Obituary: David Mossman

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David Mossman at the Harbour Cafe in Margate, which he owned together with his wife Leslie in the background. Photo by Mark Hewins

Oliver Weindling of London’s Vortex club remembers his colleague: When he opened the Vortex in 1988, David Mossman came to the world of jazz from being a lover of risks and risk takers, which he believed the jazz musicians to be, rather than having a full knowledge of the music’s history. He had been an experienced mountaineer, hanging out with the likes of Chris Bonington in Snowdonia, as well as black cab driver during the week. He gave the opportunity to many young musicians with whom he felt an intuitive empathy rather than names more well known. As I ask many about how they got their gigs at the Vortex, for quite a few – such as Gilad Atzmon, Monica Vasconcelos and Ingrid Laubrock – they were their first gigs in any jazz venue, coming from an invitation from David once he had heard them in other things. And, once he let a musician on to the stage, he just gave them a free hand. So the link to musicians has been very close, such that now, in the book we have for people to write in about David, several have actually been writing to him as if his spirit lives on.

David was never enamoured by the chance of the Arts Council life-support system, because he hated bureaucracy. Therefore was able to keep away from any funding cuts

This continued throughout the life of the club in Stoke Newington. The move to Dalston in 2005 was forced by circumstances. Pulling out of the doomed Ocean venue, on the advice of many of his musician friends, he also lost the chance to buy the old building to a developer, who then tried to double the rent. Since it moved to Dalston, we have certainly tried to keep a similar ethos, albeit with a more co-operative management structure. 

I first had contact with David around 1990 when doing work with Billy Jenkins. Billy’s own seasons at the club were wonderfully surreal. But there was a catholic taste for music from David. Indeed, when I asked him how he got to love the free improv of Derek Bailey and Evan Parker, he answered “I listened”. He encouraged quite a few bands early in their lives, for example Polar Bear (through his connection with Mark Lockheart) and many of those after the demise of Loose Tubes. But at weekends he had a programme which was more mainstream – musicians such as Ian Shaw, Stan Tracey and Alan Skidmore. David believes that he himself created the description of Stan as “Godfather of British Jazz”. These musicians were his financial security, ready to finance the (even) less commercial. 

The jazz clubs in London have worked out how to survive through balancing the commercial and creative. David was never enamoured by the chance of the Arts Council life-support system, because he hated bureaucracy. Therefore was able to keep away from any funding cuts or whatever. In this regard, the Vortex is very similar today. It has taken a more freewheeling attitude to the music, welcoming to the unusual, and has been able to help it out. Even in the harsher world today, we are really making the effort to keep his ethos alive and looking at ways of really making clear how important the Vortex continues to be and needs to be protected at a time of sharply rising rents and rates.

The list of who has played at the club is endless. But so you would expect, with 350 or so gigs a year for 30 years. David could never really say which was a favourite gig, though he was particularly excited by those where musicians experimented in new formats.

Latterly, David continued to come to the club every weekend, travelling up and down from Margate, mainly at weekends. And he wasn’t a figurehead. Even in his last year of life, and already heavily weakened from cancer, he was able to build a new stage downstairs. He had that improvisational flair for such work. A wonder with wood, hammer, a few nails, and Rockwool for soundproofing. 

He also had his impact down in Margate, starting regular gigs in his café there and also a jazz festival. Vortex-on-Sea?

In a week that also saw the death of Peter Boizot, founder of the Pizza Express and its jazz club, it is time to consider not only how much these active lovers of this music have helped the scene here, but also how playing opportunities for the increasing number of musicians on the scene is not increasing accordingly. David has given his body to science. Here is a possible solution. If we dissect his brain, we can find his secret to making a small, innovative jazz club survive?

David Mossman, 17 July 1942 – 8 December 2018