I was delighted to read and see that a plaque has been placed on the site of the original Ronnie Scott’s Club in Gerrard Street in Soho, the Old Place as it became known when the club moved to Frith Street. The original club played a huge role in my developing love of jazz in the 1960s and I often take the opportunity to walk down Gerrard Street and conjure up memories. But I have always been uncertain about which exact metal staircase was the one that led down into the club as there are two close together. With the plaque in place all uncertainty will be removed.
The early 60s was the period when the club first started to be able to book American artists and the first one I heard was Al Cohn playing I suspect with Stan Tracey. Not long after that Zoot Sims and Al Cohn formed a double saxophone front line, again playing with a British rhythm section. The club was packed and pints of beer for Zoot were passed over the heads of the audience.
I have a particular memory of Roland Kirk who played the club several times in that period. He was hugely impressive with his three saxophones, flute and the whistle played in moments of excitement. But the first time I went with a friend we sat on the front row and found the proximity to Kirk’s swaying saxophones, particularly when he was playing three at once rather alarming. But we enjoyed the gig so much that we went back later in the residency only to be told the only seats left were on the front row. We explained why we were not keen to sit there and were promised that we could move if other seats became available. We were in due course able to move, but had to do so in the middle of a set by the Ronnie Scott Quartet. As we left our seats, Ronnie leant across and said ‘we get better later on’!
For a time the club ran a Sunday afternoon session and at one of these I caught a Sonny Stitt clearly unenthusiastic about playing in the afternoon and at another Stan Getz who responded immediately and without complaint to a request to play The Girl From Ipanema (not from me!).
But very often the best nights were with the Tubby Hayes Quintet or the Ronnie Scott Quartet, the latter featuring Stan Tracey at that time. There was one very special late night session with a Tubby Hayes group when the Ellington band was in town and some of the younger members of the band dropped into the club and sat in with Tubby’s group. Tubby was clearly out to show these Americans what he could do and that night he played some of the most exciting solos I heard him play.
Life took me away from London so, much to my regret, I never heard Sonny Rollins in the club, nor any of the contemporary or South African exile bands that played in what became known as The Old Place when the main club moved to Frith Street.
I look forward to my next walk down Gerrard Street and being sure which staircase it was that led into the club.