in the States.
Born in East Lambrook, Somerset, the son of Annie (nee Hooper), a glove maker, and John Ellson, a transport driver, John attended Yeovil grammar school before taking a philosophy, politics and economics degree at Portsmouth Polytechnic, where he met his future wife, Elizabeth Smith. He took a diploma in European integration at the University of Amsterdam before marrying Liz, a teacher, in 1975.
In 1977 John began working at the Ealing careers service, but left after a few years having met Cumming on a weekend driving job for Bracknell jazz festival. The pair then went on to form Serious Productions.
A tireless socialist campaigner, John planned to stand for the Labour party in Henley-on Thames, until the prospect, to him horrendous, of sharing a platform with Boris Johnson forced him to reconsider. One of his last appearances was on PBS in New York, on a telephone call-in programme during which incredulous Americans quizzed him for an hour on the reasons for Britain leaving the EU. He could not think of an argument in the Leave camp’s favour.
John is survived by Liz, and by his mother, Annie, brother, Nicholas and sister, Carolyn.
Rob Adams remembers John Ellson
The UK jazz community is mourning the loss of one of its most significant and energetic - and liked and respected - behind-the-scenes instigators. The producer and promoter JOHN ELLSON, who died at home in Shiplake in Oxfordshire of a heart attack on September 17th 2016, was an integral part of the scene for over three decades. Rob Adams remembers him: 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 John Nugent, Sue Edwards, John Harle, and Kerstan Mackness