Jazzman John Clarke, Beat poet
A legendary and much-loved name on the London poetry scene and beyond, John Robert Clarke – aka Jazzman John Clarke – has died. Styling himself as a Beat poet in the tradition of Ginsberg and Kerouac, he became known as ‘Jazzman’ John Clarke due to his long-standing enthusiasm for jazz, as well as for his ever-changing and exotic modes of dress. He was well-known for his collaborations with musicians, and over the years had run a series of events in London, featuring poets, musicians, singer-songwriters and other performers. He also performed with musicians in the south of France, in Italy, Holland, and at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Tributes by many on Facebook described him as inspirational with a zest for life, while others talked of his warmth and gentle manner. Poet Richard Tyrone Jones said: “He was a perennially energetic and versatile performer acapella or with various jazz bands. He was a stalwart supporter of smaller community gigs and open mics as well as my own gig Utter!. And the audience would often join in – ‘melon, lemon, tango’ with his alternately mellifluous and fast-paced pieces.
“I was always pleased to see him with his Sainsbury’s carrier bag and distinctive jazz hat. I knew this day must come but was fooled that it wouldn't by his energy, that of a person half his age. John was a true character, a poetry supercharger, and a gentleman who will be missed by all.”
To get an idea of John Robert Clarke’s style, just look for him on YouTube, where there is a wealth of videos of his performances over the years, including a number of him performing his signature poem ‘What Jazz Can Do (For Your Life)’. In 2013 he travelled north to appear at two spoken word events at the Marsden jazz festival – the Write Out Loud poetry jam, and an unforgettable event called The Beat Is Back involving a number of poets collaborating with two young jazz musicians.
Dave Morgan, who also performed at the latter event, reviewed John Clarke’s collection All the way from Kathmandu for Write Out Loud. In it he said: “I once saw John Clarke perform in Greenwich. He represents an exotic minority of performance poets who conceive their poems in a mindset earthed in jazz and blues.” Morgan added that Clarke could be “profligate with his words, doesn’t mind the odd mixed metaphor and non-sequitur, and is driven by his imagination. He is not a page poet. He is not clinical or pedantic in pursuit of form or structure.”
John Clarke’s other works include a second full collection, Ghost on the Road, and several CDs.
There was a downside to and perhaps a reason for his energetic outdoors life – John lived in a flat so cluttered it was virtually uninhabitable. He once asked me to transport back to London four bulging bags of books and records that he had purloined from charity shops in Marsden. When he opened the door of his flat I wished I hadn’t brought them. But I spent about four hours with him that day, after having met him at a number of poetry events, and during those hours he filled me in about all the activities he was engaged in on the London poetry scene.
Born of Dublin parentage, John Robert Clarke spent more than 20 years in banking before turning to poetry in the 1990s. He lived alone in his flat in south-east London, and is understood to have celebrated his 70th birthday a few months ago. The circumstances of his death are not immediately clear, but John appeared at poetry events in London on most nights of the week, and fears were raised when he failed to appear at recent gigs.
Tributes are already being organised to celebrate John Clarke as a poet. He was an active member of the Greenwich-based Charity-Global Fusion Music and Arts (GFMA) and fellow members are planning a tribute evening on Thursday 6 September in the Earl of Chatham pub, Thomas Street, Woolwich, in south-east London, from 7.30 to 11pm. On the following night, Friday September 7, Jazzman Master’s Breakout will be held at the Betsey Trotwood pub in Farringdon Road, London, from 7.30 to 11.30pm. The event is being organised by Bingo Master's Breakout, a poetry/karaoke night. Organisers say: “This will be an opportunity to celebrate a genuine poetry institution who touched the lives of many (and there aren't many of those around).”
PHOTOGRAPH: MICHAEL MOUSTAFI