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In London, homegrown talent has been on the upswing, with the best and brightest players migrating steadily onto the international scene. The clubs from which most of them sprang range from upscale to hole-in-the-wall. Some book only local talent; others are less provincial. At most venues, artists and audiences tend to get up-close and personal, with jazz fans often squeezed together in small, crowded rooms. While hot spots are scattered throughout the city, tourists who plan well will have no problem sampling a wide swath of London’s rich and diverse live jazz scene. Here are some of clubs they’d do well to check out. - Eric Snider
47 Frith Street, Soho
This legendary club has been operating without interruption for 60 years. It opened in late October 1959, when tenor saxophonist Ronnie Scott, inspired by trips to jazz clubs in New York City, and his business partner, fellow sax man Peter King, opened Ronnie Scott’s at 39 Gerard Street, in Soho. The debut act was a quartet led by British saxophonist Tubby Hayes. In 1965, the club moved a few blocks north to its current location, and the following year expanded into the space next-door.
The club is healthy as ever. “Open and busy seven nights a week,” says Simon Cooke, the club’s managing director. “A lot of tourists are frustrated, as we can be booked out quite a few weeks ahead, especially on weekends.”
The roll call of musicians who’ve played Ronnie Scott’s is legion — Count Basie, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Wes Montgomery, Stan Getz and scores more in the early days; Wynton Marsalis, Chick Corea and other big names in later years. Pop stars such as Prince, Curtis Mayfield and Jimi Hendrix (who did his last public show there) have also found their way onto the club’s stage.
Scott and King played a significant role in opening up jazz internationally. In the early ’60s, they challenged the British Musicians Union’s ban on allowing artists from the United States to play British clubs, and helped hammer out an exchange program between the countries. The venue’s first U.S. act was tenor man Zoot Sims, who appeared in November 1961. The floodgates soon opened.
Scott died in 1996. King ran the place until 2005, when he sold it to London impresario Sally Greene. She and partner Michael Watt sunk three million pounds into a massive renovation of a club that Cooke says was “pretty tired.” Today, Ronnie Scott’s retains its classic feel, with sultry lighting, dark woods and red highlights. The main room comfortably holds 216 patrons. Eleven years ago, the venue added the Late Late Show, which starts around 1 a.m., and finds prominent players like Kamasi Washington and Robert Glasper regularly stopping by to sit in.
Summing up the enduring influence of London’s legacy club, Cooke says, “Without Ronnie’s, the U.K. scene would have been years behind where it is now.” www.ronniescotts.co.uk
90 Lots Road, Chelsea
You enter through a small, weathered brick archway and downstairs awaits one of London’s most revered and longstanding jazz clubs, a place that, according to The Independent, “brings to mind jazz’s golden age.” The comparatively roomy stage is low to the ground, inviting a close connection between performer and audience. The 606 Club has been a bustling nexus of British jazz since musician Steve Rubie took over in 1976. For years, he’s presented live music seven nights a week.
In the early days, Rubie instituted a policy of hiring only British acts. Other major clubs were “regularly booking overseas musicians,” he recalls, “and that meant opportunities for U.K.-based musicians were more restricted. I felt, particularly as we had developed into the local musicians’ after-hours hang, that we should focus more on providing a base for local talent.”
The policy has loosened over the years, and 606 regularly books American acts like Jerry Bergonzi, Peter Bernstein, Sheryl Bailey and Howard Alden. However, the calendar is more apt to be populated by such British artists as saxophonist Tony Kofi, pianist David Rees-Williams and singers Dana Gillespie and Ian Shaw.
The 606 Club has a fairly involved membership program, but non-members are welcome so long as they sit for a “substantial meal.” A music charge of 10 to 14 pounds, which goes straight to the band, is added to the tab.
Artists who play blues, R&B, Latin and other styles of music are routinely welcomed onto the 606 stage. Freedom from genre strictures has been a characteristic of the London scene since the early ’80s, Rubie says. And the 606 Club has contributed to that egalitarian culture. “I made a point of booking players across the spectrum with the specific idea of getting musicians from different genres to play together,” he says. “It’s fair to say that the club certainly provided a late-night platform for musicians to meet after their gigs and get to play with others they may not have played with otherwise.”
Rubie is bullish on the current London jazz climate: “I personally think that the London scene is second only to New York, which I know well, in its strength and depth of talent.” www.606club.co.uk
Vortex Jazz Club
11 Gillett Square, Dalston
For “out jazz” in London, Vortex is the place to go. Iconoclastic English saxophonist Evan Parker is an unofficial artist-in-residence there. The late noise-jazz guitarist Derek Bailey was a regular. More recently, forward-thinking players like Shabaka Hutchings, Sons of Kemet, Ingrid Laubrock and Vijay Iyer have found a home at the venue, which holds 100 customers for performances (70 seated). “We are indeed probably the most radical of the major jazz venues,” says the club’s director, Oliver Weindling, who, like the three other members of the board and most of the staff at the nonprofit club, is a volunteer. (A few part-timers get paid to work in the office and run sound.)
Vortex’s glass-cube facade, wedged into the red Dalston Culture House, is an attractive calling card. Get closer and you’ll discover a ramshackle air — mismatched furniture, random objects, haphazardly painted walls. The place has a lived-in, music-comes-first feel.
The club’s origins date back to 1984, when former cab driver David Mossman and business partner Irving Kinnersley opened The Vortex art gallery, blending in occasional jazz gigs. The music won out, and in 1987 the owners relaunched the space as the Vortex Jazz Bar. The club moved a mile south into its new location in 2006. Over time, Vortex has dramatically expanded the range of its programming to include Afro-pop, rock, Latin, reggae and, in years past, opera and cabaret.
Running a nearly all-volunteer jazz club poses its challenges, Weindling admits: “We have to make sure we can get quality staff every night. Also, we are continuously stretched and have to involve more and more resources to fundraising and getting more daytime use. With the personal commitments of so many of the volunteers and members, sometimes it’s very hard to move the club forward.”
Vortex devotees and visitors are just happy that the club manages to keep operating — to the tune of 300 gigs a year, year after year. www.vortexjazz.co.uk
Pizza Express Jazz Club
10 Dean Street, Soho
Don’t be fooled by the name. This isn’t some place where guys in stained aprons toss dough while a duo noodles away in the corner. Pizza Express stages more than 2,000 shows a year across five U.K. venues. Its Soho flagship has been presenting concerts since 1976. Much of the current talent skews British, but over the years the club has welcomed Doc Cheatham, Milt Hinton, Barry Harris, Art Farmer, Mose Allison, Brad Meldau, Gregory Porter and countless other U.S. and international acts. Pizza Express also mixes in generous helpings of funk and R&B, and shows a penchant for singers. Patrons walk through the restaurant, then downstairs to the music space — roomy as jazz clubs go, but very intimate, with a black, red and white color scheme. “I find it a really warm place to play,” says American saxophonist Noah Preminger. “Probably my favorite in London.” www.pizzaexpresslive.com
The Jazz Cafe
5 Parkway, Camden Town
The Jazz Cafe is about as eclectic as it comes. The packed schedule includes deejays, neo-soul singers, a wide range of world music, tribute acts (Otis Redding, Bill Withers, Fela Kuti), Latin, blues and hip-hop artists and more. Saturdays give way to Soul City — disco, house and soul. There’s jazz, too, of course. Sun Ra Arkestra, Tom Browne and Charles Toliver were recent bookings. Historically, the club, which has been in its current location since 1990, has hosted the likes of Pharoah Sanders, Don Cherry, Cassandra Wilson and Ahmad Jamal. The high-ceilinged room is rimmed with a balcony that looks down on the stage. Depending on the night, the place can get SRO-packed and the dance floor manic, so jazz seekers are advised to check listings online. www.thejazzcafelondon.com
Jazzlive at the Crypt
St. Giles Church, Camberwell Church Street, Camberwell
Jazz is alive and well at the Crypt. Tucked beneath St. Giles Church, the tomb-like space features stone columns and ceilings, narrow hallways and a small corner stage. The club opened in 1995 (as St. Giles Jazz Club), but its architectural origins date back to the 11th century. The Crypt, which is also a well-regarded restaurant, started with jazz gigs on Friday only, and over the years has expanded the slate to include select Thursdays and Saturdays. (Its Sketches From the Crypt jam sessions happens the last Thursday of every month.) Presently, the club doesn’t book top-name international jazz talent, but over the years it has been an incubator of such up-and-coming artists as Tony Kofi, Kamaal Williams and Yusef Dayes. www.jazzlive.co.uk
Mau Mau Bar
265 Portobello Road, Notting Hill
This tiny joint is one of the city’s favored multicultural bohemian enclaves. Mau Mau’s far-flung programming augments jazz with reggae, dub, Afro-pop, rock and more, and holds regular jam sessions that showcase emerging talent. British tuba phenom Theon Cross and sultry singer Zara McFarlane performed there early on, as well as Jose James, Azymuth and Brazilian samba singer Elza Soares. Sundays are open-mic nights. On Thursdays it’s Jazz Re:Freshed, a showcase for both new and established talent. Acts squeeze onto a little wooden stage, backed by a red curtain, and patrons get shoulder-to-shoulder amid the standing room in front. Mau Mau is so boho that it only accepts payments in cash. facebook.com/maumauportabello
18-22 Ashwin Street, Dalston
Cafe OTO, effuses The Guardian, is “one of the best known and loved spaces for experimental music in the world.” About half of its programming is free improvisation and free jazz, with the remainder being noise-rock, ambient, electronic and whatever else might fall under the rubric of “experimental.” In other words, don’t come expecting catchy tunes and ear-pleasing solos. Cafe OTO is a single large room, capacity 150. Haphazardly outfitted with folding chairs and other well-worn furniture, it has the feel of a union hall. The venue books music from the margins seven nights a week. Peter Brötzmann, Fred Frith, The Necks, Matthew Shipp, Joe McPhee and Thurston Moore are just a few of the more prominent names that have played Cafe OTO, which, by the way, does not have a stage.www.cafeoto.co.uk
129 City Road, Hoxton
Make sure your suit or dress is tailored just so. And a rakish fedora wouldn’t hurt, either. Nightjar presents itself as an upscale hangout for beautiful people, chicly dressed. The live music — seven nights a week starting at 9:30 — is of the robustly swinging, pre-bop variety, with a bit of New Orleans funk and vintage pop mixed in. While the club books mostly London-based acts — like Pinstripe Suit and Caroline and the Bellbird Boys — its main attractions are its cocktails and the mixologists who concoct them. With its dark woods and mood lighting, Nightjar is every bit the speakeasy it intends to be. Co-owner Edmund O’Neill calls his place “a subterranean lair of a bar.” And even though the club doesn’t book artists that make a jazzhead’s heart flutter, it offers a sophisticated night out, and stages talented professional acts that are fundamental to the experience. www.barnightjar.com