Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club first opened its doors in 1959. I wish I hadn’t left it so long before experiencing my first gig there.
Six of us gathered together to watch Bukky Leo and Black Egypt. It did not escape notice that at least two of the group were confirmed in their dislike of jazz, and at least one more was ambivalent about it, or at least picky about which types of jazz he liked. (That was me.)
Ronnie Scott’s is a legendary venue that everyone should visit at least once. In my mind’s eye, it would be a smokey, hot, crowded and noisy venue. In reality of course it isn’t. No one has smoked indoors for many years, and there’s not even the stale memory of tobacco impregnated soft furnishings to add to the atmosphere. It’s more a supper club than a drinking den - and at the prices for food and drink, that’s not a surprise. And COVID concerns contributed, at the early showing, to the venue being just a third to half full.
Dark, red lighting sets the tone The wall is packed with black and white photos of some of the jazz and blues legends who have played there. I’d heard of very few, if any, of them which all added to the mystique of the place. The six of us were seated in a row, rather than at one of the tables but the sightlines and sound were excellent.
By the by, I love the idea of an early showing. Doors open at 17:30. The band are on stage promptly at 18:30 and leave on the dot at 19:45. That leaves 45 minutes to clean and turn around the audiences before it all kicks off again at 20:30. That’s perfect for grabbing something to eat afterwards and being home by 22:00. Cinderella would have loved it!
Despite being an uncertain jazz follower, from recordings I had picked up that it’s a generous and collaborative genre. Yes, there’s a leader but Bukky Leo is generous in allowing the Black Egypt musicians their turn in the spotlight, introducing them properly and ensuring that we appreciated their contributions.
Bukky looks and acts like a leader. Sporting a ponytail down to below his waist and a shirt heavily patterned with what looked like snowflakes, he combines a sincere and emotional gravitas with a smile and appreciation of a good time, He’s equally at home paying his respects to those musicians that have created jazz funk, as he is apologising for his stomach noises in the build up to opening number ‘American Food’. His manners were adopted by the band too, with the saxophonist, trumpeter and trombonist sitting down on stage to allow uninterrupted sight of the drummer during his solo.
The stage holds six musicians comfortably. If, as at this performance, 11 musicians are filling the space a little consideration and working together goes a long way. (There's so many, they could only fit 10 in this photo!)
It strikes me that if there is a musical genre that demands to be heard live, it’s jazz. It’s enhanced by an interplay between the musicians that is invisible on record. It’s possible to fully appreciate the technical mastery of each musician - fluid, rhythmic and with an absorbing and totally disciplined energy. This show was a tribute to Nigerian jazz funk and the band managed to appear simultaneously tight and loose. After the show our taxi driver said that if you can be sure of one thing at Ronnie’s Scott’s it’s that the performers will be very, very good. Bukky and Black Egypt are confident without being arrogant, an example of performers at the very top of their game.
And what of the music itself? Well, jazz purists look away now because my reference points are from the wider world of pop, rock and dance. The songs are long and may seem repetitive. That’s because they evolve slowly over 15 minutes or so, gradually shifting and building, upping the pace until it reaches boiling point. ‘Opposite People’ was a masterclass in this.
I’ve only heard the technique matched in some of the electronic work of Underworld, in the minimalism of Nils Frahm, or in the extended outro perfected by Dexys on a track such as ‘This Is What She’s Like’. I’ve never heard it achieved live before. The other aspect of the music is the funk. It’s a joyous sound and experience. It took me back to the days of disco, not the 12” ‘boom tish’ tinny beat but the fully fledged fat bass lines and exuberance of Chic. Space prevented anyone dancing but in our minds we were ripping up the dance floor. Maybe that was just me. And I don’t dance.
Ultimately this was a gig that had me feeling good. It was one of the happiest gigs I’ve been to. I’m far less ambivalent about jazz, especially in this setting and performed live. And what of the two people in the party who don’t like jazz? One of the party was delighted by a song, ‘Precious Mother’. In her view, anyone who extols motherhood positively is alright. And the other has happily conceded that there’s a sub genre of jazz that can be described as ‘musical jazz’, and that’s fine with her.
To celebrate an excellent experience, I’ve compiled a Spotify playlist of many of the acts appearing at Ronnie Scott’s this August and September. It’s called Pop In The Real WorldAt Ronnie Scott’s and it’s available at Pop In The Real World at Ronnie Scott's.
Ronnie Scott’s - my new favourite venue. Jazz - my new favourite form of live music.