As Ronnie Scott’s marks its 62nd birthday, The Resident catches up with Artistic Director James Pearson to chat about life – past and present – in the iconic Soho jazz venue…
Photo: Ronnie Scott’s
Established in 1959 by saxophonists Ronnie Scott and Pete King, Ronnie Scott’s has gone on to become one of the world’s most famous jazz clubs.
The original club in Gerard Street was a tiny basement and originally featured only UK musicians, until American saxophonist Zoot Sims played there in 1961.
Sims played as part of an exchange with the Half Note Club in NYC, where Tubby Hayes had a residency.
This exchange arrangement went on for several months, with soloists playing with the UK rhythm section.
The first all-American band to grace Ronnie Scott’s stage was the Bill Evans Trio, which played in 1965.
James Pearson, Ronnie Scott’s Artistic Director says: ‘The band had rather a lot of trouble finding a Steinway piano but managed to borrow one from a house in Eaton Square whilst the owners were away!
‘Whether they knew it was used for the gig or not remains a mystery, but safe to say it was back in the house by the time they got back.’
Ronnie Scott’s relocated to its current location in 1965 but they kept the old club open for three more years, which was known as The Old Place.
‘Ronnie used to play there and compare the evenings. The Old Place was very popular as it was one of the few places with a late night licence,’ says James.
‘Many stars of the days were crammed in, such as the Beatles, Peter Sellars and Judy Garland.’
Since the early days of Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie and Miles Davis, the club has hosted some of the biggest names in jazz, as well as the style’s rising stars.
In fact, the list of musicians and artists who have gotten up on Ronnie’s stage is an exercise in A-grade name-dropping.
‘Ronnie’s has had nearly every jazz musician on the planet play there,’ says James.
This includes Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Nina Simone and Bill Evans.
Latin bands such as Irekere and pop stars like Al Jarreau, Curtis Mayfield, Jeff Beck, Prince, Lady GaGa and Van Morrison have played at Ronnie’s too, and the venue also hosted Michael Bublé’s first UK performance.
James, also a musician, remembers playing a late set with Gregory Porter ‘before he was mega famous’, Jamie Cullum recorded his first two live albums from the club and Amy Winehouse sent a demo to Ronnie himself in the old days and ended up performing there a few years later.
With such a high calibre of musicians in and out of the venue’s doors, can James recall a favourite gig?
‘There are so many,’ he says. ‘Jeff Beck’s residency is one – his mastery of the guitar commands so much respect from audience and his peers that at one point we had Joss Stone, Eric Clapton, Tony Lomi and three members of Led Zeppelin all alongside him on stage.’
While James missed out on witnessing Stevie Wonder get up and jam with the band at one of the late shows, he does recall having to help a ‘famous sax player’ get back up on stage to finish his set.
‘He had somehow managed to get so drunk on ‘laced’ orange juice that myself and the bass player found him asleep in the stage’s back room.
‘We had to literally throw water over him and just walk him onto the stage in the hope of a good performance.
‘His sobriety lasted 30 minutes before he fell over into the drums.’
In the 16 years James has worked at the venue he has seen it evolve and change constantly – much like jazz music.
In 2006, Ronnie Scott’s was treated to a refurbishment which rearranged rooms and saw the venue’s layout change. Yet despite this, James says the feel of the place is pretty much the same.
‘The spirit of all the musicians is very much ‘in the room’, especially visually, with photos all over the walls of many of the jazz legends that have played there.
‘For some strange reason it still feels ‘smoky’ like it did in the old days when people used to smoke there. Maybe it’s the dimly lit red atmosphere.’
The club also has a charity – The Ronnie Scott’s Charitable Foundation – which is dedicated to the support of jazz and music education in the U.K and beyond.
The charity’s aim is to ensure that music education is accessible to every child and young person, especially those who are under-privileged, by raising and distributing funds, and gifting musical instruments to organisations that create and develop youth music educational programmes.
The charity hosts days such as the Musical Instrument Amnesty Day where people come to Ronnie Scott’s to donate their unwanted old instruments which are then rehomed internationally.
While the pandemic halted the charity’s work whilst the venue was closed, upon reopening James says a new Head of the Charitable Foundation has been appointed, adding: ‘They’re bringing the charity to the post-pandemic world in an even bigger way than before. So watch this space, as they say.’
Ronnie Scott’s has recently relaunched its Late Late Shows, where many current British jazz stars such as Reuben James, Jacob Collier and Ayanna Witter-Johnson started out ‘to a certain extent’.
These nights of wee-hour jazz, neo soul, jazz funk, and DJs feature a rolling schedule of performers and musicians, mixing things up for for new fans and the die-hards.
Wednesday nights continue to feature jazz-centric performances with the best up-and-coming stars of the future.
Thursday nights are for slick neo-soul, nu-jazz, R&B and hip hop – a night reflective of the diverse, dynamic music scene in the UK.
Resident hosts will get things going, including Basement JAXX and Dizzee Rascal vocalist Vula Malinga, BRIT School star Renato Paris and jazz hip-hop artists JD3.
New Zealand drummer Myele Manzanza leads the nu-jazz scene and brings audiences a fusion of hip hop, dance and jazz into the morning hours.
On Friday and Saturday nights it’s all about the bands, which cross genres and feature bass-heavy jazz, funk, soul and artists by the likes of Robin Mularkey, The Drawtones and the amazing British bass guitarist Yolanda Charles MBE.
Late Late Shows run Wednesday to Saturday
Tickets: From £12
Time: From 11pm
Address: 47 Frith Street, Soho W1D 4HT