Nothing, no recording, or broadcast beats the experience of jazz heard live, in the moment. As bassist, bandleaders and educator Graham Collier put it. 

Jazz happens in real time, once 

I am just finishing Aidan Levy’s monumental biography of Sonny Rollins’s 70 year career in jazz, Saxophone Colossus. One of the consistent themes is Sonny’s repeatedly expressed dissatisfaction with his recordings and his wish that they could capture the spirit and immediacy of his live performances. This despite the fact that so many of these recordings are part of the fabric of modern jazz.

I am a Londoner and have attended countless gigs in the U.S. and across Europe both in club environments and at festivals. When I think back to some of the musical experiences that have shaped me and have stayed with me, so many of them took place at Ronnie Scott’s club in Soho. In fact, they still do, tomorrow I’ll be at Ronnies to hear Chris Potter’s band.

In a blog posted last year I paid tribute to Ronnie Scott and his eponymous club. You can read the post here.

 I now want to return to Ronnies with a more personal narrative based on over 50 years of attending gigs at the club. To try and capture the experience of hearing Charles Mingus Sonny Rollins, Ella Fitzgerald, and Bill Evans there for the first time, of hearing Elvin Jones, George Coleman the Mingus Big Band and Art Blakey perform there over many years, and of hearing cutting edge UK musicians for whom Ronnies provided and provides a career launch pad right up to the present day.

Ronnie Scott’s shares many qualities with other storied jazz clubs such as the Village Vanguard in New York, the Duc des Lombards in Paris, and Bimhuis in Amsterdam. That is, intimacy, great acoustics, a listening audience (not a night club audience), and a booking policy that showcases both established stars and future generations. What makes Ronnies unique was, that for so many years it was run by a jazz musician who, with his partner Pete King (a former pro tenor player) were steeped in the jazz life, and to some extent saw their club as a place where they could hear their heroes in live action. Ronnie and Pete were jazz fans as well as club owners. And Ronnies kept going six nights a week during and through the various vagaries of the jazz world when audiences were sparse, when jazz appeared to be close to commercial death and the bailiffs were literally at the door. Not to mention the times when Ronnie’s gambling debts threatened to close the club permanently.

So, to a few fleeting stand out memories of so many nights at Ronnie Scott’s…

I saw Charles Mingus in the early 70’s. On arriving Mingus, who at that stage weighed in at 20 stone was planted at the club entrance, looking suitably ferocious and smoking a cigar. I had to wait for him to enter before following him in. That band included the incomparable Charles McPherson on alto (still active in his 80’s) and a long forgotten, but visibly limping Bobby Jones on tenor, limping because Mingus had thrown him down a flight of stairs in Paris. The band were on fire that night with Mingus charismatically holding centre stage on his bass.

Charles Mingus – The Lost Album from Ronnie Scotts

An immaculately dressed Billy Eckstine right at the end of his career with his baritone voice still in good shape and the predominantly elderly audience in the palm of his hand. Bill Evans and Eddie Gomez playing chamber jazz of such delicacy that even the bar cash register fell silent. The great, and now largely forgotten Irish guitarist Louis Stewart a long time member of Ronnie’s quintet finessing another distinctive solo. 

Bill Evans – Live at Ronnie Scotts

A late 70’s Lee Konitz/Warne Marsh band, the only time I had the chance to hear these two cool jazz masters together. Acoustic jazz of the highest order. Lee Konitz announcing that if Michel Legrand continued with his attempt to sit in with the piano-less band he would leave the bandstand. Konitz got his way; Legrand vacated the bandstand.

Having the opportunity to hear the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald in a club setting accompanied by Joe Pass on guitar with her trio re-imagining the great American songbook night after night.

My only experience of hearing Dexter Gordon live, visibly drunk but massively magisterial in terms of his tone and creativity, particularly on ballads and of hearing the remarkable blind, multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk who by this time had suffered a paralysing stroke while still managing to conjure up resonances of his unique playing style

A Gil Evans big band spilling over the small bandstand and playing some of the most imaginative, seemingly anarchic genre-defying music imaginable with a band made up of top line US and European players.

A first chance to hear Courtney Pine on saxes and pianists Jason Rebello and Django Bates at the very start of their jazz careers.

A first chance to hear Cuban trumpet virtuoso Arturo Sandoval, mentored by Dizzy Gillespie and booked by Ronnie Scott

Regular visitors included…

Dizzy Gillespie, in the 70’s and 80’s who by this stage was as much an entertainer and conga player as a trumpeter. When the mood took him (most nights) Dizzy could still coach quintessential bebop lines on his uniquely designed trumpet.

Elvin Jones and his Jazz Machine, whose annual visits were always a highlight. Elvin leading his revolving cast of young musicians keeping the Coltrane flame and legacy alive, with his unique polyrhythmic drums central to his group’s dynamic.

And McCoy Tyner also a fixture in the great John Coltrane quartet whose powerful and percussive piano style remained thrilling right up to his last visit shortly before his death in 2020.

The first and, subsequently many chances to hear Joe Lovano on saxophones.  I have never forgotten the impact of Lovano’s sound and his capacity for musical reinvention with each subsequent visit.

The hunched figure of Stan Tracey whose piano accompanied so many of the early American visitors to the club in the 1960’s, who had a falling out with Ronnie that was patched up by the late 70’s. Stan was one of the unique piano voices in world jazz, an attribution often referred to by Sony Rollins

Art Blakey with various youthful iterations of his Jazz Messengers, always on point, always leaving the audience wanting more.

And finally, the great and greatly underestimated tenor George Coleman who from memory played a couple of weeks in January from the late 70’s.  George, a modernist with a deep understanding of the harmonic possibilities of jazz. He is still going strong, as you can see from his recent appearance at Smalls in New York aged 88- still pushing his improvisatory skills to the limit.

The Playlist

My playlist offers a selection of tunes by musicians who I associate closely with their appearances at Ronnie Scott’s. I have gone for tunes from recordings loosely linked to the era when I heard them live at the club.  The selections by Charles Mingus, Bill Evans and George Coleman all have the added resonance of having been recorded live at Ronnie Scott’s. Most of the other recordings are from live sessions.

In the words of Duke Ellington, I hope you do enjoy…