It was in search of some old and occasionally neglected jazz feelings that I went to Ronnie Scott’s this week to hear Joey DeFrancesco’s trio. Temporarily, I’d had enough of watching brilliant young conservatory-trained jazz musicians squinting at sheet music. And enough of entire evenings of jazz without a single bar in a swinging 4/4. A temporary condition, as I say. But it demanded a fix of something different.
I was also thinking about the club’s 60th anniversary, which falls on October 30. I never went inside the original Gerrard Street basement premises, although as a teenager on a trip to London I was able to stand on the street one night, by the top of the stairs, and listen to the sound of Sonny Rollins whenever the door opened. From 1969 on, however, I was a regular visitor to 47 Frith Street, usually on Monday nights, when a new band would begin its season of two, three or sometimes four weeks and I’d be along to review it for the Melody Maker or The Times.
The first of countless memorable nights there was to hear the star-studded Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band. Another early one, in July 1971, was the opening of a fortnight by Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi sextet: a night no one present is likely to have forgotten. First for the exalted music produced by a group rounded out by Eddie Henderson (trumpet and flugel), Julian Priester (trombone), Benny Maupin (tenor), Buster Williams (bass) and Billy Hart (drums), second for the Swahili names Hancock had persuaded them to adopt, and third for the fact that they were the first jazz group to travel with their own sound system and mixing engineer. The sound at Ronnie’s was always decent, but this, in terms of subtle gradations of individual and collective timbre, was on another level.
So there was a nice historical echo in seeing the great Billy Hart at the drums with DeFrancesco this week, doing exactly what I hoped and knew he’d do, which was to swing like mad. It made me think of all the great drummers I’d seen on that stage, from Kenny Clarke through Art Blakey and Elvin Jones to Billy Higgins, while standing beside the bar that used to run alongside the left-hand wall of the club.
That bar isn’t there any more. Neither are Ronnie or Pete King or the other members of staff, front of house and backroom, who were fixtures in those days. The club went through a bad time when Pete sold it to Sally Greene and her partners after Ronnie died, but the new owners saw it through some difficult years and kept the faith. The booking policy gradually recovered its integrity and the audiences came back. Now it’s full just about every night with listeners who — unlike many of the expense-account businessmen of the ’70s — respect the music, respond with enthusiasm and don’t chatter during the quiet bits.
Inevitably, it’s more expensive than it used to be. But have you tried running a jazz club in Soho, where cherished institutions disappear every week, thanks to the greed and ignorance of landlords and developers? The fact that it’s not just surviving but flourishing is remarkable, as is the willingness of the management to supplement the main programme with jam sessions and showcases for younger musicians — something that Ronnie and Pete always tried to do. I’m not sure I’ll ever quite get used to having to sit down in a place where I spent several decades leaning against the bar, but it’s no great hardship.
The pianist Robert Glasper was making a serious point a couple of years ago when he said that by filling the walls of a jazz club with framed photos of dead musicians, you kill the music’s spirit. You can see why a young musician would come to that conclusion. But when I walk in from Frith Street nowadays, I can still feel the spirits of Ronnie and Pete and the disturbingly glamorous Roxy Beaujolais on the front desk and dapper Jimmy Parsons the greeter and Martin the maitre d’ and Fat Henry Cohen in the cloakroom and Gypsy Larry, whose role was a mystery, as well as those of the musicians in the pictures, all of whom went to make it what it was — and, quite miraculously, still is.