Parker Burwell Toop credit Jak Kilby

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Ronnie Scott’s Club on Film, Part One

I intended to watch the premiere of the new film by director Oliver Murray, just called Ronnie’s, last Friday, but postponed it because my wife wanted to get out of the house to the pub for a bit, after a week of working at home. So I’m going to the Kings Cross Everyman the day after tomorrow to see what sounds like a trip down memory land, back to the Soho of 1959 and beyond, and the time when the area was relatively cheap for musicians to play and live in, and still had a sense of decadence and risk for the average punter, whether from the London suburbs or their provincial equivalents. As we slowly move towards winter lockdown measures, it’s become a real treat to go to the cinema, even more so when this can be combined with access to music outside of the home environment, even if its only on celluloid.

I read John Fordham’s biography of Scott, entitled Jazz Man, many years ago (it was originally called Let’s Join Hands and Join the Living, one of his favourite taunts, designed to galvanise a torpid audience.) He can be said to have lived a proper ‘jazz life’, with plenty of sex and drugs, as well as bouts of depression and mental health issues. His death at the age of 69 was caused by an accidental overdose of barbiturates, but his life had already been shattered by botched dentistry which ruined his embouchure and prematurely ended his playing career. For a devoted player and a man prone to low moods, this was a mortal blow. He left, however, a world famous jazz club, one that he had created to stand alongside such New York immortals as The Village Vanguard, Sweet Basil’s and Birdland. To step into it is almost to step into a bygone era.

Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club is notoriously expensive, and I have only been there (I think) on four occasions over the years. Even 30 years ago, one was lucky to get away with less than 50 quid a head, as, apart from the entrance fee and drinks, one was obliged to consume the very average food that the club served up. Still and all, it was a ‘special night out’ type of place, propped up in many ways by tourists and businessmen out to impress clients and/or mistresses. Money was always an issue, and the club needed a non-specialist audience in order to survive.

The gigs that I managed to attend were mostly in the early 1990s. The first was a Cedar Walton quartet, with tenor saxophonist Jean Toussaint, then just out of one of the latter day iterations of Art Blakey Jazz Messengers; I’m not sure why I stumped up to see Walton, as I was never particularly a fan, but I seem to remember that there were a lot of us there that night, so I can only assume that we were under some degree of peer pressure. I did take to the place immediately though - it did feel like being in the center of things somehow. After that, there was a Dave Holland quartet, with Steve Coleman (then at the height of his M-Base hipness), Marvin ‘Smitty’ Smith and guitarist Kevin Eubanks (they had just released Extensions on ECM Records.)  My time-eroded memories now only recall my being impressed with Eubanks and Smith, but much less with Coleman (everyone is entitled to an off night!). But the very best was to just around the corner.


To be continued.

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