John R.T. - some personal reminiscences
Even though I'm originally from England I didn't actually meet John RT until after I had moved to Canada in 1980. I was of course perfectly aware of John in the UK but as a budding young collector of 78s, held him in godlike awe. I knew his two partners who ran the Fountain record label, Norman Stevens and Ron Jewson. In fact, it was Norman who got me hooked on collecting 78s and I began visiting his home to be 'educated' in jazz. But the real rare stuff resided in the collection of John R. T. Davies, mythically rare labels and 'one off' test pressings of unissued material. It was all spoken about in hushed tones as if one was talking about the long lost library of Alexandria or some such place.
Record collecting went on hold for a few years while I did my Ph.D. and then I moved to Toronto, Canada to work. For some strange reason there are a lot of 78rpm jazz record collectors in the Toronto area - I've no idea why. Quite early on I met a young man who had been collecting jazz 78s since before he was a teenager and who was a professional musician - Jeff Healey. In fact Jeff became very big in the rock blues field in both Canada and the USA. While touring in the UK Jeff had contacted John R.T. - probably to see if he had any duplicates - which he always did. Jeff and I co-produced a 3 CD set for his Forte label of the complete Louis Armstrong with Fletcher Henderson. Fortunately for us, the collection of the late Walter C. Allen, the expert on Henderson, resided at his son's place here in Toronto. It was arranged by Jeff that I take over many of these rare discs to John RTs place for transfer on my annual visit to see family in England, and that was my first meeting with John.
John's studio is an amazing place to visit - you can see a photograph of it elsewhere on this website. I've had some wonderful afternoons there, listening to records, talking matrix numbers and planning future projects. It never ceased to amaze me how enthusiastic John was about the music, even in the last couple of years when he was very ill. I wasn't sure about the vintage electric fire that stood next to John's leg, it didn't look safe to me, but was also used by John to rest his ashtray on top. His Cornucopean was up on the shelf - this is a type of cornet dating from the mid 1800s which had valves that worked completely differently than the cornet or trumpet. John did explain it to me but I still can't understand the way it was supposed to work.
John had perfect pitch and played it along with a record he would transfer so that he could put the record in pitch. There was his old typewriter - with a green ink ribbon. I never did find out why he had to type in green ink, and should he write you a letter that would also be in green ink too! Which reminds me about the letters I would get from John - he never used the blue airmail sticker on the envelope, or an airmail envelope, oh no, John's letters would always have airmail stamped on it from a special ink stamp he owned - of a biplane! Consequently, letters would not always reach my Toronto address as quickly as they should - the postman would have no idea what this contraption was printed on the envelope!
I was there on one occasion when the postman tried to deliver a parcel of records to John. He was asked to sign for it and to print his name. John replied he would do one or the other, but not both. He argued that printing his name was still his signature. But the postman wouldn't have it and went back to the depot. About an hour later John received a phone call, it was the manager of the local postal depot enquiring why he wouldn't sign for the parcel. But John remonstrated that he would certainly sign for it - the manager was overjoyed. Half an hour later back comes the postman - 'please sign here and print your name'. Uh uh, I'll do one or the other but not both says John. The postman didn't know what to do and we went through the whole process again. The poor guy had to return to the depot again. I've no idea what happened in the end although I am certain John would have won this battle. He just would not give in to what he considered a ridiculous rule. John was an awkward individual at times but I loved him for it.
We were fortunate to be able to get John over to Toronto on several occasions. We managed to persuade him to give a presentation on college bands, a particular interest of his, at one of the annual Canadian (Record) Collectors' Congresses, which are held in Toronto every year. I think it was on this visit that John played a gig with a band I was in at that time - the Hot Five Jazzmakers. We played a concert at the theatre in Owen Sound, which is a small town about three or more hours north of Toronto. I remember eating at a restaurant afterwards with John, myself and my wife and the banjo player in the band - Rainer Hunck and his wife. Rainer and Claudia are originally from Germany and commented how much better it was now that Britain's currency had gone decimal - so much easier. John pounced on this statement in a flash and completely disagreed. Rainer made his case how the old system of pounds, shillings and pence was so difficult and you couldn't divide it by this and that number, but especially by the number 10. Ah, says John, of course you can divide it by 10, but you can't divide the new pound by 3, whereas you could with the old one! You can also divide it by 5 quite easily and 12. After much discussion Rainer comes up with a number that you can't divide the old pound by - 7. Quick as a flash John says, 'ah yes, that is why we invented the guinea' (21 shillings). Rainer knew when he was beaten!
I could go on and on about John's little eccentricities, he was of course the classic English Eccentric and I daresay proud of it.
The idea for forming the Jazz Oracle label occurred at one of the Canadian Collectors' Congresses. Jeff had decided to not continue with issuing vintage material on his Forte label and I was lamenting this fact to John Wilby at the CCC. John and myself decided to form a partnership to continue issuing vintage material and I contacted John RT to float the idea. He was immediately very enthusiastic and offered to put in a third of the startup funds. Jazz Oracle's first two issues had originally been slated for Forte and the masters were already finished, so we were on our way. I think the idea of Jazz Oracle always appealed to John RT - we do the projects that other labels can't or won't touch - the unbelievably obscure or impossible.
On the record collecting side John cannot be replaced. I know he began collecting by the time the Second World War broke out. He just seems to have been around since jazz record collecting began. His knowledge of recordings, matrix numbers, musicians and collectors was unbeatable. He made it very easy for any jazz reissue label, because the first thing you did after deciding what to issue, was to call John. There was a pretty good chance he would have most of the records you needed and would often come up with an unknown alternate or even a test pressing originally unissued. John always made anything he had in his collection available to any interested party and I suspect that is why he amassed such an incredible collection. Collectors would offer records to John first because they knew he would preserve the material and make it available to those who should hear it. Of course John's other attribute was that he was a very good musician indeed.
He played all sorts of instruments including the saxophones, trombone, cornet, piano and guitar. There is even a recording of him playing the bass sarrusaphone and I know he owned a 'hot fountain pen', which I'm sure he could play. It was the fact that he was such a good musician that was so important to reissuing 78s on LP and later CD. He knew what the instruments should sound like and did absolute marvels in transferring, repairing and cleaning up 78s. He was quite simply the number one man in this field in the world.
You can see it in the way his name is mentioned in reviews of the recordings he has been involved in transferring - the reviewers just quote his name inferring immediately that this quite simply is the best you are going to hear this particular recording.
Fortunately for us all, John has left an incredible collection of transferred material for us all to enjoy. He has also left it in a form where nothing has been removed, except unwanted surface noise, so that future sound engineers can use it as source material for sound restoration techniques yet to be invented. This is his legacy and what a wonderful one it is. I've spent all my life in academia and met some pretty intelligent people, but only one genius and that was John. We are all going to miss John a very great deal. He was an exceptional man and quite literally, unique.
- Colin Bray