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Memories of Ronnie Scott's Birmingham by Tony Dudley-Evans

It’s amazing that it is now 14 years since Ronnie Scott’s Birmingham closed down.

Or ,should I say – more specifically, became the Rocket Lap Dance club on Broad Street. It had survived for over 10 years and, despite its clear failing to establish itself as a viable enterprise, there are many excellent memories of the club. I’d like to share some of those in this blog, which comes as Jazzlines presents at the Town Hall the opening night of a tour celebrating the history of Ronnie Scott’s London with some reference to the Birmingham franchise that ran from 1991 to 2002.

It could have worked in Birmingham! I think the early policy of presenting bands for a whole week or even a fortnight, which followed the then booking policy of the London club, really stretched the audience, and was just not viable for the much smaller city of Birmingham. The later policy of booking bands for much shorter residencies and even for just the one night worked much better, and it is interesting that this is now the booking policy for the London club. But by then the Birmingham club has developed the reputation of being a noisy place where too few of the audience came to specifically to hear the music, and also had found itself in financial difficulty.

I say it could have worked on the basis that many gigs worked really well and drew good attentive audiences. I have a particularly warm memory of the 4-night residency for Elvin Jones’ Jazz Machine with Delfeayo Marsalis, Wynton’s brother on trombone; to see this band playing really full on jazz over four nights was a great experience and to see how the band made many friends in the city, both musicians and audience members. One of the nights the band played Happy Birthday for a delighted audience member.

Jazzlines’ former incarnation, Birmingham Jazz in the period when I was Chair, put on a number of Sunday night sessions toward the end of the club’s life. These were also attended by good and attentive audiences; I remember starting these sessions with a sold out night for the Bob Berg Quartet, who came up after a week at the London club. Other highlights were a quintet led by saxophonist Jean Toussaint featuring Terence Blanchard on trumpet, the Joe Lovano piano-less trio with Idris Mohammed on drums, and the Joshua Redman Quartet. I well remember that the latter gig had in the audience the great Cyrille Regis, a hero of mine from another of my passions. We also set up a number of unique projects, the Clark Tracey Big Band revisiting the music of the Tubby Hayes Big Band was one, and a special sextet matching Randy Brecker with the tutors from the Birmingham Conservatoire jazz course – Jeremy Price, Mike Williams, Liam Noble, Arnie Somgyi and Gene Calderazzo – was another.

I also remember some great gigs booked by the club: the only time I heard The Crusaders was there and an awesome gig with blues guitarist Robben Ford was one of the best gigs I have ever been to. Gil Scott Heron also played there; perhaps he wasn’t on top form, but it was great to be in the same
room as him! Jazz singer Betty Carter spent a week in the club; Betty was a very forceful character who was very strict with both members of her group and promoters. Apparently she arrived at the club, announced that the dressing room was much too small for her, and took over the owners’ office for the rest of the week.

Other particular memories are:

  • Working with the sound engineers, Linton, who we still work with at our monthly sessions at The Jam House, and Kam, to sort out the sound for demanding American bands.

  • Meeting Elvin Jones when he arrived for his Birmingham stay and being invited to the bar at his hotel with the words ‘you look like you enjoy a drink’. The club always had a bottle of red wine waiting for Elvin.
  • Soweto Kinch playing a gig early in his career and gradually winning over what was a noisy audience
  • The two owners, Barry Sherwin and Alan Sartori, were great company and also fun to deal with. I well remember one day walking down Broad Street in the days when the club café opened onto the street and finding Alan and Barry sitting outside drinking pink champagne. I joined them only to be told that the finances were in a dire state, but that I should enjoy a glass of bubbly with them

That’s all from me for now, I do hope to see some of you at The Story of Ronnie Scott’s here at Town Hall… and if I don’t see you there, do drop us a line on Twitter to have a catch up on YOUR memories of the venue and your thoughts on jazz in Birmingham, jazzlinesTHSH THSHBirmingham

Tony