Many books about jazz manage a curious feat: they turn a musical history peopled by the disreputable, the eccentric and the romantic (not to mention the alcoholic or even more adventurously addicted) into dull lists of dates and recording sessions. Fortunately, this is not one of those books. Instead, it is a treasure trove of anecdote, enthusiasm, oddball interviews, whimsy, wonderful cartoons and esoteric jokes. A potpourri perfectly appropriate, then, to convey the essence of that rackety genius, Ronnie Scott, and the London club bearing his name that still stands as one of the world's great jazz venues.
Its author, Jim Godbolt, is ideally placed to splash over this canvas. Graduating from the academy of British jazz life in the 1940s and '50s, with spells as manager and agent for George Webb's Dixielanders and Wally Fawkes's Troglodytes, he discovered new vistas during a four-year period as a meter-reader for the London Electricity Board in the 1970s (not an entirely atypical career diversion; around this time Stan Tracey stopped being the house pianist at Ronnie's and seriously considered becoming a milkman), and then from 1979-2006, he was editor of Jazz at Ronnie Scott's (aka JARS), the monthly in-house magazine that ceased publication after the theatre impresario Sally Greene took over the Soho club.
It is from JARS that this book's material is mostly drawn. The black-and-white pamphlet was endearingly amateur and meandering, and frequently full of howlers, as Godbolt admits: "One concerned Ellington trombonist Lawrence Brown. I wrote that he gave up playing at the age of 65. This appeared as 'gave up laying' which, at his age, may have well been the case..." But JARS kept the reader up to date, with club news and potted biogs of forthcoming attractions – often highly distinguished visitors from the US – while also ranging widely over the history that jazz buffs love so much. Here are to be found accounts of long ago battles between the sharp-suited modernists and trad jazz revivalists, the beer-drinking, beardie "mouldie fygges"; gentle interviews with Spike Milligan, Michael Parkinson and Barbara Windsor (who was a singer with Ronnie Scott's band in the 1950s); profiles of Zoot Sims, Tubby Hayes and Cleo Laine; and musical commentary from the likes of "Professor" Stanley Unwin.
Best of all are Ronnie's jokes, invariably described as bad, but wrongly so. The groan-cum-laugh that usually followed was a tribute to Scott's ultra-dry, deadpan delivery. "You should have been at the club last Monday. Somebody should have been here last Monday. The band was playing 'Tea for One'. At the end of the number the audience was on its foot." And my favourite from this collection: "We got so bored sitting in the band bus that we'd mix LSD with chopped liver and take trips to Israel."
Godbolt is known as a slightly spiky character – George Melly (who wrote this book's foreword before he died) described "his pointed features crouching between his shoulders as though emerging from its burrow into a dangerous world, his eyes as cold and watchful as a pike in the reeds" – and the one time I had occasion to call him, his wariness oozed from the phone. Perhaps he thought I was a "Hooray Henry", a term he claims to have had a part in coining. This all adds to the book's charm, though, and is apiece with the old Ronnie's: a club whose food was advertised by Scott with the words "50 million flies can't be wrong", and where the sweat of the great performers who'd passed through seemed to emanate from the walls (and almost certainly did from the velveteen furnishings).
Does all of this make sense, or even vaguely hang together? Well, here is Prof Unwin on the 1960s: "Beatloders of Polly McCarton, who with Lennontones gabe forth Liverpuddly tunes with Ringold of drummage ... the King, Elvy Presloders, bent kneeclabber all rocky jailhouses too. Evenso, the real jazz creators were carrying the rythmold'*sound of self expressy-ho to infinny in the cosmos for sure. Deep joy."