When I was a young lad, I gave up religion because it was full of unlikely myths and warring sects, and threw myself wholeheartedly into the worship of jazz, even though it was even more dominated by unlikely myths and warring sects. And when I came to live in London, I quickly found my way to the various temples of jazz open for worship. Dobell's Jazz Record Shop. Ray's Jazz Shop. The 100 Club. The Bull's Head at Barnes. The very cathedral of jazz itself, Ronnie Scott's club...
I was lucky to slide into a job reviewing jazz for The Times for 20 years or so, as it meant I had a good reason for going to Ronnie Scott's to listen to whichever star they had managed to bring across from America - and believe me, they did have all the stars down there. Not just for the music, either. Despite being a reviewer, and therefore a parasite, I became a minor part of the furniture there, and I think I finally won acceptance the night I challenged Keith to a race one midnight.
(Keith was a young, good-looking guy who acted as maître d' at Ronnie's. I can't remember quite how we came to have a race, but as I cycled to work every day and he stayed up late in jazz clubs, I reckoned I'd be fitter and faster than him. He demurred. We decided to settle it with a race. We agreed on a course - up Frith Street, round Soho Square, and back to the club. I certainly got to Soho Square before him, but he sprinted past me on the run-in. Damn.)
I also knew that I had been accepted when Pete King started insulting me. Pete King was the man who really ran Ronnie Scott's, a burly, no-nonsense Londoner who was courtesy personified if he didn't know you and wonderfully brusque if he liked you. When, one day, I dropped in to the club during daylight hours, and he looked up from his managerial desk and said, "Well, look what the fucking cat's dragged in," I knew I had made it.
And three nights ago, the very night Mr Bush was flying in to the UK, I happened to be wandering through Soho at dusk, and looked in at Ronnie Scott's door, and there was the lone figure of Pete King sitting at the desk, so I went in and hailed him, and he smiled wearily and said: "Miles, I'm busy and I really don't have time to insult you properly, so just piss off," and after that we had a really nice chat.
"Remember your race against Keith?" he said at one point. "That was a good one. But I'm afraid Keith is no longer with us. I went to his funeral two weeks ago. Of course, I suspect he was never the same man again after your race..."
Keith gone? Alas, how everything moves on. Few of my youthful jazz haunts now survive. I can remember being aghast at hearing a year or two back that Ray's Jazz Shop was closing down. I can remember turning up for one of their last parties. The place was empty, except for Ray Smith himself, locking up.
"The party was yesterday, Miles," he said dolefully.
So I was overjoyed when Christopher Foyle bought Ray's jazz record business and incorporated it into Foyle's Bookshop. It's been there a year, doing great business apparently and even putting on a lot of live jazz in the shop. They had a party there on Tuesday to celebrate the first birthday. That's where I was going when I passed Ronnie Scott's.
They had great live music at Ray's on Tuesday, provided by the veteran pianist Michael Garrick and the bass player Paul Moylan. Garrick's first number, a knockabout blues, was especially fascinating because halfway through it he became obsessed with the idea that the piano wasn't loud enough, and started to take off the front of the instrument with his right hand while continuing to improvise with his left. The piano front didn't really want to be moved, so he played left-hand only for some considerable time while doing his carpentry in the right, and I have to say that he has a mighty nimble left hand on the piano. I'm not so sure about his carpentry.
And who should be there but Ray Smith himself, after whom the shop was named.
"Ah, so you do occasionally turn up to parties on the right day, Miles," he said. That's what I really miss about jazz reviewing. The insults.Reuse content