Photo Credit: Jan Morton
The central London district of Soho has long been at the heart of the capital’s jazz scene. And now a dedicated walking tour sets out to explore its landmarks and probe its lesser known secrets. Tour guide CHRIS FIRMIN explains the lure of the Soho jazz world past and present to Stephen Graham.
Doing the leg work on the Soho jazz scene on the Soho And All That Jazz walking tour, its guide and brains behind the idea is Chris Firmin.
“On retirement,” he says, “I did the City of Westminster Tour Guide course, mainly on how to create and lead guided walks. Soho had been part of my life for 50 years – whether music clubs, restaurants, clothes and record shops, etc. Therefore it was a natural choice. I had been a keen ‘jazzer’ since an ‘epiphany’ moment at 17 years old, still at school, on hearing John Coltrane Quartet’s album Crescent. Although a fan of Beatles, Cream, Hendrix’s music of the time, jazz became my real love.”
The tour takes in many of the landmark venues and shrines that dot the history of the central London scene. Chris ponders where he thinks the heart of jazz in Soho lies.
“We visit both historic and current venues: Ronnie Scott’s, Dean Street Pizza Express and Spice of Life are active – Downbeat Club, Marquee, Club Eleven, the Old Place and Flamingo are historic – Palladium, Prince Regent Hotel and Café de Paris still typify the inter-war period as do a few surprising drinking ‘dives’ I won’t mention here! Historically the heart of jazz in Soho, if anywhere, is Frith Street and Old Compton Street, but surprisingly Gerrard Street (post-war) and before that Kingly Street (pre-war) have also had their share of clubs.”
But just why is Soho such a mecca for jazz? Chris has a few theories and pinpoints the first establishing of a link between the area and the music.
“Jazz was always a minority, underground music and thrived in the offbeat small venues that the cosmopolitan and raffish streets of Soho provided. Immigration was a constant in Soho, starting with the French Huguenots of the 1670s. Being in the heart of the West End, surrounded by the theatres, cinemas and restaurants, Soho was bound to attract working musicians and fans to its cafes and clubs. The advent of the first Italian style coffee bars (eg the Moka in Frith Street) in the 1950s was also influential in terms of somewhere for youth to hang out.”
Firmin actually has a date in mind for when jazz first arrived to begin a long and rich connection. He says it goes back to “The London Palladium (Argyll Street) in 1919 with visits from the USA of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band followed by the Southern Syncopators starring the great clarinettist Sidney Bechet who was promptly deported. Details on the guided walk!
“There were only a few jazz enthusiasts in London at the time who were spreading the word about this new American music, trying to develop a critique of the bands and their newly pressed phonographic recordings.”
Suitably the tour begins “right at the beginning”, outside the London Palladium. Chris says it lasts just under two hours and “covers a good cross section of Soho – West Soho (Kingly and Carnaby Streets) Chinatown, Archer Street, Wardour , Dean and Frith Streets, and a quick hop over Charing Cross Road to pay respects to trad jazz at the site of the former Ken Colyer Club.”
He says the sort of person who goes on the tour “are jazz fans of various hues, some highly knowledgeable, others more casual but keen to find out more. Some of the foreign tourists are equally keen to learn about Soho and I do try to point out a few non-musical places of interest on the way round, for instance the art deco 1930s multi-storey car park in Brewer Street!”
Given the option to step into a time machine, the Soho spot and era Chris would most like to journey back into is clear enough.
“I think the period 1959-62. Ronnie Scott opened his original club in Gerrard Street in 1959 and started bringing over star players from America after the lifting of the Musicians Union’s longstanding ban on USA musicians working in England. Zoot Sims appeared at the basement club followed by Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz and Dexter Gordon. The standard of the local London musicians was fast improving partly as a result. The arrival of ‘young Turks’ such as Surman, Sulzmann, McLaughlin, Osborne and Westbrook was just round the corner – as was the great British R&B boom with the Rolling Stones (already making itinerant appearances at the old Marquee in Oxford Street). But just for a while London was, in the words of critic Bennie Green, ‘Jazz City’.”
Tours cost £12 per person, £9 for concessions (over 60s and paid up students) and runs monthly on the second or third Sundays in the month at 11.30 am. Book via Footprints of London (select ‘Choose a Walk’ and scroll down to “Soho and all that Jazz”).