Meet me at Ronnie’s

A new BBC documentary captures the spirit of the club that made London a global hub for jazz


This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

I first went to Ronnie Scott’s when I was seven or eight years old. My father Benny had played with Scott and his partner Pete King, and had helped them set up the “Old Place” in Gerrard Street. They were old friends, and the older they got, the more likely my father was to purposefully meander through Soho down to Frith Street when he had finished recording a programme at the BBC.

The club’s narrow entrance opened out into a broad cave, not unlike one of those neolithic caverns in the south of France whose walls carry traces of the first human art, only with red lamps on each table instead of wicks and tallow, and the faces of our hearth gods on the wall: Ella, Dizzy, Oscar. My father climbed onto the empty stage and disappeared into the back office. The woman at the table by the door went behind the bar, and I sat at a table in the empty club, drinking a Coke. The walls were vibrating even though there was no music playing. It was like being in the engine room of a ship.

This was not the first time I sat at an empty table in Ronnie’s with a Coke. I became a jazz musician like my grandfather and father before me, and like my brother Leo with me. Ronnie’s was our clubhouse, the place you could go when everywhere else was closed or full up with office drinkers and tourists. I never had to join, never had to pay, was never turned away even when they were queueing round the block. “You’re family,” Pete King would say, flicking his square head back towards the red darkness and the wave of music. “Go on.”

After a gig, you’re too full of adrenalin and music to go home. The musicians started to come in around 11 at night, all buzzing, all chasing the high. Some of them had been playing duos in pubs and restaurants, especially early in the week; even the big names did these “bread and butter” gigs. Others dropped the names of the more coveted spots like “the Six” (the 606 Club) or “the Pizza” (the Pizza Express in Dean Street). Still others came straight off the motorway from gigs out of town. If you left Manchester or Bristol at 11 pm and stepped on it, you could be in Ronnie’s for 1.30 am and catch the last set.

Ronnie’s was modelled after the New York clubs of the Fifties. The main act and the support act each played three sets, alternating from 8 pm till 3 am. The first sets were for the tourists and expense-accountants. It was marred somewhat by their scraping of cutlery on plates, and the acts paced themselves accordingly.

During the second sets, the office workers started to stagger home, apparently oblivious to whichever legend was on the stage, and by the time the Tube was closed, the place was half-empty. The third set, the one where the players spread out and played as much for each other as the audience, often took place before a half-empty room, to an audience composed of drunks and musicians.

Pete and Ronnie could have changed the timings and made the star turn play earlier for the bigger crowd. But that would have gone against the spirit of the place. They set up the club because jazz musicians needed a place to play, and that is what it remained: a place for musicians that made the necessary concessions to commerce, but no more.

The third set often took place before a half-empty room, to an audience composed of drunks and musicians

Each time a table emptied, my fellow players and I caught the waitress’s eye, got the nod and edged forward, table by table, to the lip of the stage. Each time we moved, one or two of us ordered a Coke, and left a tip equivalent to its price. These were the unspoken rules: once the club had made its money for the night, it belonged to the musicians. Night after night, I’d sit inches away from Roy Ayers, or George Coleman, or Airto and Flora Purim, or Jimmy McGriff, or Hugh Masekela, or Horace Silver. The first date I had with the woman who became my wife was at Ronnie’s, to see Stanley Jordan.

As soon as the sets finished, we ducked downstairs to see who was in. The scene in the downstairs bar turned over constantly, the faces coming and going, players from the American acts coming down on a break, jazz musicians paying the rent in pit orchestras, jazz musicians drunk and sober, jazz musicians who hadn’t been working and came anyway because they had to do something once the Pavlovian surge of adrenalin kicked in at eight. You met everyone. If they weren’t there — this was before mobile phones — you left a message at the bar, and it would somehow reach its target that night.

If we felt ourselves flagging, we’d nip across the road to Bar Italia for a coffee during the break, then wander back in again. In the summer, Ronnie’s kept its doors open; I remember a glorious week of hot nights when Elvin Jones’s drum solos thundered up and down the street. We went back to Bar Italia when Ronnie’s closed. At four in the morning in those days, only junkies, transsexuals and musicians were around. At five, the first wave of saucer-eyed, waxen casualties came in from the nightclubs. The Tube opened soon after that.

Pete King trundled around like a refrigerator on wheels, impossibly sunburnt for a man who worked nights. “Allo, son,” he always said, then followed with one of two lines: “How’s your old man?” or “You been workin’?” Ronnie was shy, and followed the same script as though looking for the quip that would free him from the conversation. Pete and Ronnie were so much a part of the place, so unlikely to be seen anywhere else, that when I walked into a dressing room in Scarborough and saw Ronnie sitting there, I asked, “What are you doing here?” “Same as you,” he said, almost laughing.

Ronnie’s, a documentary by Oliver Murray, comes as close as anything could to capturing the thrill of it all, from the opening shot of Oscar Peterson’s left hand pounding out the boogie. I hadn’t seen footage of the founding generation, my father among them, for years. They shared that working-class, London Jewish mentality — even Pete, who wasn’t Jewish — a romantic love for this music combined with the bloody-minded determination required to learn it and find a stage on which to play it. What Pete and Ronnie achieved is amazing. Not only did they avoid going bust, often with the quiet help of angels like Chris Blackwell of Island Records and Norman Granz of Verve and Pablo, they also pulled in the best musicians in the world.

There is footage here of Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Roland Kirk, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Ben Webster, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Buddy Rich, Van Morrison and Chet Baker, and even a bootleg of Jimi Hendrix’s last gig. By presenting music of this calibre, night after night, they made London a global hub for jazz. And by letting all the jazz musicians in England in for nothing, or for a ludicrously reduced members’ price, they educated several generations of local musicians, which by the mid-Sixties led to the emergence of a distinctively British scene.

Jazz in Britain is a small world, but Ronnie’s became part of the big world

Jazz in Britain is a small world, but Ronnie’s became part of the big world. When I eventually went to the clubs in New York, I was disappointed. The Village Vanguard felt like a basement scout hall, the Blue Note like a chicken-in-a-basket rip-off. Ronnie’s, by staying the same, had become the last of them all. It couldn’t last. When Ronnie died in 1997, we knew it was over. Pete kept it going for another decade, but the wheels were coming off. In 2005, he sold it.

The club survives, and it’s good that it does, and it probably did have to change or die, but the people who run it now — and whose fatuous self-aggrandisement is the only bum note in Murray’s excellent documentary — are the sort that Pete would have told, as he frequently did tell people, to piss off. It’s not the same place. It can’t be, of course: the greats are gone.

I never did become a member of the only club I wanted to be a member of. But then, perhaps I don’t need to. A few days before I saw Ronnie’s, I was flying from London to the States and thought I’d listen to some music. One of the three options was a programme to mark the club’s sixtieth birthday. Back it all came to me at 39,000 feet: what a greatly underestimated tenor player Ronnie was; the legends of the impossible Stan Getz and the inspirational Sonny Rollins; anecdotes from Ray Gelato, who I’d had dinner with the night before, and Alex Garnett and James Pearson, the “chaps” I played with night after night and who, as I’ve digressed further and further into writing, have kept the faith and now run the house band at Ronnie’s.

It’s been 20 years since I started earning money as a writer, but I still think of myself as a musician. In my mind, I never stopped hearing the music in that empty room, never lost the buzz of walking into the waves of heat, smoke and sound. This is what jazz does to you: it takes you over, makes you a different person, makes you the person you are. If Ronnie’s has become an institution, then I suppose I’m institutionalised.

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