Historically, the London jazz scene has played an important part in the growth of the music and its appreciation although most of that importance has to do with English performers and writers and less with jazz venues. For decades, when you went to London, you thought of only one clubRonnie Scott's. And even though there are several new boites about the city, a recent visit revealed that, despite the new establishments, very few Londoners and visitors out for a jazz evening will venture beyond the traditional hauntRonnie Scott's is still the place.
My sense of the jazz consciousness in the U.K. was immeasurably deepened a few years back when I received enormous journalistic response to a book I wrote on Clifford Brown. Not only were London newspapers comprehensive in their coverage, but I received incisive commentary from all over Britain (my favorite review came from the Yorkshire Post). The reviews were not all totally favorable, but the writers seemed to be more understanding of what I tried to do in the book than many writers in the U.S. (even those who raved unequivocally). During that book tour I met countless scribes, archivists, discographers, photographers and scholars together with scores of intense jazz fans whose knowledge of the music was extraordinary. I have recently begun touring with my latest tome New York Nights and decided to drop down to Soho and revisit London's legendary jazz nitery.
My most memorable night at Ronnie Scott's had occurred decades ago when I arrived with the Buddy Rich Band. I had been producing several concerts with Buddy and the band in New York at the time and we were shooting substantial footage at the shows in preparation for some public TV specials. Ronnie Scott's had been the scene of well-publicized success for Buddy and we were anxious to see what would happen. The club in those days (late 70's) with its thick cigarette smoke, raucous crowds, and funky ambiance represented a welcome throwback for us Americans who had been enduring new jazz rooms back home that had taken on the atmosphere of yuppie perfumeries. I, for one, had mourned for years over the demise of Gotham's Birdland and Basin Street and so Ronnie Scott's quickly supplied the hip feeling of yore.
Not so on this visit last month. As soon as I entered from outside where a long line of patrons resembling tourist first-nighters were gathered, my jaws dropped. The present incarnation of the venerable room immediately brought to mind the aforementioned New York yuppie hangouts. My guest and I were dutifully escorted to a bar above the jazz room where I could conduct interviews. Large coteries of heavy drinking college-age kids abounded and, when I inquired, said they were certainly not there for the jazz downstairs but for the cachet and booze upstairs. "So," I muttered to myself. "The Wall Street version of jazz clubs has made its way across the Atlantic."
The jazz room of the club is festooned with V.I.P. special seating, velvety sashes, souvenir kiosks, tiny tiered tables and other vestiges of the new capitalism. The upscale environment was stifling and I found myself half-wishing that I could inhale some of the old cigarette smoke. The subsequent performances didn't do much to elevate my mood. After the opening act of a group dubbed "Ronnie Scott's All-Stars" entertained with the subtlety of a Vegas lounge band, the headliner appeared. Ola Onabule, a soul/funk/gosspelist, with considerable talent and his "international" group from such disparate places as Dakar, Kenya, Ghana and Ethiopia (all seemingly discovered by their leader in Australia) performed. The set contained spirited exchanges, primal lyricism, and witty, digitized sound impressions.
Ronnie Scott's features such groups as "Funk Affair" and "Soul Family Sunday" for their weekend fare... I exhaled joyfully when I gazed at the playbill upon leaving the club and discovered that Bill Charlap and Renee Rosnes would finish off the month.