Iconic London jazz venue Ronnie Scott’s holds a special place in the hearts of musicians and music lovers all over the world. This evening the Royal Albert Hall will be transformed into the world’s most famous jazz club, and stars such as Courtney Pine, Madeline Bell, Imelda May, Nigel Kennedy and Van Morrison will come to pay their musical respects at a 60th Anniversary Gala concert for Ronnie Scott’s charitable foundation.
World-renowned jazz musician, Courtney Pine CBE, recalls that Ronnie Scott’s was where he “first felt that jazz bolt of lightning,” but his first visit to the venue was not without its obstacles. “As youngsters, we dreamed about going into central London and experiencing the amazing nightlife that Soho offered. As a jazz fan, the club known as Ronnie Scott’s was the place to be. So, we tried to get into the club even though we were under-aged. Drummer Frank Tontoh and I tried to get into the club to see the great American trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, but we were refused entry. ‘You guys don’t want to come in here, you should go upstairs,’ the infamous doorman Monty declared to us. Upstairs was the disco that people like me were supposed to rave at, but my brothers in arms and I were absolutely determined to witness real live jazz for the first time, so we waited.”
The perseverance of the young jazz fanatics paid off when Monty the doorman eventually granted them access to the hallowed venue. They were quickly ushered to “the last seats available, and the worst apparently,” but the young Pine and his friends were utterly spellbound. “We were in the seats behind the drummer! Carl Allen, 19 at the time, played drums for Hubbard, and did he play! The first solo by Freddie lasted over 15 minutes; in fact, at one point during this intense solo Hubbard jumped up in excitement, so much so that audience also jumped up! For me, this was a revelatory moment; my record collection, video or tales of jazz never prepared me for this true live experience. I believe that at that point in time I decided to become a jazz musician, and if you ever get to the club you will now see a Dave Sheperd picture of me in that very spot where I first felt that jazz bolt of lightning. Growing up, I have received many negative and discouraging opinions about becoming a jazz musician, but that night changed everything.”
Pine describes Ronnie Scott’s in beautifully artistic terms: “It’s a place in time created by musicians to assist in the development of the most humanistic expression of art, and a living example of a musical temple that brings people together.” How fitting that the young jazz warrior should amongst the headliners honoring the birthplace of his passion, many decades later.
U.K. soul singer Alice Russell has graced the stage at the venue many times, and like all of the musicians I spoke to, has nothing but fond memories: “The thing that always gets me at Ronnie’s is a homely welcome feeling. As soon as you stroll through the door on to the soft carpet from the Soho streets for soundcheck, to walking on stage for the show, it’s steeped in the imprints and memories of the hundreds of musicians and characters that have been there before.”
For Russell, to step into the venue is to join a living continuum of rich musical history, “Both on the stage and in the audience, you can sense all that music and that connection that has happened in that room.”
Onyx Collective, the mysterious New York jazz ensemble, performed their first U.K. gig in the venue and share Russell’s sense of homecoming, they explain. “Ronnie Scott’s is a pillar of jazz culture and a place that will always feel like home. It’s a vessel that carries the spirit of the musicians of today and yesterday. It is a place that holds the echoes of the tradition while also being a platform for the evolution of high forms of new music.”
The collective’s midnight set at Ronnie Scott’s followed hot on the heels of another London gig, which took place in a “dark, hot, smoke-filled room of craziness.” Their Ronnie Scott’s set started with the trio of Isaiah Barr, Daryl Johns and Austin Williamson, and then welcomed U.S. soul singer Nick Hakim on to finish the set. “The crowd gave us a standing ovation… and the night became one we would all never forget.”
Antipodean multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and producer Jordan Rakei is another grateful alumnus of the Soho venue: “I had the privilege of playing there in 2018, and it was surreal being on the same stage that all the legends have played on!”
Like many, he considers the venue to be one of the best places not only to perform, but to listen, and to find inspiration. “Ronnie Scott’s is always a place I can discover new music. I’ve been countless times and have discovered and seen some of my favorite bands.”
A band who have had more than their share of unforgettable nights at the venue are “masters of musical mayhem and genius” the 21-piece jazz collective Loose Tubes. Their trombonist Ashley Slater is also well known for his work as lead singer with chart-toppers Freakpower, and more recently as one half of Kitten and The Hip.
As someone who has performed in the venue for over three decades, Slater has a treasure trove of anecdotes about the venue, although some were too spicy for publication. “For me, Ronnie’s is the spiritual home of British jazz. I hung out and played there a lot during the ’80s and ’90s and saw, played with, and hung out with some real jazz legends. It was a wonderful place for young, aspiring jazz players to meet and interact with their heroes and inspirations. As far as I’m aware, it’s one of the few venues in the world where that was possible, basically because the downstairs bar was also the dressing room, so if you were down there, you were hangin’!”
Slater was a regular gigging musician at the venue: “As a trombone player, getting to do a week at Ronnie’s was always the best gig, the place was always packed, and you got to catch up with friends and acquaintances every night after the shows. I usually played with large ensembles; as a bass trombone player that was the vibe. The stage was always crowded, the heat was usually insane, and the vibe could range from quite serious (George Russell and Carla Bley bands required maximum personal engagement) to absolutely beyond raucous when Loose Tubes was in the room. And out of it, as our nightly gigs often ended with us wandering up and down Frith Street wailing to the high heavens on our super-heated horns.”
For Slater, the venue is still of profound importance to the world of music today. “I think that, even to this day, Ronnie’s is the pressure cooker in which young-and old-players get to really bring all that they’ve learned and practiced to the stage. The place absolutely bled music from every wall, and you could feel that when you walked in. Nowadays, we might call it nicotine, but back then, we called it ‘vibes.’ Ronnie’s, along with a handful of other venerable venues-like the 606 and the Jazz Café-really help to keep jazz alive, and that’s as important now as it ever was.”
Originally published in Forbes.
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