I am gonna fly
because I am free
I am gonna fly
see what I can see
I am gonna fly
because I am free
I am gonna fly
see what’s left of me
— John-Alex Mason, "Free" (2011)
Tragedy strikes all around us in different ways, large and small. When it happens at a distance, we learn the news, shake our heads and quickly move on.
But when it hits close, like a lightning bolt, we just don't understand.
That's the feeling now for everyone who knew John-Alex Mason. Not just here in Colorado Springs, but from Oregon to Mississippi and even overseas.
Mason, without question the driving force and leading influence for our city's blues community, left this world on Oct. 19.
He's gone, at just 35. He had done so much, but he had so much more ahead of him — as a performer, as a friend and, most importantly to him, as a husband and father. His remarkable music, overflowing with creative spirit, seemed at the threshold of taking him to new heights.
"But he never played for the silver. He wasn't playing for money," says John-Alex's cousin, Reed Mason. "He was playing for life, shining for everyone to see."
Now, so suddenly, only one word fits to describe what has happened.
Not even a month ago, just after being honored by the Pikes Peak Arts Council as the region's top solo/duo performer, everything was rolling along fine. John-Alex was playing shows here, but also from Fort Collins to Telluride. He had recently visited the South, spending time in Memphis, and the Great Northwest, gaining new fans along the way. He'd released a new CD, Jook Joint Thunderclap, in February, including the song "Free," with lyrics that go right through you now.
There had been a sad time back in late May, when his father, local businessman Jack Mason, passed away. Jack probably was his son's biggest fan.
But John-Alex still had the rest of his family, and he played on with the same fervor. In August, he relished opening for legend B.B. King as he had done before, this time at the Denver Botanic Gardens.
He played other shows as usual until late September. Then came a doctor visit, minor surgery, complications, and now he's gone.
That's tragic enough. But it gets worse.
John-Alex's wife, Rosie, is only days away from delivering their second child. Their daughter, Ruth, is a 4-year-old.
So much to live for. Instead, it's a life that's finished, so horribly soon.
If you ever heard John-Alex play on a carefree Sunday at Front Range Barbeque, his kid-like blond hair blowing in the breeze, or at any of his countless other gigs around the area for the past decade, you knew how gifted and sincere he was. He'd belt out song after song in his one-man show, playing percussion with his feet, guitar with his hands, singing and wailing with his voice, laying down the Delta blues like he'd been born to do nothing else. Then he'd walk up and thank you for being there.
He put out that album eight months ago, after living a year or so in Portland, Ore., and then returning with his wife and kids. As he told our music editor, Bill Forman, at the time, "Portland's amazing, but it's not home. And Colorado is, so here we are. It's just exploring, man. I mean, that's kinda how things are working right now. We don't really have a plan. We're just exploring and enjoying the ride."
There was always a new adventure ahead for John-Alex, and he impacted lives of so many. Like the schoolkids he took to the South and Chicago, helping them learn true musical and cultural roots. Or young musicians like Grant Sabin, with whom he shared his knowledge and influence. Or other bands locally who were kindred spirits.
"He had even said that we should do some kind of project together, and it sounded like such a great idea," says David Jeffrey of Grass It Up (and the Indy sales staff). "But I never got around to calling him back. Now it's too late."
That's the common theme now for many who knew John-Alex Mason. Praise that went unspoken, gratitude not fully expressed, shows missed because, you know, we were gonna have John-Alex and his music for so many more years.
And now we won't.
Instead, we can take one more message from John-Alex's words in an interview last year with a blues website: "If there were a couple more of me, I'd be booking bands, working on a record, practicing, raising my daughter, being a good husband, all of those things. At one point I realized that I wasn't very good at any of those things all at the same time. So, it's enough to do two of those, being a husband and a dad."
He was so much more, of course. But now his last chapter will have to become someone else's song.
It'll be the blues, of course. But nobody will do it like John-Alex could.
Talking John-Alex blues
In the wake of John-Alex Mason's passing, we invited some folks in the local music scene to reflect on this remarkably talented artist who left us all too soon.
Jason Miller: I remember the very first time I met John-Alex Mason at Front Range Barbeque a few years back on a Sunday afternoon. I was sitting on the patio listening to a musician that was instantly captivating. On his first break, I approached him and asked about his inspiration to be a "one-man band" and how long had he been at it. He said, "I been playing on the outside for many years, but I been playing on the inside for many lifetimes." I thought of this conversation immediately upon learning of his passing.
Keep that amp warm and those fingers loose, and lend a hand down here once in a while — Lord knows we need it!
Big Jim Adam: John-Alex sang and played with passion and skill. He fused pre-war style blues with his own unique twist and approach. His lyrics were personal and poignant. My prayers are with John-Alex's family as they deal with this heartbreaking loss.
Jake Loggins: I didn't know John that well, but he's one of the only people to make a nationwide impact with his messages from this town, and for that I have much respect for him. I saw him when I was 17 at the Navajo Hogan and was blown away by his unassuming look and his great talent. I later got to share the stage with him at the first Blues Under the Bridge and it was a total honor. Many people will carry his story and legacy for years to come.
Mike Clark: I didn't really go to bars or go see music very often before I started playing it. But I remember stumbling upon John-Alex at Kinfolks, where he was booked to play every Sunday that winter. Here was this guy playing these blues songs that I loved, as well as his own songs — he'd just put out the Town and Country album — which were really good. I went back to see him every Sunday for the next six weeks in a row. He definitely left his mark.
Brian Fortinberry: I always enjoyed watching folks seeing John-Alex for the first time, as they were amazed by his deep bluesy vocals. I would often hear, "That young, blond-haired, blue-eyed boy sounds just like a veteran bluesman from the South."
John-Alex was not only a superb musician and entertainer, but also a loving husband and family man. John-Alex's family were very loyal supporters, and it always warmed the heart to see them happily hanging out together during his shows. They often reminded me of family and traditions from where I grew up in the South, where time moves a little slower and people come together to enjoy a tradition of food and back porch music.
Understanding and grieving his passing is really hard, remembering his smiling face and beautiful music will live forever.
— Compiled by Bill Forman