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Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club

Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club


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.

The 100 Club

The 100 Club

Words Peter West

Illustrations Luke Stuart


1942 was a prodigious year in terms of musical talent. It saw the birth of Paul McCartney, Brian Jones, Ian Dury, Brian Wilson, Jimi Hendrix and Carole King to name but a few. It was also the year that a new musical venue was born, one that went on to achieve legendary status around the world: the 100 Club.

Situated at 100 Oxford Street, it started life under another name: The Feldman Swing Club. In fact, let’s back track, it was originally a downstairs eatery called Mac’s Restaurant. One September evening in 1942, Robert Feldman, a jazz performer and enthusiast, happened to call into the restaurant and as he looked around he began to see the potential of the space. “I thought to myself, this would make a nice little club.”

The enterprising Feldman negotiated with the owner of Mac’s, recruited top jazz musicians and opened for business on October 24, 1942. The Feldman Swing Club soon became known as the place for the best jazz music and dancing, in particular, jitterbugging. This new type of jive, loved by American servicemen, wasn’t welcomed in some of the more upmarket, smarter clubs because of its energetic and physical style.

The Feldman Swing Club quickly became a success, largely by making itself accessible to the average working man price-wise and through attracting exciting performers. These included Ronnie Scott, Johnny Dankworth, Benny Goodman, Stephane Grappelli, Kathy Stobart, Ray Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Mel Powell, Art Pepper, Humphrey Lyttleton, George Melly and others.

Jazz continued to be at the very heart of the club through the ‘40s, ‘50s and early ‘60s (it’s still going strong today), but to reflect broadening musical tastes, the Feldman Swing Club changed its name to the 100 Club in 1964, drawing inspiration from its address, 100 Oxford Street: the Who, the Kinks, the Animals, David Bowie and the Spencer Davis Group were just some of the names who appeared in the newly-named club.

Then came the ‘70s and Punk arrived with its hard-edged style and anarchic attitude. The 100 Club hosted the first ever Punk festival in September 1976. Unbelievably, the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Damned, the Buzzcocks, the Vibrators, Subway Sect and Siouxsie & the Banshees all performed for the first time in the capital at the 100 Club. The festival proved to be a defining event as other venues were wary of Punk. The 100 Club seized the initiative and championed the movement which some would argue changed the face of music. The Sex Pistols went on to record a live album at the club. At about this time, Reggae sessions and the likes of Eddie Grant, Steel Pulse and the Mighty Diamonds also began to feature at 100 Oxford Street. Into the ‘80s and the beginning of the 6Ts Northern Soul All-Nighter gigs at the 100 Club. South African township music also thrived at the venue at this time, with many musicians appearing who couldn’t perform in their own country because of apartheid.

The following decade saw the 100 Club start to showcase indie bands and performers like Suede, Oasis, Travis, Catatonia and Kula Shaker throughout the ‘90s. Indie music is still welded to the 100 Club today.

The 100 Club has always been a great testing ground for bands and musicians. Many secret concerts and warm-up shows have taken place to try out new material by the likes of Paul Weller, the Rolling Stones, Blur, Paul McCartney, Mark Ronson, Alice Cooper and Metallica. The 100 Club likes a laugh, too. Comedy stars like Al Murray, Harry Hill, Arthur Smith, Bill Bailey and Mark Lamarr have appeared on special comedy nights.

Given its enthusiasm for musical diversity and many other forms of entertainment, it seems unthinkable to ever consider the 100 Club would cease to exist. But in late 2010, owner Jeff Horton admitted the venue faced closure because of increasing overheads. A Facebook campaign, Save the 100 Club, helped raise awareness of the club’s plight and, in February 2011, Converse announced a sponsorship partnership and the 100 Club was saved!

Thousands of performers have strutted their stuff at the 100 Club, and it would have been impossible to have listed more than just a fraction of them here. So apologies if a particular favourite has been omitted. But perhaps the most important thing is that the legendary venue will continue to nurture new talent and be a home for established stars. A unique, intimate, sticky (despite the air conditioning) space, where enthusiastic audiences can enjoy and celebrate so many fantastic musical genres: here’s hoping the 100 Club will still be going strong in 2042 when it will be 100 years old. Now that will be some party!

Ageless & Bold

Ageless & Bold


Words Peter McSweeney

Illustrations Luke Stuart


Here is a low down on some of the faces of Soho over the years. All connected to Soho is many different ways, mostly legal. They represent the creative, edgy vibe that Soho brings to The West End. They are Artists, and all are unique with their defined identity. You don’t have to love them (some you’re not meant to) but they are have contributed to the rich culture and help to start new trends which were born on these streets.

 

– David Bowie –

 

Turned down a knighthood, had a hit TV show names after one of his songs and humiliated Rick Gervais in Extras for being a ‘Silly Little Fat Man’, David Bowie proves he is more than your typical Music Legend, he is also a Soho Legend. An over used term by stupid media who lack imagination but in this case it is more than appropriate. The Marquee Club (now no longer) was where he built a fan base appealing to both sexes and what ever side you batting for didn’t matter, Bowie was the man! He drank in The Ship and his fashion and style was developed by vintage cast off on Carnaby Street, not to mention he would rub shoulders with The Krays.  Sir David, as he would have been known had he accepted the call of the Queen, might not have had such an authentic Soho feel.