Westy’s romance, rugby, music remembered

Sep 5th, 2015 | By | Category: Latest News, Local People

Obituary: John Michael West, July 29, 1939 – August 31, 2015

The foyer of the Founders Theatre slowly filled up. Folk arrived in dribs and drabs, mostly people in their 70s, jazz enthusiasts who had never forgotten a night exactly a half century before on that very spot. Fifty years, almost to the minute, since Louis Armstrong played Hamilton, remnants of his audience gathered again to celebrate the anniversary.

It would have been foolish to attempt a literal reenactment of the Armstrong gig, but live music was a necessity. Looking for talent, I had reached out to Hamilton’s Jazz Society. Its most senior member had responded with gusto. John West offered the services of his own group, a 10-piece collective known as Art Gecko. John played clarinet. Their trumpet player had actually met Armstrong on the 1963 tour.

John West

John West

As the early birds either milled around or sat with stoic patience, waiting for something to happen, a man unobtrusively declared love for his spouse. John West, dressed in his band finery, sidled up to the seated Mrs West. Under the guise of warming up, he stood before his wife and blew a favourite tune. Casual observers might have mistaken the moment or overlooked it entirely, yet it was the most moving of the entire night. How many wives get to be serenaded decades into their relationship? How many husbands are capable of conceiving the act, let alone carrying it out? John West was an unabashed romantic.

The Armstrong plaque unveiling was the beginning of a warm if occasional friendship between John, my future wife and me. When Mr West heard of our forthcoming nuptials, he lost no time in suggesting Art Gecko as a wedding band. If there was reticence from our end regarding this idea, the reasons were entirely financial. Could we afford to adequately compensate 10 musicians? We dithered, tinkering with what passed for a budget. Finally, when it came time to ink such things in, I sent a hopeful email to John, broaching the subject of fee and availability. He responded almost immediately and with slight bemusement. Of course Art Gecko would play the wedding: they had had us booked for months. As for payment, well, that was negotiable. So negotiable, we later learnt, that they literally sang for their supper, a few pints of beer and nothing else.

One of the great surprises of our wedding reception was arranged between John, the band and the bride. Janine secretly rehearsed a Petula Clark number and sang it with Art Gecko on the night. Perhaps the former policeman in him enjoyed the subterfuge this involved. Certainly his romantic side embraced the gesture. I might have been the lucky recipient, but tears welled in John’s eyes as he played.

If the man was generous to a fault and wore his heart on his sleeve, there was also something of the canny promoter about him. It was a recurring theme in our correspondence that this column be used to shed light on some of John’s many cultural interests. Any publicity about Art Gecko and/or the Hamilton Jazz Society was appreciated. We met to this end last October, John and a fellow musician briefing me on the history of the band. Though Art Gecko has been around two decades, John himself did not seriously begin to play clarinet until he was 53. Before, that his only acquaintance with fame came when he opened a van door for The Beatles. Little did the British bobby suspect that a half century later, he would be playing Lennon-McCartney compositions in public. In both words and deeds, John West demonstrated that it is never too late to indulge your passions.

In the middle of June, in response to another column, John sent me an email out of the blue. I had heard through the grapevine of his health problems and been thinking about how to best bring the subject up. As ever, the man himself cut to the chase, providing relevant detail about his illness yet betraying no self pity. Suffering from motor neurone disease, a condition which has no cure, he had a personal perspective on the issue of assisted suicide. Expressing gratitude about how he had been treated by “the health experts and my family”, he wrote that he had “come into contact with several people in similar circumstances who all think like I do, that euthanasia should be available when life is no longer worth living”.

John West died on Monday, August 31 peacefully at his Tamahere Lane home, surrounded by his family. He is survived by wife Alison, their children and partners, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

John gave much service to Tamahere, including the Tamahere Community Committee and the Tamahere Community Centre committee.

He is also remembered by the the Hamilton Old Boys Rugby and Sports Club where he was one of its Life Members and favourite sons.

In an online guestbook the club noted that “Westy has been fully involved in just about every aspect of club life over a period spanning five decades. Coach of many Old Boys teams including several years coaching the Premiers, Westy was a keen and knowledgeable student of the game. When he talked about rugby, you listened. He spent many years on the club committee, including a significant term as President during which he presided over a significant positive turnaround in the club’s financial position. Westy loved: a beer, a yarn, a laugh, a song, and to watch and talk about footy and other sports as long as anyone was prepared to listen, and was also a talented musician who thoroughly enjoyed playing in the Old Boys band.”

Update: A service celebrating John’s life was held on Monday, September 7 at a packed Hamilton Old Boys Rugby Club.

(Thanks to Waikato Times columnist Richard Swainson whose memories of John make up most of this obituary.)

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