When Ronnie Scott’s formed in the 50’s it transformed UK jazz, giving musicians a place to play freely instead of entertaining dancing audiences. Co-founder Pete King was also instrumental in lifting the ban on U.S musicians, thus beginning a cross-Atlantic pollination benefiting both nations ever since.
It has continued to secure the world’s top jazz performers since then and, after changing hands in 2005, recently underwent a refurbishment in which the bar was moved away from the stage and the acoustics improved. ‘This show that Ronnie’s is as concerned with jazz, the musicians and their performances now as it always was,’ says artistic director Leo Green, in an interview for Blues and Soul. ‘When people come here they just want to get up and play, which reminds me we’ve stayed true to the original purpose - that this is a place for musicians.’
The venue has nevertheless received criticism, both in its early days, for its love of American acts over British ones, and today, for showcasing commercial names instead of younger, riskier acts. ‘You’ve got the hottest UK jazz scene in three or four decades right now,’ says Jazzwise Editor Jon Newey. ‘I’d like to see Ronnie’s reflecting that by extending its booking policy to feature some of these great young bands as opening artists, just as the club used to.’ According to Leo Green, though, the stage is open to all. ‘The decisions on who plays and how we operate are music-based. If bands want to play here they should come and speak to us and, if it works, I’ll book it. The reality, though, is that most musicians are expecting their phone’s to ring!’
At a time when The Spitz is threatened with closure and countless other venues are replaced by supermarkets, we should be happy that Ronnie’s is still standing at all. And despite punter-driven decisions to book acts like Macy Gray, they continue to provide a veritable wish-list of major jazz names (Ramsey Lewis, Wynton Marsalis, Chick Corea and Tony Bennett in the last year alone). If you want to get close to the cream of jazz, then, Ronnie’s remains unrivalled. The pressure to survive, though, means you are unlikely to hear the rougher, harder future of jazz – ‘new wave’ bands like Led Bib, Acoustic Ladyland and Fraud. Smaller upstarts like The Vortex are probably best positioned to seize upon tomorrow’s sound.