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Phil Mason

Musician and founder of Isle of Bute Jazz Festival

Musician and founder of Isle of Bute Jazz Festival

Born: April 10, 1940; Died: June 9, 2014

Phil Mason, who has died aged 74, was a cornet player and jazz musician, and the founding father of the Isle of Bute Jazz Festival. His extensive contacts book in the jazz business ensured that, as the profile of the festival grew, some of the world's best exponents of the style performed there, including Acker Bilk, Kenny Ball, Chris Barber and the Temperance Seven.

Born in Kentish Town in North London at the height of the Blitz, he 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 11-plus he failed in music, and 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 her husband-to-be 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 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 at Shalunt, in the remote north of the island, 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 him 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 playing a series of regular gigs in venues around London — notably the 100 Club on Oxford Street.

The Rhythm Aces also took the US by storm — becoming the World Champions of Jazz in New Orleans in the 70s. He would return regularly throughout his career to London, commuting on an almost weekly basis to and from the family home on Bute, between the village of Port Bannatyne and the ferry terminal at Rhubodach.

In 1992, he decided to start his own band, and so Phil Mason's New Orleans All-Stars were formed.

They quickly built a reputation, playing to packed-out venues across the UK, Europe, Canada and Australia. In 1995 the band won the Gospel Album of the Year for their Spirituals & Gospels album.

But he did not limit his jazz performances to his trips to London and his tours with the Rhythm Aces and the All-Stars.

Since the early 1980s he 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.

His ill health persuaded him and Hanne to retire from promoting, organising and performing at the event in 2010 (an event that he was happy to leave in the 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.

He is survived by his first wife Kate and their children Neil and Eleanor and by his second wife Hanne, their sons Joachim, Gregory, Keiron & Romilly and his 10 grandchildren.

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