Jason Cornelius John, Street Musician
Jason Cornelius John
He first sprang into my consciousness two weeks ago, early one Sunday morning, when I was down among the fly-pitchers in the Bethnal Green Rd. As if out of nowhere, he appeared from behind a telephone box with his guitar in hand declaring, “I am Jason John, I’m writing you a damn good song.” With charisma and intensity, he drew the attention of everyone within earshot and the pavement became his stage as he launched into one of his own compositions, opening his heart and channelling his emotions into a soulful ballad. Even at first sight, Jason John made an unforgettable impression.
And then yesterday, I came upon him sitting with his guitar in a doorway in Folgate St, sheltering from the drizzle on the first chilly day of the Winter, and – once we had re-established our acquaintance – we decided to take refuge in the barroom of the Water Poet where Jason spoke to me of his life as a street musician.
“I’m a West London lad. They know me around Shepherd’s Bush, Hammersmith and Acton because I grew up in Chiswick. I’ve played in Notting Hill and all over the West End, so I thought I’d travel to the East and get myself known here. Sometimes I play in Leadenhall Market, Hoxton Square and at Liverpool St. I write my own songs. I’ve always written, stories, poems and songs. I grew up playing the guitar and I can play bass, violin and piano. Being a musician, singing and playing, it’s like being a storyteller.
My first real involvement with the music scene was as roadie for the Bluetones. I knew them from school, and I stayed at their house and slept on the couch. It was a non-stop party and there were always girls. My first proper taste of the music industry – you got paid and there was always food and drink.
When they took off, I didn’t feel bad but I did wonder, “How could you just make it and leave us all behind?” Then Montrose Avenue came along and replaced the Bluetones, and they pulled more girls. My job went from being a roadie to becoming their minder, making sure they didn’t drink too much and keeping an eye on the girls too.
At smaller venues, I’d get ten to fifteen minutes to play my own songs. I played in Camden once, thirty-six people were cheering me and saying, “That was a good one,” I gave out my phone number and email many times that night. When I played the Hub at the Metropolitan University, there were rows of girls in front and they loved me – but I was frightened when they all shouted at once, I thought they were going to grab me. My girlfriend dropped me at that time – over my music – she said, “You can’t do any other job, and trying to live by playing and singing, it’s impossible.” When Montrose Avenue made it, I thought, “It’s not going to happen to me, this is the second time.” So I took off to France for a year, going down South and playing on the road, then I went to Amsterdam and lived there for a year.
I love playing and singing, that’s why I’ve dedicated my life to it. Two years ago, I was sitting playing in Allen Gardens when I found myself. I started to cry. I could literally see myself. Since that Summer, I’ve had a hunger to play to people. If I see a crowd of people, I want to win their spirit. It fills me with goodwill. When you are going around playing and singing you’ve got to feed your soul. I have a smoke and it gives me a nice merry feeling. In your head you behave like a giant. Sometimes the crowds roar and cheer for me. I walk down the street and people are hugging me.
All the businessmen in their suits and ties, they finish work and go to the pub. Then they go outside to have a smoke, and they see me and they say, “I like your look, what have you got?” I play them a song and they say, “I like that, play us another … and another, and another.” Then, if they’re still into you, they give you a card and say, “He’s never had busker for his birthday, we want you to come over.”
I’m living in Earls Court at the moment in a hotel, it’s forty pounds a night. I have to make that money each day playing on the street. You can’t give in. It’s all up to you. You’ve got to put your feeling into it, heart and soul – because how you feel, that’s how the listener’s going to feel. You got to feel emotion, I’ve played and cried in front of people, and they’ve cried too.
During the day, I rehearse in my room and then I come out and play my songs. Performing on the streets, it’s different from a pub, you’ve got to attract the people. At the end of the day, it’s for no-one else, just me and the listeners, and I’ll know that I played and sang and they felt good. You want everyone to feel a good feeling and think, “That Jason John he was a good man, he hasn’t lost the feeling.”
I walked here today from Earls Court, I followed the South Bank. I got jumped at Old St at the weekend and they took my phone – at four in the afternoon, I couldn’t believe it. The ups and downs of life. It made me cry because I needed those numbers badly. Now the weather’s getting cold, it makes it hard for me to keep playing on the street. I have to start playing in pubs and clubs but to do that I’ve got to find three people whose numbers were in my phone, so we can play together as a group. I was looking for a violinist who hangs around here, I was walking and hoping he’d turn up.”
When I expressed my concern over this immediate circumstance, Jason shrugged it off – self-reliant and philosophical, and taking one day at a time. A man of innate dignity and possessing a sympathetic nature, he impressed me with his single-minded pursuit of songwriting, risking himself and sacrificing conventional ambition for the sake of a purist desire to communicate through music. The street is an unforgiving arena for a performer yet Jason has embraced busking with consistent success and made himself at home on the pavement, creating a distinctive persona that is his alone. “I’ve always liked pin-striped flares and leather jackets, and I always wear shoes. I try to keep them as shiny as I can. If you dress smart with shoes and trousers, you can get in anywhere – but not with jeans and trainers.” he informed me authoritatively, when I complimented him on his style, layered up with old coats and silk scarves.
From the moment Jason first appeared in the market two weeks ago, it was obvious that he has a certain talent and personal charm which win him a degree of respect wherever he goes, and thus his relationship with existence is enviably untroubled, for the most part. At thirty-five years old, Jason Cornelius John knows who is and what he wants from life – as he confessed with a barely-concealed swagger, “I’m not a member of any party and I have no religion. My religion is drinking, smoking, playing music and making love to the ladies.”
Photographs of Jason John performing copyright © Colin O’Brien
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