The self-deprecating one-liners about the size of the audience or the quality of the food have gone (its eponymous co-founder once said that 3,000 flies can’t be wrong); it is also more commercially managed these days, but Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club at 50 is still a venue that Scott, had he been alive today, would embrace.
It is still the spiritual home of British jazz. It is not for us to say whether Ronnie’s is better than other great venues such as Birdland, the Village Vanguard or the Blue Note. But it does have a unique character: audiences get up close enough up to the players to see their humanity, as Scott once said, to see when they let you down and when they shine. This was a club run by musicians for musicians, although Scott never thought he was good enough on tenor saxophone to play alongside one of his early guests, Sonny Rollins.
Like jazz, the club has been through its ups and downs: after its heyday in the 60s, it struggled later, and almost went under in the 80s. There was Scott’s own untimely death and the club’s sale to Sally Greene, the owner of the Old Vic. The club lost its way into soul, pop and cabaret. But Ronnie’s has never been about the past, although it has a glorious one. Virtually every jazz star except Miles Davis has performed live there. It has always searched restlessly for future jazz forms, and no one can accuse this year’s cutting-edge contemporary jazz programming, played to enthusiastic audiences, of being an artistic sellout.
Ronnie Scott’s spirit lives on each night in Soho.