How and why does the historic Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club utilise the Age of Jazz’s (1919 – 1929) distinct social, racial and spatial conditions to attract new consumers?23 minute read

Introduction

‘The Original Dixieland Jazz Band has landed in London’ says an evening paper. We are grateful for the warning”. 

Punch, 16 April 1919

The arrival of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB) in 1919 provides a convenient starting point for the ‘Age of Jazz’ in London and, specifically, Soho (Parsonage, 2002). Almost 100 years since this date, both the genre and region have undergone significant change. As a culturally composite musical style, jazz was at home in the “age of speed”, so much so that the 1920s was coined the ‘Jazz Age’, as evidenced by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tales (Parsonage, 2005:39; Nelson, 1934:165; Fitzgerald, 1922). Today, however, jazz consumption has been devastated, in large part by the slow decline in cultural institutions throughout Soho (Clark, 2016). Despite the resistance of SaveSoho, the area has been “sanitised” through the removal of undesirable people and venues (Korol, 2017; Sanders-Mcdonagh, Peyrefitte and Ryalls, 2016:3). Such a decline is particularly devastating when we consider that since the 1930s the area was already openly displaying the colourful, exotic surface of a village community that Soho is renowned for (Priestley, 1937). As a direct result of the various power geometries operating in the landscape, jazz venues have been put under increasing pressure to encourage both continued and, crucially, diversified consumption (Massey, 2005).

Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, formed 40 years after the ODJB arrival, is the most illustrious of the many jazz clubs that have risen in London’s bohemia (Fordham, 2009; Speiser, 2017). The club has such prestige that letters simply addressed ‘Ronnie Scott’s, London” reach their destination (Godbolt, 2008:7). Against all odds, the club continues to “hit…profitiable notes”, thriving as venues did during the Jazz Age (Osborne, 2009). The theme of consumption then, underpins the chosen investigation. In addition, I was struck by the many ironies and paradoxes that attended the history of jazz in London, a principal centre of the European jazz movement (Godbolt, 2010:3; Moore, 2007). Indeed, the exhibition, Rhythm and Reaction at Two Temple Place, made it abundantly clear that, even as someone employed within the club, there are only particular traces of early jazz history resonating today, indicating a blurring of boundaries between presence and representation (Dillon, 2005:252).

As an “intensely local space”, these historical inscriptions should leave deep and permanent scars in the current cultural landscape and so the fact this is not the case indicates that the club has done much to represent itself differently (Moore, 2007:1). Clearly then, the club is a palimpsestuous site but rather than just tracing the manner in which early jazz histories are represented in the present, exploring how these manipulations affect contemporary jazz consumption seems to be the best way to open up analysis and avoid a historiographic approach. As Dillon (2005:249) explains, “the ‘present’ moment…already contains within it ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future’ moments” in a situation referred to as phantasmagoria and it is how the former affects the latter in the context of consumption that this essay is concerned with.

In much the same way as Hillary Moore examines the ways “individuals use jazz to sculpt, assert, subvert and escape their positions in society” then, this essay will explore how Europe’s most prestigious club sculpts, asserts, subverts and escapes the early history of jazz in London in order to continue its success (Moore, 2007:6). In doing so, it will become clear how the boundaries of this specific community have been modified to name new insiders (Clifford, 1997). The question this essay will attempt to answer is thus:

How and why does the historic Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club utilise the Age of Jazz’s (1919 – 1929) distinct social, racial and spatial conditions to attract new consumers?

To best address this question, this essay will be divided into three separate lines of investigation in order to pursue a holistic answer to a multi-layered investigation.

  1. How does the 1920s representation of jazz venues as places of escape resonate in Ronnie Scott’s and thus affect consumption?
  2. How does the 1920s representation of jazz venues as places of racial tension resonate in Ronnie Scott’s and thus affect consumption?
  • How does the built form of 1920s jazz venues resonate in Ronnie Scott’s and thus affect consumption?

Methodology

In order to adequately address the devised project and its nuances, this investigation will employ a variety of methods. The first practical concern this investigation was faced with pertained to accessing archival materials. Fortunately, the National Jazz Archive located in Loughton is a rich reservoir of both first-hand recounts and academic literature on the nature of jazz in 1920s London. Indeed, the music magazines, particularly Melody Maker, and their content have provided the embodied experiences and presentation of cultural dynamics necessary for useful temporal comparison.

The essay has also endeavoured to account for the fact that the palimpsest is an “entwined and encoded structure, not a layered one” through including images and artwork which will allow for interpretation beyond simple description (Benstock, 1986:257). This essay will also include the responses of a number of key current Ronnie Scott’s employees whom I conducted informal, unstructured interviews with. The purpose of these was to garner information about the club and London jazz in the 21st century to provide thematic contrast to the histories provided in biographies and also probe the question of contemporary consumption patterns. Before I begin analysis, it is worth mentioning my own positionally. As someone who volunteers for the club, I am certainly at risk of presenting a favourable and subsequently a biased account of the way the club is using the early histories (Qin, 2016). Having said this, my positionally may actually be of advantage when interviewing colleagues due to their ability to talk more candidly about the club.

In summary, the combination of these approaches should enable an in-depth and critical examination into the palimpsest-like nature of  the chosen site.


How does the 1920s representation of jazz venues as places of escape resonate in Ronnie Scott’s and thus affect consumption?

Come and hear the Ragtime band, play Dixie … And you’ll feel like jumping o’er the moon!

Alexander’s Ragtime Band (Parsonage, 2001)

London has always provided social spaces where the boundaries and conventions of class and ethnicity can be temporarily traversed (Gildart, 2013). The 1920s London jazz club was “a site of transience, whose boundaries are stretched and transgressed by the constant entanglement of musical, social and historical narratives” (Moore, 2007:2). This, in part, has been theorised to have arisen due to the fragile and transitory space that it arrived in (ibid.: 19). Soon after World War 1, the nation needed a “powerful stimulant” or “musical alcohol” that would provide a place for individuals to escape their own realities (Boulton, 1959:33; Nelson, 1934:13; Parsonage, 2005).

The term ‘partial penetrations’, coined by Paul Willis, refers to the ability of individuals to contemplate and adjust their own representations (Willis, 1977). An abundance of recounts make it clear that the 1920s jazz club was a space where this became possible. Beyond the space, the actual music has the “subversive potential to engender change in a community’s self-imagining” with this community spanning many creeds and colours (Moore, 2007:7). Interestingly, Fischlin and Herbe (2004) theorise that improvisatory practices, of which jazz falls categorically into, can create spaces in which concepts of alternative community formation can flourish and voices that are frequently ignored can find a place.

Women of the early 1920s broadly fall into this category. The quote: “See how it whips them about. They’re like slaves.” in a 1924 article in Melody Maker, one of the world’s earliest music weeklies, does much to illustrate the degree to which women could temporarily lose their position in the social hierarchy, briefly obeying music rather than their partners (Wilson, 2013). According to Rye (1990:156), in the jazz club “the actions of the person are directed by the stronger animal passions”. Such passions echoed the rising liberation and sexual abandon of females in the metropolis – in fact, ’Jazzing’ was a sexual metaphor (Parsonage, 2005). It was in this way that this broadly subordinate societal group was enticed to consume the jazz of the 1920s.

Taking a certain inspiration from this, the current ‘Late, Late Specials’ have been designed to attract those groups at the periphery of jazz consumption, rather than society more broadly. Since the club’s inception, Mr Scott, as retold by contemporary and friend Benny Green, encouraged the “airing… of the violent and elaborately perverse representatives of the jazz avant grade” (Green in Scott and Hennessey, 2013:14). It is with this spirit the the club has continued post Scott’s passing. Current Managing Director Cooke, in a 2009 interview with the Independent, revealed that he is wary of turning the club into a “jazz museum” and is striving to keep the place relevant through booking acts not exactly within the jazz field but fit within the unique atmosphere of the club (Cooke, 2009).

The booking of artists such as Mr Jukes is a clear indication of this. Mr Jukes is the solo project of commercially-successful indie band Bombay  Bicycle  Club’s  frontman  Jack Steadman. In a process referred to as “genre-hopping”, the move was motivated by a desire to open up the world of jazz through a diluted and less traditional introduction to the music (Lewis, 2018). Furthermore, the band Too Many Zooz, also booked as part of the line-up, present the self-defined genre of ‘Brass House’ – a combination of jazz, hip-hop and Afro- Cuban styles underpinned by improvisatory solos played by former-Beyoncé baritone Leo P, trumpeter Matt Doe and David ‘King of  Sludge” Parks’ (TEDxNYIT, 2014).

Through selecting artists such as these then, Ronnie’s is defining new “cultural… centres within the peripheries” of traditional jazz consumption (Moore, 2007:13). These decisions are thus opening up the club for partitions of society that were previously disinterested, in a similar way to how 1920s jazz enabled women to enjoy the practice of mainstream cultural consumption. In both era’s, as William Roberts’ 1920 painting At the Hippodrome renders visible, jazz is typically presented in pre-exisiting venus for pre-existing audiences (Roberts, 1920). This movement by Ronnie’s thus shows an attempt to reconstruct the boundaries of jazz consumption.

figure one, at the Hippodrome, William Roberts 1920
Figure 1: At the Hippodrome, William Roberts 1920

Moreover, it also represents a reversal of the tendency of 1920s London jazz clubs to shun the ‘hot jazz’ style in favour of traditional “nice” jazz (Boulton, 1959:57). Instead then, this more exotic and exciting style of music was confined to the underground nightclub. It was in these spaces that “the conventional order” was reversed and the public could be tempted into a world associated with “sensuality, crime and personal transgression” (Moore, 2007:25). This trace of history is subsequently being brought back, to some extent, with Ronnie’s attempting to bring the underground to the surface. The inclusion of Too Many Zoos as part of the programme is somewhat poetic in that the group was discovered at Union Square on the New York subway platform (Doe, 2017).

Figure two, too Many Zooz Live at Ronnie Scott’s 2017.
Figure 2: Too Many Zooz Live at Ronnie Scott’s 2017. Source transientlife.uk

In making this step however, the club has promoted underground artistry in a way that ignores or is ignorant of the rich tensions that accompany the division of ‘hot’ and ‘traditional’ jazz that began in 1920s London (Rye, 1990). Indeed, the following comment about Leo Pellegrino (Baritone Saxophone) lifted from a Facebook post on Ronnie’s account advertising their upcoming show illustrates the residual distain for an invasion of the club.

Figure three, Facebook Comment.
Figure 3: Facebook Comment, Author 2017.

In attracting new consumers in this way, the club seems to have simultaneously alienated part of its membership and, as will be subsequently explored, glossed over the contentious race relations that drove the more racially tolerant ‘hot jazz’ to the underground.


How does the 1920s representation of jazz venues as places of racial tension resonate in Ronnie Scott’s and thus affect consumption?

Black voices have never been silent within jazz. They have simply been ignored

Hillary Moore (2007:35)

Jazz is an art form with black diaspora origins and contemporary white, middle-class demographic (ibid.). These racial roots, however, were not often acknowledged through the early 1920s (Parsonage, 2003). Indeed, when they were conceded, the tone adopted was overridingly negative. The ‘British King of Dance Music’ Jack Hylton’s description that the genre arrived in the UK “from the jungle via America” is illustrative of the less enlightened racial attitudes of the time (Melody Maker, 1926). Such an assertion is supported by literature of the era with ideas of primistism and danger often accompanying articles on the genre (Parsonage, 2005). Even before the arrival of jazz, Titterton (1912) wrote that “a negro singer is often a dangerous fellow to be let loose in a hall – we dare not be so familiar with him”. The caption accompanying a black man in the 1918 issue of Performer elucidates much of the feeling towards people of colour within jazz:

First he brings us his slave ditties, Then he charms us with his Coon songs, Now he’s sending us barmy with Jazz. What’s his next stunt?

(Performer, 1918)

To an arguably greater extent, so do the responses to the 1926 painting: The Breakdown (Souter, 1926). The painting depicts a black saxophonist playing to a naked white woman. Alongside reiterating the idea of women liberation and societal breakdown, Edgar Jackson, the first editor of Melody Maker, stresses the racial themes that underpin JB Souter’s work. He wrote the piece ‘The Problems of an Immodest Masterpiece’ in which he expresses the “the best thing that could happen to it is to have it…burnt” due the painting’s association with the “primitive and barbarous negro derivation” (Jackson, 1926)

Figure four, the Breakdown, JB Souter 1926.
Figure 4: The Breakdown, J.B. Souter 1926.

Similar attitudes to these, though removed from a musical context, could, it has been argued, justify slavery and it is certainly true that the romantic civilising of black music by white jazz musicians echoes such sentiments (Lorimer, 1975; Mendl, 1927). However, I must be careful in being too reductionist in this analysis. Indeed, as Taussig (1993) stresses, the power dynamics between the originators of early jazz and British appropriators are far more complex  than  the  white/black  paradigms  frequently  used  to  define  the  nature  of appropriation (Moore, 2007). What is clear, however, is that within the 1920s jazz scene, the illusion of a certain monoculturalism was promoted and perpetuated (Back, 2012).

Despite this, Ronnie Scott’s has done little to reverse such historical patterns and instead it seems the club has, to some extent, ‘fetishised’ the idea of blackness in jazz. In the 1920s the skin of the black man was purported to function “as much as a colouristically effect as does the silver of the saxophone”, and today the wall’s of Ronnie’s are adorned with black-and- white photographs of black artists to have passed through the club (Adorno, 1990:53). Such a choice is to celebrate the rich diversity to have held stage – indeed, the club was the first to to offer engagements to American musicians in a club setting (Godbolt, 2008). Further, these images seem to have done much to create the feeling of a private members club, tempting young professionals into becoming the higher-growing demographic through the club’s doors. However, dishonest recount of the histories of race within the Age of Jazz may have not gone unnoticed by a minority of consumers. Some long-standing members of the club could feel somewhat aggrieved that there has been a failure of the club to look beyond the common conceptions of the Roaring Twenties and reflect on the era’s complexities and contradictions in terms of race.

Music function as reservoirs in which cultural memories reside and thus it is interesting that much has  been  deliberately glossed  over  by the  club  (Fabre  and O’Meally,  1994).  Perhaps then, this uncomfortable and ambivalent placing of black American music within the academy as a whole can explain the awkward placing and consequent neglect of the subject within contemporary jazz club (Moore, 2007). Even in this super-diverse city that is constantly changing in composition, the lack of consideration for this history speaks volumes (Atkins and Sinclair, 1999; Vertovec, 2007).

How does the built form of 1920s jazz venues resonate in Ronnie Scott’s and thus affect consumption?

The immediate post-war reaction was colour at all costs – jazz and forgetfulness

(Jackson, 2002:47)

Whilst in the 1920s it was reported that an artist would “see their names in lights for a few short weeks before they disappeared as the winds of public taste suddenly changed direction”, Ronnie’s is notorious for bringing classic musicians to the centre of Soho (Boulton, 1959:40). As a line of Ron Rubin’s ‘Old Place’ poem states, the artists that have passed through “reads like a Jazz Who’s Who” (Godbolt, 2008). However, in 1968, it became possible for to extend the Frith Street club through adding an upstairs room. As William Whyte (2006) highlights, as a building is planned, built, inhabited, and interpreted, so its meaning changes. Rather than simply extending the club’s capacity, this planning decision has opened up the club’s activities in a certain return to the roots of jazz in London: Dance.

Figure five, night by Thomas Dugdale 1926.
Figure 5: Night, Thomas Dugdale 1926.

As Thomas Dugdasle’s painting “Night” (1926) depicts, the reigning obsession of the jazz age was not jazz but dancing (Goddard, 1979). As a bodily practice, dancing was a way to physically empower young women, supporting the assertions of Parsonage (2005) who writes that the proliferation of this practice in the 1920s hinged on the increased social and sexual freedom of women. With this extension, there has been a noticeable return in these themes with  Friday’s  Viva  Cuba  and  Saturday’s  Funky  Nation  events  consistently  attracting increasing numbers of attendees. As a result, there has been a certain subversion in power hierarchies with the traditional jazz restricted to the basement or ‘underground’ of the club. With consumers confined to table service on the ground floor, upstairs there is a certain fluidity that echoes the 1920s.

In the 1920s, jazz venues were the centre of the fashionable world, displaying other world colour schemes (Parsonage, 2005). As Itten (1976) writes, colour, as the most superficial component of design, is fundamental in constructing attachment to place. Just as new instrumental colours have been theorised to have inflected popular music, the repetitive designs of the time offer an analogy with the more vigorous rhythms in jazz and danced music. However, this representation has been reversed with the club’s interior design, courtesy of Jacques Garcia, reflecting an atavistic, French contemporary feel rather than the overriding expressionism of the jazz venues that first hosted the genre despite the fact that the objective was, ironically, to retain the original character of a historic jazz venue (Kronenburg, 2012). The 2006 revamp has opened up the club to a new level of luxury consumer and this has been to such an extent that the club was voted ‘Best Live Music Venue’ in a 2017 survey of American Airline’s premium customers (JazzFM, 2017).

Figure six, Ronnie Scott’s Interior, Culture Trip 2017.
Figure 6: Ronnie Scott’s Interior, Culture Trip 2017.

Furthermore, the extension of the club to include a kitchen, as can be seen below, has supported the capturing of this market. The venue has chosen to construct an identity that pairs high-quality food and music. This pairing of consumptions echoes the early 1920s where lunch and dinner would be served at venues (Godbolt, 2010). These meals, like those currently served, would be of stand-alone restaurant quality serving dishes recorded to have included “Supreme de Plaice Bercy” and “Filet de Boeuf Pique” (ibid.:47). The fact that Cooke (2009) has revealed that without this economic decision the club would be unable to maintain its running costs, it seems that this move indicates that social attitudes towards jazz are weak enough to necessitate an extension in both building and business model.

Figure 7: Ronnie Scott’s Layout, with annotation Ronnie Scott’s 2018.

Conclusion

When the respectable Londoner wants to feel devilish, he goes to Soho

Thomas Burke (1915:253)

To conclude, it is worth first dissecting each part of the essay:

  1. Places to Escape: Ronnie’s is returning to the 1920s process of eroding class relations through its current line-ups and thus opening up the club to less-typically targeted consumers. In making this move, however, it has been shown that part of the club’s membership may have been, somewhat ironically, alienated through the increasing accomodation of non-traditional jazz artists.
  2. Places of Racial Tension: Ronnie’s is reversing the historical confinement of alternative or ‘hot’ jazz to the underground, and in its promotion of alternative acts is attracting mainstream music-lovers. However, in manipulating these histories, the club has chosen to ignore the rich racial tensions that were deeply entrenched in the city when the genre first arriv Instead, blackness in jazz has been ‘fetishised’ in a way that means Ronnie Scott’s is read as a place ignorant of the complex race relations of the 1920s.
  • Layout: Through a focus on a combination of layout, colour and extension it has been revealed that Ronnie’s is echoing, reversing and reinventing of the histories of These changes have enabled Ronnie’s to perpetuate and expand the consumption of upper-middle class consumers whilst extending the volume of these consumers.

In terms of power dynamics in jazz consumption, it is clear to see that, to an even greater extent than in the 1920s, societal position does not prevent access to venues. Moreover, social attitudes surrounding jazz places as exclusionary spaces are starting to alter. It seems that the constructed, albeit clumsy, representation of Ronnie Scott’s has enabled it to attract a growing base of consumers, as evidenced by its ability to battle against rising rent and gentrifiers. This current palimpsestesous configuration has not arisen naturally, but has been manipulated to display truths and hide others to pursue the goal of greater consumption. In attracting a combination of peripheral and wealthy consumers, it appears that Ronnie Scott’s has been effective in utilising the Age of Jazz’s (1919 – 1929) distinct social, racial and spatial conditions to achieve just this.

Liam Travers


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