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Ronnie Scott’s at 60


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.

25 Comments Post a comment
  1. Danny #

    you’ve got it one! Well done

    October 18, 2019
  2. Angelo Rigali #

    Couldn’t agree more, Richard. I love Ronnie’s and went along to see Joey on Wednesday, drawn in by the Van connection. Billy Hart was just about the greatest drummer I’ve ever seen (never saw any of your list, sadly) – so glad I went.

    October 18, 2019
  3. Richard Harris #

    Yes indeed. I went down the rickety stairs of Gerrard Street when I was about 15 or 16 c 1962. Late afternoon, the Tubby Hayes Quintet were trying out something on the stand and Ronnie was slouching by the wall. With the idiocy and arrogance of youth, I said you loudly to him, “What time does the real (sic) music start?” Very kindly, and with vastly more indulgence than I’d have had, he said, “If you come back later, perhaps we’ll try to find you somewhere to sit”. Which he did and so started a lifetime of gratitude. One of my memories of that “old” place is John Surman prowling around the basement and Mike Westbrook playing Fats Domino trills at 3am. Oh, the fried breakfast brought in from over the road.

    October 18, 2019
  4. Matthew Wright #

    Some good points about the Frith Street premises and you bring back fond memories. Roxy I think still runs the Seven Stars just off Lincoln’s Inn Fields and hopefully still cooks wonderful food. Gypsy Larry was described as the “general factotum”. Seen in the background of the famous photo by Bruce Fleming of Ronnie, Tubby Hayes, Jimmy Deuchar and Chet Baker in shades.He played in Soho skiffle groups, string bass made from a galvanised dolly tub.
    I remember Henry used to be a fixture down in Dobells basement, afternoon tipples with John Kendall, and when in town, Ben Webster. They liked a drink.

    October 18, 2019
  5. Beautiful piece, Richard, thank you.
    I was one of the lucky young musicians who in the 80’s could get entry for the late sets at Ronnie’s on a Monday to Thursday for 1 or 2 pounds, then leave after the last set finished at 2 am, to run down to Trafalgar Square to catch the infrequent night bus home. And if it was great, as it so often was (sometimes life-changingly great), come back the next night and do it again. Gil Evans, George Russell, Mike Westbrook, Loose Tubes – and that was just some of the big bands, never mind the weekly parade of small bands of great players. (And as a side effect, after a while I knew most of Ronnie’s between-sets standup routine of laconic East End humour by heart – “First time I’ve seen dead people smoke. Is this mike on?”.

    October 18, 2019
  6. Robert Bowden #

    First went 1964 to see Roland Kirk. Then Bill Evans, Tubby, Sonny Rollins twice. All Gerrard St. Fabulous memories.

    October 18, 2019
  7. Richard, I´d like to join you in memorising that residency of Herbie Hancocks Mwandishi band.
    I am not sure if my memory is right that it was pre-electronic, i.e. with the Fender Rhodes as an electro-acoustic instrument only. But I am shure that exactly that applied to another great residency closely related to that on the history scale: the original Weather Report line up with a pre-ARP Joe Zawinul on Fender Rhodes only as well as an incredibly dense swinging Eric Gravatt!

    October 18, 2019
    • Yes, Michael. Herbie on Rhodes, the rest acoustic. You’re right about Gravatt, too, with Miroslav Vitous on bass.

      October 23, 2019
  8. Charlie Seaward #

    Richard, a lovely memoir of a special venue. I was 18 the first time I went to Ronnies. Oscar Peterson and Niels Henning Orsted Pedersen. I can’t remember a single disappointing evening there in the intervening years. Even the night when Nina Simone declined to appear, Marion Montgomery (more to my taste anyway) sat in at short notice. Where else would you have heard Rufus Harley on bagpipes with Sonny Rollins?The quality of the players I have heard there recently has been as good as ever. A trio of extraordinary Brazillian musicians -Airto, Eilane Elias (with Marc Johnson, a member of the last great Bill Evans Trio) and Ivan LIns. The joy of hearing such music with a small number of knowledgeable fellow guests is a treat. For three times the money I sat at the back of the Genting Arena watching 5 people who may or may not have been Fleetwood Mac. Long live Ronnie’s.

    October 18, 2019
  9. Myles Palmer #

    Did Weather Report do a week or 2 weeks on their second album, Michael?
    Eric Gravatt was phenomenal & the music was more exciting even than Lifetime at the Country Club, When I interviewed Joe & Wayne they complained about Columbia’s marketing emphasis on any group’s THIRD album. They wanted to CBS to promote THIS LP, as they were very proud of it.
    Great guys. Joe had a memory: When I went backstage at Hammersmith Odeon years later, Joe said, “Hello Myles!” Bloody hell…I was amazed by that. Had loved them at New Victoria.I met some musician friends afterwards and told them the gig had been “a mindfuck”..Did I coin that word?Or borrow it. The lads had never heard it before….Richard Thought Joe played too loud ….and I think he was right,

    October 18, 2019
  10. Paul Crowe #

    Another fine piece, Richard – thank you.

    Yes, I can empathise with the youthful RW grasping for wisps of Rollins from top of the stairs.

    I saw Ronnie Scott play in a suburban Dublin bar – now a wretched Tesco – c1978. Finally got to Frith Street in 2009, I think, to see the wonderful Dr. John.

    October 18, 2019
  11. Hi, Richard, worked there for a whole year to pay my art school fees! Great times but Ronnie could be a b…. to his girlfriend

    October 18, 2019
  12. Peter Brown #

    That’s a very good piece.

    October 18, 2019
  13. geoffn #

    Ah yes, Fat Henry. According to Ronnie he was “two sizes smaller than Asia and eats furniture for lunch” but Roland Kirk still managed to lift him off the ground. And didn’t he double as a bouncer (“paid to throw customers into the club”)?

    English Heritage Blue plaque to Ronnie going up at the Old Place on 39 Gerrard Street 12:30pm this Thursday, 24 October, All welcome.

    October 19, 2019
  14. Simon Surtees #

    My brother and I used to come down from Durham on mini mini weekends with BR. we do a theatre matinee in the afternoon, an evening show and then on to Ronnie’s. We never booked ahead and were never turned away. We started with Illinois Jaquette playing the Bassoon and went on to hear players like Gary Burton, and the wonderful Kenny Clarke/Francy Borland Big Band, which Clarke drumming with Kenny Clare. I think our favourite night was listening to two sessions from the Buddy Rich Big Band. What a sublime noise in a small setting. Very happy memories always the same jokes. Of course we also remember Ronnie Scott’s Quartet supporting. When it changed over I had not been fo a few years. As I walked in there was a trio of Brits whose names I did not know. The Alto Saxophinist was playing Young and Foolish, his eyes tightly closed in concentration and I had a tear in my eye.. my modern highlight? The Mingus Band apart, hearing my 21 year old Godson playing Tenor Sax for a Canadian led Brass ensemble.

    October 19, 2019
  15. Lee Hamer #

    Once again, an article about Ronnie Scott’s fails to mention the British jazz musicians who were there from the beginning and stayed until the end. Mr Williams mentions the great drummers he saw there – all American! How about adding Phil Seaman and Tony Crombie (to name just two) and some of the other world class British musicians who played at the club (Stan Tracey, Johnny Dankworth, Peter King, Nigel Hitchcock, Guy Barker)?
    Somehow, the immeasurable contribution of these wonderful artists is not celebrated but ignored.
    They are being wiped from the history of the club, and that is a real disgrace.

    October 19, 2019
    • Oh, for heaven’s sake, man — I wasn’t writing a history of the club. I don’t think those British musicians being wiped from its history at all. But I could (and did) see the players you mention at many places in London. The thing about Ronnie’s was that it enabled one to see the very best Americans in person, in a club environment — the first and only place where that became possible. That’s what I was “celebrating”.

      October 21, 2019
  16. Tot Taylor #

    Fairly sure one of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis nights was broadcast on BBC2. I remember this and a sublime Mabel Mercer gig, both from Ronnie’s – though I had no idea what Ronnie’s actually was. My relationship with it was limited to the BBC. Another incredible (TV) gig was Nina Simone, with her brother I believe, on organ. Just a couple of years later I sat right at the front at every (late) show of Oscar Peterson’s incredible 1975 week, my first ‘live’ visit. He played til around 4am the last two nights. Never heard or seen anything like it since. That week lives with me. All due to RS.

    October 19, 2019
  17. Alan Codd #

    I was still at school when I first started going to Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in Gerrard Street, which really had a bar down the left hand side of the room. My favourite ‘Act’ at the time was Harold McNair, who had a quartet that was featured on a ‘Free’ night, Tuesdays, when Club Members could get in for nothing. I not only liked that particular music, but it also suited my budget, which was nil. To my recollection I think I almost always went to these occasions alone, because the girl who I was interested in at school who was a bit younger than me, didn’t really see that as her idea of a night out. My ‘patronage’ of the club also corresponded to the period when the first American Jazz Musicians were being featured officially, but I can’t remember seeing Sonny Rollins, I was there when Dexter Gordon appeared, and I was also used to seeing the Tubby Hayes Quintet, and regular accompanist Stan Tracey. For a Teenager it was a significant time for me, and a gratuitous, meaningless throw in memory was of their playing the LP Con Alma by Ray Bryant over the house system one day as I was walking down the steep stairs to flash my Membership Card at the Door. Catchy sounding Jazz Trio to me then, and I didn’t know what the record was, but I must have found out. I still reckon Harold McNair as a jazz Instrumentalist today, and at the time then I spent hours listening to him playing alto and flute all by myself in the club. For Nothing. I don’t know if he was really adequately represented on records, of his own but I like his work as a sideman on a recording by a Tony Crombie Group, where he gets some of the alto sound I remember him for. British no West Indian, Modern Jazz of the early 1960s.

    October 19, 2019
  18. GuitarSlinger #

    A nicely written synapses of one of the worlds iconic jazz clubs [ which includes the likes of The Blue Note , Village Vanguard , Baked Potato etc ]

    And yes .. for those questioning the current prices ( across the globe ) … between excess gentrification [ increasing rents and taxes exponentially ] , massive increases in insurance costs licensing fees etc .. not to mention the cost of paying the musicians a living wage … todays prices regrettable as they may be …

    … are fully and completely justified

    A silly side question . From the last paragraph … especially the nicknames … might one infer like so many of our (US) jazz clubs that organized crime played a large role in Ronnie Scotts existence ?

    October 23, 2019
    • GuitarSlinger #

      PS; In regards to organized crime in US jazz clubs / concert venues .Especially in the 50’s 60’s 70’s you weren’t considered a genuine professional jazz musician till you’d had at least one run in with some guy/gorilla named Sal , Sonny , Middie , Big Tony , Vincenzo , Dibber Dabber ( my personal favorite ) etc … which usually went something like ;

      ” Hey … you’s ..what a the ___ you think you’re doin carrying a that there amplifier . This is a god_____ union joint … so hand it over “

      October 23, 2019
    • No, in a word.

      October 23, 2019
  19. bill smith #

    i was interested to read your article i actually went to hear the great ben webster i was a very good friend of henry cohen who worked in the cloak room it would be great to know what happened to him after so long

    January 8, 2022

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