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March 30, 2010

Ronnie Scott’s

In the depths of the cold war, Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club became my escape from the monochrome drab of age-of-austerity Britain. As a conscript airman on a day release in London, I wandered into Chinatown and heard thrilling sounds wafting up from a basement on Gerrard Street. It was miraculous. The music I had discovered through my Dansette record player was flooding out of Ronnie Scott’s tenor sax right there beneath my feet in a converted cab drivers’ hangout.

Since that epiphany I have followed the changing fortunes and locations of a remarkable survivor. This past summer’s reopening of Ronnie Scott’s on Soho’s Frith Street after a three-month refurbishment marks the return of a unique British institution. The new owner, Sally Greene—theater impresario, restaurateur, and the woman who brought Kevin Spacey to the Old Vic—is also a passionate jazz fan. She brings a fresh glamour to all her projects, and she’s given Ronnie’s a much-needed makeover. After almost 50 years of defying every passing trend, the finest jazz to be heard anywhere in Europe is alive and well in the heart of London.

Tucked among bustling restaurants, noisy bars, and garish strip clubs, Ronnie Scott’s looks almost demure. The faintly menacing receptionists in tight T-shirts from my past visits have morphed into men in good dark suits and pretty girls in matching black dresses, and there’s a sleek new members’ bar, with a roof terrace planned for this summer. But the moody black-and-white photographs lining the walls announce that the club’s history hasn’t been abandoned. Among the pictures of the jazz greats who have performed here over the decades, one lean, intense-looking tenor player features prominently: Ronnie is still watching over his baby.

Ronnie Scott’s own epiphany came after World War II, when he blew his teenage savings on a trip to New York. At a time when British jazz fans had no chance of hearing their heroes’ music except via expensive imported 78-rpm records, Scott caught the full tide of the bebop revolution, haunting the hangouts of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis.

In 1959 he opened his first club—that basement I discovered as a teenager—and local jazzmen came to jam. But Scott’s ambition was to bring in the legendary Americans. After a struggle with the British Musician’s Union ban on visiting U.S. artists, a deal was struck, allowing an exchange of British and American musicians. In November 1961 the great Stateside tenor player Zoot Simms opened at Ronnie Scott’s. Soon after, Stan Getz, Bill Evans, Dexter Gordon, and Wynton Marsalis also took the stage.

Ronnie’s relocated to Frith Street in 1965 and it’s been there ever since. The decor at the new spot was more ambitious—out with black paint, in with red velvet—but the place remained resolutely untrendy. Gloomy drapes marinated in smoke and funereal lighting was the house style. The music was glorious. I remember a sublime set by trumpeter Art Framer and an alarming assault of sound and fury by tenor sax iconoclast Archie Shepp. I was there when Chet Baker—a hero of mine since childhood—shambled up to the bandstand an hour late and was then too wrecked to produce anything more than a few despairing gasps from his trumpet.

Most of all I remember Ronnie Scott. The ultimate antidote to smooth MCs, his sardonic assaults on the audience and celebrated repertoire of awful gags became as essential as the music. One time, a tenor sax player I knew smuggled me into the musicians’ dressing room, an unsanitary black cell behind the bandstand. We found Scott grimacing in obvious back pain. "How did you get that?" the tenor asked. "By bending over backward," Scott groaned, "trying to please Stan Getz."

Scott has since passed, but his club lives on. Happily, so does the red velvet. Just one thing is missing: I’m a lifelong nonsmoker, but Ronnie’s without the smoke feels somehow wrong. Herman Leonard’s iconic photos, where Gordon and Gillespie and Thelonious Monk are always wreathed in plumes—as though the music is being made visible—prove that jazz-filled rooms should be hazy. Perhaps the new cigarette-free Ronnie’s should invest in some dry ice? Either way it’s good to have Soho’s iconic club up and running again. At 47 Frith St.; 44-207/439-0747; ronniescotts.co.uk.