Ronnie Scott with Mike Hennessey – Some of My Best Friends are Blues
(Northway, 126pp., £13.99. Book Review by Chris Parker)
This is a second (casebound) reprint of Ronnie Scott’s book about his early jazz life and the opening of the Soho club that still bears his name. As the 2004 Preface by Scott’s partner Pete King suggests, the UK jazz scene was slowly transformed by their initiative, from one in which ‘modern’ jazz was a minority taste that needed to be preached to a suspicious listening public, judiciously mixed with ‘pops of the day and sets of waltzes’, to a situation where the music could be heard on its own terms in ‘a scruffy Gerrard Street basement’, albeit by audiences, initially, containing ‘more musicians … than paying customers’. King, in particular, was also largely responsible for working towards the lifting of the Musicians’ Union ban on foreign jazz musicians playing on UK soil, so that by the book’s end (1979) Cedar Walton, Johnny Griffin, Houston Person, Art Blakey and Scott Hamilton were just some of the many Americans whose music had been presented at Ronnie Scott’s, now relocated to its present premises in Frith Street.
Much of this story, these days, is of course available in other historical sources, but this book’s USP is the ‘voice’ of Scott himself: Benny Green, in a characteristically astute introduction, recalls that ‘Ronnie … was possessed of an intense romanticism about jazz while, at the same time, having an utterly realistic approach to playing it … [an] apparent contradiction … [that] always resolves itself into a series of idealistic actions accompanied by a running barrage of his own sardonic self-criticism’. Accordingly, Scott baldly states at the outset that the club’s one concern was always to ‘provide good musicians with a decent place to play and jazz enthusiasts with a congenial environment in which to hear good music’, but immediately allows said realism to temper such enthusiasm: ‘At that time trad bands were drawing all the crowds, and beboppers reacted to public indifference by taking refuge in a kind of haughty elitism … the trouble with being a haughty elitist is that it is not only impossible to make a living, but it is also extremely difficult to find somewhere where you can be musically elite in public.’
Undeterred, however, Scott and King carry out their plans, and the book, by recording Scott’s own account of his journey – via Geraldo’s Navy, the foundation of the Club Eleven, his participation in groups such as the Jazz Couriers, and the various vicissitudes and (occasional) unalloyed joys involved in running a jazz club – from the East to the West End of London, shines a typically vivid, racy, intensely personal sidelight on a crucially important period in UK jazz history. Illustrated by Mel Calman and containing, at the end of each chapter, ‘Interludes’ composed of jokes and terse asides that will bring back fond memories of the man himself to anyone who attended the club in the days when, leaning (cigarette in hand) against a pillar in front of the stage, he’d introduce musicians with remarks such as: ‘And now it’s a great honour to welcome back to the club the great Von Freeman, and the man who he fondly believes is his son, Chico’, Some of My Best Friends are Blues is a highly entertaining and revealing account of the birth pangs, delivery and subsequent careful nurturing of an establishment that now plays an indispensable role in the UK (and world) jazz scene.
Stephen Graham wrote via Twitter:
If writing on music is like dancing about architecture then Hennessey is Nijinsky by way of Pevsner: the style and the substance.