Ask a Londoner to name a jazz venue in town and chances are the answer will come in the form of a certain Soho joint with an unforgettable name and a cool sign. Open since 1959, Ronnie Scott’s is, by a long stretch, the most renowned jazz club in London, if not in Europe. Founded by tenor saxophonists (and Eastenders) Ronnie Scott and Pete King, the club hosted some of the best American players in the 1960s and has been a massive part of the British jazz scene throughout its life. Today, the bill is more mixed but the vibe — the dark interior lit by dozens of red-shaded lamps — remains.
Its folklore might make Ronnie Scott’s the most recognisable name on the scene, but London’s jazz community is rich and diverse, and the number of venues across the city reflect that. The Soho club scene of Ronnie’s and the Pizza Express Jazz Club has a different feel to the Dalston venues, for example. Out east, two clubs – The Vortex, with music seven nights a week, and Café Oto – excel at the cutting edge, avant-garde side of the music.
Drummer Seb Rochford, a legendary figure in London jazz, is a regular presence at both these venues, both as a performer and a punter. “There are so many venues in London I have loved playing in like The Vortex, Café Oto, Southbank Centre and the Roundhouse,” he tells Londonist. “For watching gigs, it’s Café Oto and The Vortex again. I really like to see music where there will always be a good atmosphere.”
That Rochford (pictured right) also highlights major arts venues like the Roundhouse shouldn’t be a surprise. Although they see most action during the London Jazz Festival in the autumn, both the Southbank and Barbican centres present top jazz artists on stage and for free in the foyers. The Friday Tonic, an early evening free gig in the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, reliably hosts cracking up-and-coming talent. Together with Kings Place, which is a hub for jazz programming in the concert hall, pianist Robert Mitchell (bottom picture) praises “the great concert halls that have been a staple since I was taken as a kid – the Royal Festival Hall and the Barbican”.
These aren’t the only classical music-focused venues to appeal to jazz musicians. Wigmore Hall is “a truly beautiful concert venue, up there with the very best in the world,” says Mercury Award-nominated pianist Gwilym Simcock (top picture). “It has a very unique atmosphere and a fantastic piano, making it a wonderful place to create music, whether classical or jazz.”
Like most artists in what is probably the least commercial segment of the music world, Simcock is also inspired by the intimacy of the clubs. He played his first proper London jazz gig in the 606 Club, a basement club on a Chelsea backstreet. “I’ve played there so many times in the subsequent 11 to 12 years, and it’s lovely to go to a place where there is such a warm, friendly atmosphere and where you know everyone by name.”
Seb Rochford, meanwhile, singles out a Thursday night jazz promotion in mau mau bar on Portobello Road, called ‘jazz re:freshed’. “For me [it] has a really special balance of people being focused on the music but having fun and also a feeling that people were free to express any way they liked how they were receiving the music,” he says. Reviews have said similar things about a new jazz promotion, Jazz in the Round, hosted by Jazz on 3 presenter Jez Nelson at the Cockpit in Marylebone (last Monday every month).
Surely there can’t be many more? Well, yes there are. As well as Pizza Express Jazz Club, Mitchell also picks out the Hideaway in Streatham, The Forge in Camden, Ray’s Jazz at Foyles on Charing Cross Road, and Charlie Wright’s in Shoreditch, a list to which could be added the fantastic gypsy swing bar in Battersea, Le QueCumbar.
Some of the smallest places are barely known outside the bush-telegraph world of jazz. Simcock mentions “little gems” like: “The Spice of Life in Soho, Oliver’s down in Greenwich and monthly jazz gigs featuring brilliant young British musicians at La Brocca in West Hampstead”. In the end, the number of jazz venues is sustained by the variety and scope of the music itself. “I think matching venue to the music is so important,” says Simcock, “and in London we are very lucky to have every possible type and size of space for people to play in.”
Robert Mitchell plays with his trio Panacea at Ray’s Jazz at Foyles on 8 March at 6pm. Gwilym Simcock performs a duo concert with Yaron Herman at Pizza Express Jazz Club, Dean Street, on 15 March, and at The Vortex later in the month.
Image credits: Gwilym Simcock by Ron Beenen, Seb Rochford by Tom Cawley and Robert Mitchell by Alvise Guadagnino.