Val Wilmer – Johnny and the Jazz Mobile
Johnny Edgecombe, known to his friends as “the Edge”, was one of the hippest of my early jazz scene acquaintances, and someone who achieved lasting notoriety through a moment of madness. Two weeks before Christmas in 1962 he got out of a taxi in a smart west London mews, confused and angry and carrying a gun. Christine Keeler, his lover, had disappeared, leaving him upset and bewildered, and her dismissive response when he found her only made matters worse. His reaction was to fire five bullets into her door. Those shots would ricochet around the corridors of British politics and diplomacy, and into the echelons of privilege. They led to the resignation of a cabinet minister in the Conservative government of Harold Macmillan, and left the reputations of Keeler and Edgecombe in tatters. Tongues wagged as the scandal escalated, mixing espionage with sexual transgression and leading to the trial of Stephen Ward, Keeler’s landlord, on a trumped-up charge of living off her immoral earnings. The suicide of Ward, society osteopath and friend of the famous, was the final nail in the government’s coffin.
This saga was the inspiration for a recent West End musical that exonerated Ward to some extent – Andrew Lloyd Webber’s flop Stephen Ward lasted four months – but the man who pulled the trigger and kicked off the whole affair was no longer around to provide a corrective. Because he was black, in a period of increasing hostility towards Afro-Caribbeans, Johnny Edgecombe was treated as a mere walk-on part in the drama and was thus dispensible. In what became known as the Profumo affair after John Profumo, secretary of state for war and another of Keeler’s lovers, Edgecombe remained a fringe figure, little known and misunderstood. The historical centrality of Profumo ensured that Edgecombe would be periodically ‘discovered’, but he was ambivalent about such attention, and did not always help his own cause when the opportunity for clarification arose. He spoke up for the black man whenever he was interviewed, but he tended to put his foot in it, too. Those who knew Johnny Edgecombe always believed he deserved a lot better.
My own connection with the Edge went back at least two years before the shooting. I can’t remember exactly how we met, but I do recall an afternoon we stood together at the top of the steps leading down to Ronnie Scott’s Gerrard Street basement, and I asked him what he did for a living. I may have been working for a Jamaican magazine at the time, or knocking out prints in a Soho darkroom. Either way, I knew Johnny for more than a year before he met Keeler. And in all that time I never found him to be anything other than pleasant, amusing and cool. Furthermore, he had the most beautiful laughing eyes, with long curling lashes to die for.
Johnny’s response to my question had puzzled me at first. “I drive Tubbs, don’t I?” he said, but I had no idea what he meant. “Tubs” I believed to be swing-era American slang for the drums, so I suppose I imagined he was a drummer. It didn’t take me long to disentangle that one, however, and to realise that the man meant just what he said: Johnny was a dedicated jazzer with a set of wheels and saxophonist Tubby Hayes was one of his clients. Long before the term emerged in New York, associated with the movement to bring jazz out into the streets, Johnny called his car “the Jazzmobile”. And as self-appointed chauffeur to jazz stars such as Hayes and Ronnie Scott, he was available for gigs out of town.
His first passenger was a trumpeter from Jamaica named Dizzy Reece. Aged just 18 when he left Kingston on board the Empire Windrush in 1948, Reece became an accomplished jazz player in Britain, and Johnny’s good friend. Whenever he had a job in, say, Manchester, the trumpeter would get his train fare on top of his fee and share this with Johnny, covering the cost of petrol. No money was ever made from this arrangement, but it enabled Johnny to go along for the gig, and, through Reece, to meet visiting Americans.
Within a few years, the arranger Quincy Jones and trumpeter Donald Byrd would become among the biggest names in jazz, and when in London they both rode blissfully around in the Jazzmobile with Johnny at the wheel, regaling them with his tall tales from life on the frontline. Major Holley was another interesting customer, a black man from Detroit and sometime London sojourner who played double-bass on some of Tommy Steele’s early rock ’n’ roll records. Jazz greats Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie, and black Eastender Kenny Lynch, an aspiring jazz singer at the time, all used Johnny’s services, and eventually he graduated to an estate car, enabling him to carry more instruments – good news when he had Phil Seamen on board, that most talented (and erratic) of British drummers.
Unlike the majority of settlers of the Windrush generation, Johnny was what West Indians call a “small islander”, born in Antigua in the Windwards. Poverty, he told me, drove him to sea and led him to live by his wits on land. In the early 1950s he settled in west London’s Ladbroke Grove district and ran a shebeen in a dilapidated Rachman property, one of the first of the popular unlicensed black “drinkers” of the period. Like many another chancer back then, he featured gambling there, too, but he had other hustles to suit the occasion. He sold dope on the jazz scene where he was known as “Johnny Shit”, and was a well-known face at the clubs where organist Georgie Fame played his heart out to an audience of Afro-Caribbeans and white mods that was augmented by black American GIs at weekends.
Fame’s Blue Flames played Carnaby Street’s Roaring Twenties and at the Flamingo’s all-nighters in Wardour Street, and it was at these two venues that Johnny found his best customers. The GIs were his favourites: eager young servicemen arriving in town, looking for smoke, music and women. They were a good source of income for a fast-moving Caribbean entrepreneur like Johnny – although, as I was to discover, his other hustles counted for nothing if jazz was involved. Johnny would drop everything in a minute for a chance to go on the road and hang out with “the cats”, even if he ended up with only a fiver in his pocket. As he remarked in Black Scandal, his 2002 autobiography, he loved getting high, but his love for jazz was the driving force of his life.
Because I never used his services, I knew little about Johnny’s day-to-day life until much later, but whenever our paths crossed at one of the clubs, he’d stop and smile and pass the time of day. We never spent any time in a one-on-one situation but he knew I was writing and taking photographs of musicians and seemed to approve of my progress. And then he disappeared.
Around the same time, I met a group of new friends who lived in west London and moved in vaguely arty, experimental circles. They came from Guyana, England, France and Jamaica and they took me to an Earls Court pub called the Coleherne where Trinidadian pianist Russ Henderson led a jam session at lunchtime on Sundays. With this new crowd I went to blues parties, ate curried goat and drank rum, including the popular Appleton Special, Jamaica’s gift to the world. I discovered sexual freedom, too, and found myself on the fringes of the gay and lesbian world.
In 1963, as the scandal broke and Profumo was forced to resign, the connection between the minister and Keeler’s friend Stephen Ward was exposed. This was the signal for some of the crowd to reveal their own connections with people on the edge of that world. More stories and scandals emerged, but at the same time, I knew members of this crowd as serious thinkers, concerned with Pan-Africanist ideas and racial justice. The newly independent nations were emerging in Africa and I discovered that my friends had known political figures such as Tom Mboya, a popular and energetic young minister in the new Kenyan government. Around the same time, Malcolm X came to London and some of the crowd went to hear him speak and were granted an interview. Although such involvement was far from being mainstream, it seemed to me that an understanding of liberation politics was developing in the popular consciousness – especially down Fulham Palace way – while as for music, literature, art and theatre, west London was nothing if not cool.
Across society, everyone was fascinated by what they saw as the “other” – whatever that might be – and I was no exception. At the same time, jazz was as all-consuming for me as it had been for Johnny. I interviewed and photographed visiting musicians and some locals, and did stories for a new black magazine called Flamingo, including an assignment that took me to West Africa.
On my return to England the connections continued. I still went to Caribbean parties where I ate rice ’n’ peas and danced to bluebeat and ska, and when I was not listening to music or writing about it, I got jobs taking photographs at African student dances and weddings where I danced to highlife and ate Jollof rice pungent with pepper and oil. I still went to the Coleherne, the Troubadour, Africa Unity House and other London haunts, at the same time becoming more entrenched in the jazz world and working as a writer and photographer. I knew musicians from every jazz era and visited New York three times in the 1960s where I met Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp, Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor, leading avant-garde figures.
Johnny Edgecombe never entered my mind until one day at the end of that decade when I realised that the subdued-looking figure dressed in a US army jacket and standing in the corner at Ronnie’s was the jazz-loving Jazzmobile chauffeur I used to know. I greeted him warmly and expressed surprise that it had been so long. He looked at me, hard. There was a smile, but this time the eyes weren’t involved – even his eyelashes had lost their sheen. “Well, I’ve been away, haven’t I?” was all he said.
Early in 1970 he rang me out of the blue and asked me if I would take his wedding photographs. He was calling himself Johnny Edge by now, but in the meantime, of course, the penny had dropped. At the time of the Profumo business, I’d been so unworldly that I’d failed to put two and two together to recognise Johnny’s role in the affair. Being close to Keeler, he knew of her connection to Profumo and was aware of her friendship with the Soviet naval attaché Yevgeny Ivanov, an explosive combination under the circumstances. Under pressure from other elements in her life, Keeler went into hiding at Stephen Ward’s Wimpole Street flat, which was where Johnny went looking for her – and where we came in.
When she refused him admittance, and threw money at him to get him to go away, he fired at her front door lock in frustration. During his subsequent trial, initially for attempted murder, and those of Keeler (for perjury), and Ward (for immoral earnings), the names of Keeler’s West Indian acquaintances were bandied about in the press. Aloysius “Lucky” Gordon was another of her lovers, a Jamaican I’d met one night when a couple of friends offered me a lift home from the Flamingo. Upon accepting, I’d found Gordon at the wheel. He was so well known through his dramatic outbursts outside the court, when his picture was splashed in the newspapers, that I knew I had to be wary. I survived by inventing a vigilant father awaiting my return, and that was that. But I’d never associated Johnny with any of this when I had known him. And here he was, I realised, back in town after having served part of a seven-year prison term – for shooting at a door. The punishment was generally agreed to have been imposed for exemplary reasons: the crime, possessing a firearm with intent to endanger life. How naive I’d been! Johnny was released in 1967 and went through a self-confessedly maverick period before I saw him again.
And so it came to pass that John Arthur Alexander Edgecombe, 37, and 18-year-old Ulla Vibeke Filtenborg, a Danish artist, turned up at Lewisham Town Hall on the 8th of February 1970, to tie the knot, with yours truly present to record the occasion on film. It was winter but the weather was passable, and Johnny wore an open-neck shirt under his dark suit, with Vibeke in a poncho and cream-coloured wedding dress she had crocheted herself. Registers were signed and confetti thrown, then it was all back to Johnny’s pad in Blackheath for the reception. Vibeke’s father, a dentist, her mother and other relatives had come over from Denmark for the occasion and back at the house there was a definite Scandinavian touch to the setting. I remember wall hangings, rose petals, incense and potpourri, all combining to create a warm and intimate atmosphere. Johnny Scott, a top session player and the most respected flautist in British jazz at the time, came to join the celebrations, then other musicians arrived. There was champagne by the crate and plenty of food, with a ‘secret’ trail leading to an upstairs room where people could go to turn on. According to Johnny in his autobiography, things got a little hairy later on in the evening and he had difficulty in keeping the two groups apart, in particular ensuring that Vibeke’s parents did not get into the upstairs lair.
Johnny emerged from the shadows to carve out a presence on the jazz scene as a promoter. He got financial backing to help organise Edges in Rotherhithe and sessions at a Catford pub where he featured leading musicians such as Bobby Wellins, pianist Stan Tracey and the free-thinking drummer John Stevens. The army jacket became a kind of uniform and soon the old spring was back in his step. He acquired an attractive sports car which he enjoyed driving around town, but though he enjoyed a bit of style, he really wasn’t a man you would describe as flash. He remained the devoted jazz lover who’d never looked back since discovering the music of the great Charlie Parker, and was still the generous person he’d always been. For example, when Wellins was stuck for transport one night, Johnny lent him the car. Wellins enjoyed driving it, and was a little tardy in arranging its return. He remembered the plaintive phone call: “Can I have my car back for a while?”
It was in the same period that Johnny became a well known face in the local pubs, most notably the Richard I, a Tolly House in Royal Hill, Greenwich. Jazz enthusiast Matthew Wright, who knew him by sight in his student days, got to know Johnny after getting a job at Chris Wellard’s record shop in Lewisham Way where the Antiguan was a customer. Wellard’s was a specialised jazz outlet where musicians such as Manfred Mann and Tom McGuinness came looking for vinyl, along with actor Deryck Guyler, a veteran jazz fan, and Goldsmiths student Malcolm McLaren. Johnny was often in the company of his good friend Paul Rutherford, a committed Marxist who played trombone with John Stevens and in other avant-garde bands. Wright saw how Johnny’s notoriety still prejudiced some people against him, but he himself has only positive memories.
“He was always very affable and very funny and always pleased to see people,” says Wright. Chris Wellard was invited to Johnny’s comfortable home in Kidbrooke Park on several occasions. He recalled the Edge with fondness, while admitting to having been slightly intimidated by his vitality, saying, “He was such an indescribably energetic man with so many ideas. These all seemed a bit mad at the time but, you know, they really made sense later on.”
Speaking to Bobby Wellins recently, the saxophonist confirmed what I’d always felt about Johnny: that he was a victim of circumstance and basically decent. “Johnny was not a hard man, not one of your villains. He was a nice person,” he says. Wellins, who met Edgecombe through pianist Stan Tracey, suggested that he’d been made a sort of fall guy for the establishment during the Profumo affair and its aftermath. He is not alone in holding this view, and indeed, the initial charge of attempted murder and the sentence Johnny received were widely agreed to be extreme. As Wellins sees it: “He wouldn’t hurt anybody. They tried to divert attention from what else was going on, but it didn’t pay. He took the brunt of it.”
For Johnny, the story had a deeper dimension. Time, racist attitudes and the values of the popular press have reduced every relationship in it to pure carnality, but there is little doubt that he was in love with this woman who had so many men in thrall. Wellins remembers him in tears at the Downbeat in Old Compton Street, trying to fathom Keeler’s skittish behaviour.
In the early 1990s, I went to see Johnny to tape some of his memories. He told me he was born on the 22nd of October 1932, the last of eight children of a seafaring father who owned a two-masted schooner and had a woman in every port. He told me about travelling to Britain, living in Cardiff and how Lucky Gordon was briefly the cook at his shebeen in Ladbroke Grove. He expressed a view of sexual relationships that stuck in my mind as a poignant example of the corruscating lack of self-belief that for some in the past was so damaging to notions of self and, thus, the potential for racial advancement. It was his conviction, he said, that a black man like himself, with no education and living in a white man’s country, could never expect to get any woman except someone on the game or close to it.
A year or so after our interview, Johnny set up his Edge Music Organisation (EMO). He secured funding to stage a jazz dance competition at the Jazz Café in Camden, taking advantage of a revival of interest in jazz and jazz dance that centred around a new generation of black British jazz players, and was spearheaded by the Jazz Warriors and organisations such as Abibi Arts. He asked me to join the judging panel but when I protested a lack of qualifications, he cajoled: “Help me out, baby, I need a woman with a name on this.” I agreed, somewhat grumpily, and arrived at the Jazz Café to find a bemused Bobby Wellins as a fellow panellist. Two black women were among the others, one a professional dancer. We did our best, faced with a line-up of competitors who threw themselves energetically around the stage, showing off their moves while remaining oblivious to the music. Jazz dance had suddenly become all the rage but, plainly, listening to jazz had not. Eventually, the person who got our vote was the scruffy guy wearing a t-shirt and hat, with a red and white cotton scarf around his neck. We chose him over the more stylish contestants, who watched themselves in the mirrors as they danced. I convinced the other judges that in spite of all the glamour, our man was the only contestant doing what it said on the tin. It was a moment straight out of the film 12 Angry Men and, I have to admit, immensely satisfying. Afterwards I found Johnny outside, having a smoke and looking miserable. He thanked me for coming but the eyes said it all: the gig money was in his pocket but he was much too hip to get into something like this again.
Edges only lasted a couple of years but Johnny used the experience as a springboard for his promoting career. He continued to book jazz artists in southeast London and put on live events under the EMO banner at Greenwich and other theatres such as the Albany in Deptford. He provided work for up-and-coming musicians and the well established ones such as Stan Tracey, and stayed loyal to those he admired. When Paul Rutherford died in 2007, he attended his old friend’s funeral at Hither Green.
Johnny had already started working on his autobiography when we sat down to talk for the record. He showed me a draft of an early chapter, something that was undoubtedly his own work, and I was intrigued. Whether he typed this himself or dictated it, I don’t know, but what I read had the ring of authenticity, especially his recollections of arriving in London. Over the years, however, other hands worked on his original account. The result was Black Scandal, published 12 years ago in a cheap pulp edition and stylistically inconsistent. In one of several phone conversations following our interview, he’d asked for my help with the book but pressures of work forced me to decline. Now I wish I’d been able to help him by doing some work at least on the manuscript because so much of the detail of his story is missing. It’s a cheerful read, though, despite everything, and worth having been done.
My other regret is that we lost touch towards the end of his life. I did try to find him once or twice, but was unwell myself at the time and lacked the energy to persevere. Only later did I find out he’d been diagnosed with lung cancer in early 2010. He was in hospital in August of that year when a group of friends and family organised an early birthday party for him, complete with live jazz and plenty of Guinness. He left his hospital bed to attend, vowing, “I want to get high till I die.” He left the planet on September 26. I’d like to have been there for his send-off. I hope there were rose petals along with the spliffs.
With thanks to Johnny Edgecombe, Roland Miller, Mark Olden, Chris Wellard, Bobby Wellins and Matthew Wright.
Vice, June 16, 2014
I love inside stories about history they don’t teach in high school. William Stadiem’s article on Madame Claude(Catherine Keeler her jeune fille I guess).
Thank you for this wonderful posting. I had just watched “Scandal” again since first seeing it upon initial release, and was surprised that I didn’t remember Roland Gift playing the Edgecombe role. This got me interested in JE’s story, and led me to your blog. Quality writing.
Hi, I would like to get in touch with Valerie Wilmer to talk about photographs of Albert Ayler. Can anybody help?