Obituary: Phil Mason, jazz musician and farmer

Phil Mason: Musician and founder of the Isle of Bute jazz festival who made his life on the island
Phil Mason: Musician and founder of the Isle of Bute jazz festival who made his life on the island
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Born: 10 April, 1940, in London. Died: 9 June, 2014, in Rothesay, Isle of Bute, aged 74

Phil Mason was a trumpet player and jazz musician and the founding father of the Isle of Bute Jazz Festival. Born in Kentish Town in North London at the height of the Blitz, Phil and his sister Sheila were evacuated to Norfolk before the family moved to Muswell Hill following the end of the war. A bright young boy, his lack of discipline was a concern occasionally raised by teachers: though he passed his eleven-plus exam, he failed in music, and ironically was advised by his music teacher that he did not have “a musical ear”.

At 16 he decided he wanted to be a grave digger, but eventually returned to studying and, in 1960, moved to Ireland to take up a degree in modern languages at Trinity College.

During his years in Dublin he developed a great interest in the arts, and in particular with Italian opera. He also adored the Irish folk group The Dubliners, and was influenced by the Irish classical music of Sean O’Riada.

He had received a trumpet as a 16th birthday gift, and spent many an evening practising in his one room in Dublin’s Townsend Street, muffling the sound with a dirty grey handkerchief to avoid the wrath of his neighbours.

His first paid jazz gig was at The Boot Inn, County Dublin, playing with Richie McGowan, Barry Richardson and Martin Bennett. After their expenses were deducted they were allowed to keep the takings of 17 shillings and sixpence – which worked out at 80 pence each.

In 1966 he married his first wife, Kate, though not before weeks of Catholic instruction classes – at which Kate would notice both Phil and the priest anxiously looking at their watches, both being in a rush to finish in time for the football.

Football played an important part in his life: he was a highly regarded defender, and went on to captain his main team, Old Tollingtonians FC, with whom he won the Old Boys Cup, a prize also won years later by his eldest son Neil. He was also a huge Arsenal supporter, though his favourites caused him great anxiety – to the point where he was very reluctant to even watch them, preferring to make sure they had won so he could enjoy the highlights later.

He was also a “wannabe” farmer, and spent much time seeking acceptance from the agricultural community on Bute after moving to the island with his second wife Hanne in 1979.

As well as growing crops at the family’s farm on Bute, he also kept an assortment of animals, including a cow entered at a local agricultural show which came eighth in its class: the fact there were only eight entrants in the class did not concern him in the slightest.

A chance phone call led to Phil joining a jazz band in London when he returned home from his studies in Dublin, but his professional career really took off when he joined Max Collie’s Rhythm Aces in 1970.

Formed four years previously by John Maxwell Collie, a former band leader with the London City Stompers, the band toured regularly throughout the UK and Europe, in addition to a series of regular gigs in venues around London – a city to which Phil would return regularly throughout his career, commuting on an almost weekly basis to and from the family home at Shalunt farm on the island of Bute, between the village of Port Bannatyne and the ferry terminal at Rhubodach.

But Phil did not limit his jazz performances to his trips to London and his tours with the Rhythm Aces and with Phil Mason’s New Orleans All-Stars, the name chosen when he decided, in 1992, to start up his own band.

Since the early 1980s Phil and a small group of friends had played regular sessions at the Struan Bar and the Grand Marine Hotel in Rothesay, and with the help of a family friend, Bill Hassall, Phil and his wife Hanne decided to take the plunge and organise a jazz festival on Bute, in the hope of adding a new dimension to the life of an island still struggling to adjust to the loss of visitor trade brought about by the arrival of cheap overseas holidays.

That first festival, featuring just three bands – one of them the George Penman Jazzmen, still appearing at the event every year despite the death of their eponymous bandleader in 2009 – sowed the seeds for an event which quickly grew in popularity, with “trad” fans from throughout the UK and beyond attracted as much by the warm Bute welcome and the friendly atmosphere as by the artists on the bill at a festival which has ploughed millions of pounds into the island’s economy and is still going strong today.

Phil’s extensive contacts book in the jazz business ensured that as the profile of the festival grew ever higher, some of the world’s best exponents of the style performed at the event, with Acker Bilk, Kenny Ball, Chris Barber and the Temperance Seven just a few of the acts who appeared over the years – while playing at least 160 gigs in the course of a year, the minimum he and Hanne felt were necessary to get by, gave him ample opportunity to spread the word about the Bute festival.

Phil’s ill-health persuaded him and Hanne to retire from promoting, organising and performing at the event in 2010 (an event that he was very happy to leave in the very capable hands of Tim Saul and the team) and in his later years he found it hard to leave the couple’s flat in Rothesay, though there were still occasional glimpses of his mischievous humour for the family to enjoy, and he was able to take delight in watching the television coverage of his beloved Arsenal winning the FA Cup in May.

Phil Mason is survived by his first wife Kate and their children Neil and Eleanor and by his second wife Hanne, their sons Joachim, Gregory, Keiron and Romilly, and his ten grandchildren.