A Welsh drummer with links to both Abergavenny and Brecon will not only be celebrating his 70th birthday this August, but he will also be celebrating 50 years of professional playing.
John Gibbon, originally from Merthyr, but now settled in Hay-On-Wye has organised the Friday Night Jazz sessions at the award-winning Old Black Lion for the past seven and a half years. In that time some of the most legendary British jazz musicians have played at the venue. Only last month saxophone player Art Themen, and trumpet player Henry Lowther appeared there. To help celebrate both his birthday and 50 years, his good friend and B.B.C. Big Band singer Jeff Hooper will take to the mic stand.
"I came to Hay-On-Wye to retire, and I haven't been allowed to,' John says. "I came across a pub called the Black Lion. The previous owner decided she wanted to put on jazz nights, and I'd been bringing my friends from jazz down from London. I didn't expect anything to happen here, but it has. The new owners have kept the jazz going."
The fun doesn't stop there. In August, John has an All-Star band featured at the Guildhall in Brecon on the Saturday lunchtime of the jazz festival. The line-up includes tenor sax Jo Fooks, trumpet player Chris Hodgkins, and vocals by Laura Collins.
John's vast career saw him become the proprietor of the legendary Gibbs Jazz nightclub in Abergavenny and Cardiff. It hosted many notable people, including singer George Melly and saxophonist Ronny Scott. He also showed his versatility having worked in theatre ‘orchestra pits’ when employed over many years by Pop Idol producer 'Nasty' Nigel Lythogoe, who John describes as being anything but nasty. He can recall hundreds of shows with such names as singer Alvin Stardust, Helen Shapiro, Bobby Crush and the last person to with the Eurovision Song Contest for the U.K., Katrina Leskanich.
John attributes his start in music to a person he moved near to when he was seven years of age. Eddie Tattersall, responsible for bringing The Beatles to Abergavenny, offered John an insight into a world that would become his playground for the foreseeable future. "I moved to Abergavenny at seven years of age and lived opposite Eddie Tattersall. Eddie, when he came to Abergavenny, thought there is nothing for the kids, so he started organising dances and local bands on a Saturday afternoon. He brought big names of the day, and my older brother and sister went to the dances. I was allowed to go backstage. I met everybody. The Hollies. Lulu and The Luvvers. That's where I started. Backstage at the Borough Theatre in Abergavenny. That wouldn't have happened if I didn't move opposite Eddie Tattersall."
It was this atmosphere that helped spark his own interest in drumming. The drummers around him were influenced by jazz and blues. "To be in that environment when I was eight to twelve years old was amazing. They were all so nice to me. Eddie would introduce me as an up-and-coming drummer. In those days everybody wanted to be in a band, but I was too young to be doing that. An older friend of mine had a drum set, and he let me play it. I could play it straight away."
John knew from the moment he sat at those drums in Abergavenny that he wanted to make this his career. "The teachers would laugh at me in school, but that's what I wanted to do. I knew this was what I wanted to do. I've been so lucky that it's been uninterrupted work ever since."
He started playing for money in the 60s. "I was playing with local bands, earning good money. There was plenty of work in those days. I can't read music, and I never had a lesson in my life, but I make my own notes."
His career over the years has taken him all around the world, meeting many famous artists. "You joke about claims to fame. I used to be Louise Redknapp's drum teacher. There are so many stories."
One of those stories includes the time he played in a London hotel, catching the attention of Take That members Gary Barlow and Robbie Williams. "Celebrities would own apartments above this hotel. There were screaming girls outside. I was in a beat-up old van, and I thought, 'well, they're not here for me.' I went into the restaurant, set up and started playing. After about three numbers, two lads walked in. They sat down and were really digging what we were playing. One of them got up and had a word with our piano player. It was Gary Barlow. He wanted to play and did a duet with our piano player. Next thing I know, Robbie Williams comes up to me and asks if he can play the drums with me."
Another artist he met was Alvin Stardust. "He re-invented himself as Alvin Stardust. He came to Abergavenny, and I met him as a kid. Later, I would do 86 shows with him. When I knew I was going to be working with him, I went over to Eddie and asked for old write ups from the Abergavenny Chronicle. I took them to Alvin and showed him. He said 'where did you get these?', and I asked if he remembered. He said he remembered it well, as it was his birthday, and they brought a cake out on stage."
He has many fond stories, but there is one person in particular that he remembers fondly. "I'm most proudest of my association with Ronnie Scott. I owned two jazz nightclubs in the early 80s in Cardiff and Abergavenny. Everybody played there. They were one of Ronnie's favourite places to play, and my stories with him stem from there."
Over the years, John has noticed how the music scene has changed. "There aren't as many places now for youngsters to play, which is sad. There aren't as many bands about as there used to be. I'm not one to be 'the good old days', but they really were. You'd meet so many characters."
John's Hay-On-Wye flat has photos around the room of all of his experiences. "I can sit here in the evening, look around, and think 'wow, look at that.' People love coming here to see it all."
Now, John looks ahead to the future celebrations. "Everything is mostly happening in August because of the Brecon Jazz Festival. I'll be playing with the All Star Band. Two weeks after the festival, Jeff Hooper will be at the Black Lion. I'm doing all of it in Brecon and this area, but I felt compelled to do a concert in Abergavenny. My old school, Grofield Secondary, is now a theatre, called Melville Centre for the Arts. I've invited a lot of my old school friends. That's on the 23rd September. I'm not celebrating in two months. I've already had people here. It's a year of celebrations."
There's no sign of stopping for John. "I'm still doing it. I didn't think I'd still be doing it, but I am."