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25 September 2012

David Mossman: 'Put the music first and the rest will take care of itself'

IN between the half-full wine glasses, flickering candles, classic décor, and diminutive tables, drift the notes of some of the best jazz performers in the world.

The musicians playing them aren’t always well known – few in the genre are – though that didn’t stop Dave Mossman, founder of the Vortex Jazz Club, in his mission to give talented performers a platform to trial new music.
“This is the cutting edge, without a doubt,” he says.

“We’re different to Ronnie Scott’s. We play very modern music that doesn’t always attract lots of people. But look at Van Gogh; never earned a penny in his life,” he states with conviction.

This man knows the industry inside out: “No-one makes money out of jazz, but put the music first and the rest will take care of itself.”

The famous Dalston club marks its 25th anniversary this year. Household names like Wynton Marsalis, Courtney Pine and Quincy Jones have played here in recent years; Stan Tracey, Dame Cleo Laine and her late husband Sir John Dankworth are just two of Dave’s favourite acts to have graced its stage; while Evan Parker, recognised as one of the world’s leading saxophonists has a monthly residency.

He adds: “There isn’t anyone in the last 25 years from the modern jazz scene who hasn’t performed here. We’ve had the best because they like to play here.”

Nevertheless, it hasn’t all been plain sailing. Way before big names like Jamie Cullum and Nigel Kennedy appeared at the Gillett Square club, the Vortex was just a small art shop on Stoke Newington Church Street in the early 1980s. (The original building is now a Nandos.)

“It was all an accident, we were never meant to be a jazz club. Even today, my chequebook still says Vortex Galleries,” muses Dave.

“We had fantastic shows, but the big papers never came to them. They’d review the same exhibitions by the same artists in Camden and central London even though we had them in Hackney first. So we had to do everything on a shoestring,” he laments.

To make up the money the shop installed a bar, jukebox, then a cafe that served breakfasts. Dave claims the old fry-ups are still famed today.

“There was never funding or investors, we just survived on selling second-hand records and books. Musicians came looking for somewhere to play and we were quite lucky that they didn’t charge us lots of money to do it,” he says.
The club was instrumental in forging a strong Hackney jazz community throughout the 1990s, until a rent hike threatened it with closure.

Efforts to negotiate stalled, and even Dave, after spending most of his life in East London and Stoke Newington, believed the project was at its end. He packed up and accepted a new job in Margate, Kent.

“But the community wanted to save the Vortex. Most people don’t want a music venue next to their homes, but these people did and they started the ‘Save the Vortex’ campaign to find us a new home,” he says.

The Hackney Co-operative Developments built a new building in Gillett Square, and from 2005, it has been the Vortex’s base. Dave admits: “If it wasn’t for them we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” It is still a volunteer-led, not-for-profit organisation that today puts on close to 400 gigs on a year.

He says: “We still get support from the community and musicians. We have partnerships with the Barbican, phenomenal voluntary workers and directors. Gillett Square is a place where community art takes place, with so many community sounds. We can draw on so many 
places to bring art into the community.”

Dave now juggles life developing a jazz scene in Margate – he kept the job – and working part-time at the Vortex.
“Everyone thinks I’m someone who’s been involved in jazz all my life, but I was a taxi driver for 25 years. I just came in through the back door and stayed in the building,” he confesses.

“And the club has lasted so long because of the music. Jazz is a survivor. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but you cannot keep looking at the same art all of the time.

“There will always be people creating things you don’t understand, with others saying ‘bloody hell, my kids can do better than that’, but these artists are pushing the medium forward.

“Sometimes I’m watching a show in Vortex and there’s college students listening and I feel I’m putting something back.

“I’m not an artist, I wish I was, but I want to give people the opportunity to play their music. There may not be a big audience, but that’s not the point. Their music just has to be written and played,” he adds.


1942  Born in Poplar, East London
1957  Leaves Hay Currie School, Tower Hamlets
1963  Starts work as a London taxi driver
1982  Opens first art shop in Stoke Newington 
1984  Moves into new building on Church Street, calling the business Vortex Galleries
1987  Turns Vortex Galleries into a jazz club
2001  Vortex Jazz Club moves to Gillett Square
2012  The Vortex celebrates its 25th birthday

Dave Mossman admits the Vortex was never meant to be a jazz club

Dave Mossman admits the Vortex was never meant to be a jazz club

Dave Mossman admits the Vortex was never meant to be a jazz club Vortex Jazz Bar celebrates its 25th birthday

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