Ronnie Scott’s 60th Anniversary Gala Concert
(Royal Albert Hall. 30 October 2019. Review by AJ Dehany)
On 30 October 1959, in that year of jazz masterpieces, British tenor saxophonist Ronnie Scott contributed his own with the opening of his eponymous jazz club. It was a revolutionary import into London of the style and feel of the New York City jazz clubs that had cradled bebop, and was conceived to host working jam sessions as much as concerts. Sixty years on, there’s a blue plaque outside 39 Gerrard Street, and the club is still going strong on Frith Street where it moved in 1965. A beloved institution of iconic status, to many in the capital it is simply synonymous with jazz.
Its sixtieth birthday was too big a thing for the club to contain, and so another iconic venue, the Royal Albert Hall, hosted a four-hour birthday party concert gala spectacular with the 5000 tickets selling out within an hour. The whole central section of the hall mimicked at scale the format of the club, with thirty-six ten-person tables atmospherically decked out with red lamps and green bottles. On stage the Ronnie Scott’s All Stars house band quintet led by Pete Long, and Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Orchestra, accompanied a terrifying cast of talents, each of whom brought their own personal connection to the club.
Throughout the evening, actor Clarke Peters narrated the club’s colourful history, charting its ups and downs, changes of hands, the gangsters, gunners, grifters, gossip and ghosts. I strongly recommend the CD attached to the current edition of Jazzwise to hear the kind of tall-but-true-ish tales associated with the club. At the gala the musical episodes were varied and given the impossible task of trying to represent the diversity of the history. It was a concert I overheard one punter describe as a ‘curate’s egg’ and one even the Albert Hall with all its holes couldn’t hope to hold. The first sequence brought turns from power-piped singers Judi Jackson, Ian Shaw, Natalie Williams, Curtis Stigers, Liane Carroll, China Moses, one by one on well-worn standards, then together for a belt of Rehab by Amy Winehouse, who had been known to hang out at the club before her untimely death at 27.
‘The 27 Club’ is a fallacy, but it is noted that on 16 September 1970 Jimi Hendrix gave his last public appearance at Ronnie Scott’s two days before his death. Ronnie Scott himself died in 1996 at age 69, after which his business partner Pete King ran the club until its 45th anniversary when it was sold to Sally Greene and Michael Watt, who have run the club with continuing relevance and success since. Their efforts can’t be understated.
Breaking free from the tightly regimented songbook format, violin hero Nigel Kennedy brought his distinctive reworking of Hendrix out on an expansive and exciting third stream psych-rock voyage, moving from acoustic to electric violin, starting with a beautiful Celtically-inflected Little Wing (a tender favourite of jazzers from John Etheridge to Laura Cole) into thundering backbeats and layers of looped electronics on 3rd Stone From The Sun. It was a highlight I thought would divide the audience but everyone I spoke to was well into it, which surely reflects highly on the openness of the ‘jazz’ audience.
After these contrasting moods of jazz song and longer form improvisation from iconic and established musicians, the concert moved into an educative mode reflecting the club’s broader societal purpose. The concert was a gala fundraiser for the Ronnie Scott’s Charitable Foundation, an organisation that has helped over fifty grassroots music projects across the country. On stage this was represented by Britjazz group Ezra Collective and over eighty young musicians from Kinetika Bloco, Youth Company in Residence at the Southbank Centre, forming a vast brass superorchestra, reminding us of the importance of these projects to grow future talent. The concert raised over £9000 from the audience texting JAZZ to 70460 to donate £10.
The second half of the concert opened with the charismatic Courtney Pine and his band working the audience, before handing over to Kurt Elling stepping in for Georgie Fame. Supported by the evergreen Blue Flames, he was joined by one of the evening’s biggest names, Van Morrison. For me the most unforgettable thing I’ve ever seen at the club (alas only on YouTube) is Van singing Send In The Clowns with a visible and audibly broken Chet Baker. It’s truly heartbreaking. Ironically for such a personally waspish individual Sir Van somehow managed to project intimacy like no one else in the show. It was only really during his turn through some commanding RnB that I experienced that vibey sense of being in a club rather than a 5000-seater concert hall.
As Imelda May said between bringing some of her own bluesy rock n’ roll, “It’s a home from home. I’ve made a shame of myself there so many times, as have most of you…” (One recalls one of Ronnie Scott’s characteristic jokes, that the club was “just like being at home—it’s filthy and full of strangers”). The collegiate spirit continued with the big name singers supporting another legend, Roy Ayers for the crowd-pleasing Everybody Loves The Sunshine. The big-band jazz got pretty Vegas-y after that, then Madeline Bell brought Otis Redding’s arrangement of Try a Little Tenderness, before all the singers came on for the apotheotic Let The Good Times Roll.
Still the concert stretched to yet another finale, as Courtney Pine introduced a spectacular happening of sixty saxophonists on stage bopping through Sonny Rollins’ St Thomas. These individuals weren’t just picked off the street but represented key talents of the up-and-coming-to-established-if-you-know-them level of fantastic contemporary players. I spotted Dee Byrne, Nat Facey, Tom Challenger, and so many more. These are the people who for me are really pushing the music forward. It was somethin’ else to see so many of them here in a concert that celebrated not just the past of this revered museum of jazz, but who point toward a future in which, even sixty years on, Ronnie Scott’s still plays a nurturing role.
Categories: Live review