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In Memory of John Allen
If you were in the habit of going to hear live music in Toronto bars and restaurants before the COVID-19 crisis, you may have noticed an energetic man with a slightly greying head of curly brown hair and oval glasses, usually in the company of an elegant dark-haired lady. That was John Allen and his life partner, Karen Black. John and Karen have been big supporters as audience members, who always showed their appreciation to musicians, both in the form of applause and in the form of generous tips. They came out to live gigs often, and were always a welcome sight.
But John supported music in many more ways than that. Even as a university student, he was involved in booking bands for the student bar or the sports arena at his university. He had a deep love for music, especially but not exclusively the blues, and an unfeigned enthusiasm that could lift crushed spirits and excite others around him. His real job as a sought-after and highly respected York University lecturer and consultant who worked with governments and companies often took him on the road, and wherever possible he would take the opportunity to scope out music venues in the places he visited, and to make bookers aware of musicians he liked.
I met John Allen in the early 2000s, and I owe him an especially deep debt of gratitude. From 2005 on he was my manager, and he was hard-working and excellent at it. He got me booked in many festivals all across Canada that I probably would never have been able to get into by myself, as well as getting me numerous out-of-town gigs. Although technically entitled to a percentage of the fees for these gigs, he rarely ever took any money for his troubles. He was tireless, spreading the word by means of posters, table cards, e-mail lists and word of mouth. He helped organize fund-raisers for me when I was injured and unable to play, and without John’s help and advocacy, I would not have won the Juno Award in 2009. Being a lackadaisical musician and shy about self-promotion, I was not always the easiest person for John to work with, but he was patient with me, and his supportive energy made up for much of my disorganization. I loved John and cannot express enough how grateful I am to all he has done for me.
Other musicians also benefited from John’s attendance, support and advocacy, among them Donné Roberts, Wayne Charles and Ken Yoshioka, Bill Heffernan, as well as many, many others. Many people who first got to know John professionally became his friends, including record executive Andrew Galloway and producer Terry Brown. I last saw John and Karen approximately one month ago at my regular Wednesday night gig at La Rev (2848 Dundas St. W.), opening for Dave McManus and the Krewe de Bleu. They were in good spirits, and John seemed to be his usual, strong and cheerful self. We chatted on the break and waved to each other as John and Karen left, sure that we would see each other again soon. Then, the COVID-19 quarantine hit, and all gigs disappeared.
On Wednesday, April 1, 2020, John Allen suffered a massive heart attack. He was rushed to St. Michael’s Hospital, where Karen was with him. Efforts to revive him were unsuccessful. To many of us in the music community, John’s passing came as a devastating shock. Because of the pandemic, there will be no public funeral, but when it becomes possible again, there will be a memorial for him. John and Karen have a large and loving family of children and grandchildren, to whom he was very devoted. My condolences to all of them. John Allen was a great friend, music-lover and supporter of musicians, he will be profoundly missed.
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