Words Gordon Ritchie
Photography Etienne Gilfillan
“Jazz and Soho go together. There were basement dives here and there. It was the culture of Soho. We’re trying to build on that.”
Jazz. For those who choose to follow those tracks, there are many destinations, but there is one stop where you must get off. As a civilian or a soldier in the Jazz fraternity you must pay homage, make the pilgrimage, visit Mecca. Frith Street, Soho. The Jazz Club, Ronnie Scott’s. Jazz can mean many things to many people, but to many people Ronnie Scott’s only means one thing. JAZZ. A cliché? Perhaps, but I want to click with that clique.
Soho, bright neon lights, dark nights, a switchblade smell of danger, caffeine and an occasional reefer, fuel for nocturnal night owls. West Indians, American GIs, and sharp young London boys fill Soho’s side streets looking for life with a modern edge. Aristocrats and sophisticated cats dip into the lowlife where things are looking up. High aspirations, high times, hijinks and good times. Chinatown, below Shaftesbury Avenue, where the theatre crowds provide the cinema-scape captured in Absolute Beginners, to a Gerrard Street basement. No 39, sharp suited, shirt and tie, this is the modern world, the modern world of modern Jazz. Music with fire, the Be-Bop doesn’t stop. It stays up all night. Pete King and Ronnie Scott – it’s 1959. “30th October, when they opened, they didn’t even have a liquor license, they just had a license to play music,” says Simon Cooke, the current Managing Director of Ronnie Scott’s.
Ronnie could play and Pete loved Jazz, and when the club opened in Frith Street on December 17th 1965, Jazz began to love Ronnie Scott’s. “We’re coming up to 50 years in Frith Street and we were 55 years as a club last year. There’s still people around who went to and played at the old club. To a lot of the jazz world, it’s still really Ronnie’s club. You’re just looking after it. It makes you want to remain pure to its initial ideals, or people’s perception. It’s important.”
From the cellar where they started, the new club was uptown, upscale and upright. The music was out of sight. The low stage right in the centre, surrounded on all sides by the graduating steps of tables lit by table lamps with red shades, checkered tablecloths and velvet seats. The crowd sitting facing, waiting, anticipating. A low ceiling, seats at the front inches away from the musicians. The black and white portraits of legends look down upon the honoured, gracing the stage. A ripple of applause as the musicians take their places. A 1 2 3 4 arrrrrrrr-rat-at-at. A-rat-at-at-rat-a-tat, the drummer rolls, the bass begins to swing and the piano player starts to do his thing. “Gangsters were still running protection rackets, they were running gigs ‘til four, five in the morning, the whole Soho thing was very different.”
The house band, echoing the past, Ronnie Scott’s Soho spirit rises, as the nature of improvisation dictates, different every time. Drinks clink and dinner is served, smart staff weave between the tables. Feet tap to every hit, hands clap at the end each number. Once upon a time it was always smoky but those days have gone in the dizzy haze of a past daze. The walls don’t talk, they listen, rebound the sound. Art Blakey, Roland Kirk, Buddy Rich, Pharaoh Sanders, Bill Evans, Dizzy Gillespie, Chet Baker, Herbie Hancock, Ella Fitzgerald, legends everyone, and everyone has played in Soho at Ronnie Scott’s, and they still do. Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison, whoever might be in town might just turn up late one night and join in the jam. The 200 people who paid for seats didn’t see that coming. “We created the Late Late Show, putting a band on at 11 o’clock and they would play through to three. Halfway through it would turn into a jam session. It grew and grew and we have great nights. You do get guys coming and sitting in, you don’t know who it will be. All of Beyoncé’s band turned up one night, took over the stage.”
A trip to Ronnie Scott’s was a treat for me the first time, it was everything I wanted it to be and probably more. How often do things actually match and exceed what you hoped for. I always mean to go back more than I have. If you live in London and love London life, London lives, you have to go to Ronnie Scott’s. It should be compulsory. What goes on there, Georgie Fame every year for weeks at a time, Yeh Yeh. Charlie Watts and his Big Band, slicked hair, sharp suit and sticks. Friends tell tales of walking past, ‘Miles Davis playing tonight’ reads the sign. Nina Simone creating an atmosphere and her own agenda, working on her own timetable. Ronnie Scott’s has seen the lot, and seen a lot.
Now it’s slightly more upmarket, the food’s better, the cocktails are better. “Now we have a proper Head Chef. We sold 79,000 cocktails last year,” says Simon“Ronnie always did it, but we’ve made it better. The club itself is a family affair. Our floor managers have come up from being waiters or bartenders.”Look closely behind the bar though and you will see one bottle that harks back to the serrated edge that was Soho in the sixties. The Krays had tried to lure Ronnie and Pete out of Soho, but they decided to stay. “Opposite was a Maltese Gambling Club. This guy called Albert Dimes set up there and he was the local protection and he protected the club from anyone else. It was his turf. Albert was a bit tough, good with a knife. He gave the club a bottle of champagne, a magnum of Mumm’s champagne as a symbol that this was a safe house. It was neutral territory. We’ve still got it unopened behind the bar.”
The discreet club upstairs lets in the new Jazz generation to play, learn in public and polish skills, gain confidence. “We run a Wednesday jam up here, because the whole thing about Jazz is improvisation and sitting in with each other. On a Wednesday we have one up here and one downstairs as well. We are Jazz Central. One of the owners has quite left-field taste and we push the boundaries. If in doubt, go more jazz.Jazz and Soho go together. There were basement dives here and there. It was the culture of Soho. We’re trying to build on that. We’re working harder on that Soho and Jazz thing. In the homogenisation of Soho that’s taking place at the moment, what’s going to set Soho apart? Perhaps jazz is the answer.”At the centre of the scene, still creating a scene. The legend of Ronnie Scott’s continues its Soho story.