Tag Archives: Ronnie Scott’s


UNDERTONES -Where Jazz Meets Crime by Nancy-Stephanie Stone

There are obvious reasons why crime and jazz are intimate bedfellows in both fact and fiction. Syncopated music initially began its journey to the four corners of the earth in the wrong part of town (Storyville, the red-light district of New Orleans) and the clubs where it flourished in pre-WW2 Kansas City, Chicago and New York were generally Mob run (The Cotton Club in Harlem was owned by British-born bootlegger Owney Madden). Later, Las Vegas was also heavily Mobbed up. Just ask Frank. Even London wasn’t immune, what with Ronnie Scott’s being in Soho, most of which was run by the likes of the Maltese Messina Brothers and with the Krays owning El Morocco club in Gerrard Street (they once offered Scott and partner Pete King a club to manage further west, but Ronnie wisely decided his heart was in Soho).

Double trouble

      There is a scene in Legend, the Tom Hardy Kray movie, where someone says they have the protection money from Ronnie Scott’s, which is erroneous – Ronnie and Pete never paid protection money. This was because Frith St, where their second club was and is located, was run by Albert Dimes, a Scottish-Italian heavy. Albert designated Ronnie’s club a neutral space, where rival gangsters could see a show without having to watch their backs too closely. He also gave them a bottle of Mumm champagne to seal this deal, and Ronnie and Pete said they’d open it when the club made a profit. It is still sits, unopened, behind the bar.

       So, with jazz historically providing the soundtrack to the thrills and bloody spills of the low life, it isn’t surprising that from the 1920s on, crime authors who wanted to give their novels a little authenticity peppered the narrative with jazz references.  This fertile ground is  the subject of a new book called Undertones by Nancy-Stephanie Stone (www.galileopublishing.co.uk) which is subtitled Where Jazz Meets Crime. It is a pitched as a reference book and is great fun to dip into sections on individual U.S. cities and peruse chapters on jazz spies, P.I.s and drugs). One of my favourite sections is the Jazz Discography chapter. So, for example, when a character in one of Ray Celestin’s excellent series (The Axeman’s Jazz, Dead Man’s Blues, The Mobster’s Lament, Sunset Swing) listens to Louis Armstrong play West End Blues, Stone suggests checking out Louis Armstrong on Okeh (Sony Legacy) to hear the tune for real. Elsewhere, there are plenty of unfamiliar novels and authors to check out (I never knew, for instance, that Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty for Me was a book before it was a movie or that there were several of pro drummer Bill Moody’s novels I hadn’t read). There are hours of sleazy, swinging fun to be had here. Although the author is American, it ranges far and wide and I was particularly pleased to see that the author has found plenty of room for NW5’s king of jazz-noir, John Harvey, whose books and short stories are soaked in the music, not least in some of the titles (Off Minor, Body and Soul). Incidentally, his excellent Darkness, Darkness covers much the same ground as the recent Sherwood TV series.  If you don’t know his work, get yourself down to your local bookshop in (in my case Owl Books in Kentish Town) and order a clutch of the jazz-loving Charlie Resnick series. And when they arrive put on Elmer Bernstein’s brilliant score for Johnny Staccato, a short-lived TV series where John Cassavetes starred as a piano-playing jazz detective. Honest.

Double Exposure



Music, particularly jazz music, and photography have long enjoyed a healthy symbiotic relationship. Think of the evocative photographs of Herman Leonard, the bassist and snapper Milt Hinton or William Caxton, images of clubs, patrons and players so powerful you can almost smell the cigarette smoke, hear the splash of a cymbal, the tinkle of highball glasses.

The two art forms have something else in common – a powerful sense of their own history. Everyone who is serious about jazz studies the masters, be it the fiendishly mathematical complexity of Charlie Parker’s be-bop or the lyricism of Bill Evans’ piano. Photographers, too, are drawn back to the great practitioners of the art, the Robert Capas, Lee Millers and Bert Hardys, analyzing and sometimes imitating, until, like musicians, they find their own style.

I recently spoke to drum legend Billy Cobham, whose CV should just say “played with everyone who is anyone in jazz and beyond”, about his lifelong love of the photograph.

“I started shooting seriously in the army, back in ’64. That was my secondary military occupation, after drumming instructor. Then, when I left the army I never really stopped. I did my first album cover for Blue Note, for Horace’s Serenade to a Soul Sister in 1968.” Which meant he was following in the f-stops of Francis Wolff, another legend who shot many of the iconic Blue Note covers. “Absolutely I was. Big shoes to fill. I also did work with Count Basie and Gil Evans.”



For many years Billy shot with a classic Leica M3, especially while on the road. “With the Mahavishnu Orchestra,” says Billy, “we were touring for two years solid. I’d always get up early the day of a show and I’d walk round town with my camera and I’d be alone. When you are in band doing that many gigs, you are with the guys 24/7 and you need some space. Going out with my Leica helped me gather my wits, my feelings, about how I felt about me that day.’ Not everyone in the band shared his commitment. “John McLaughlin, I think he just used a compact camera for snapshots, while I was there with my Leica with a 150-280mm zoom with all the bells and whistles and he’d look at me like I was out to lunch.”

I first saw Billy Cobham with that band, at an open-air concert at Crystal Palace Bowl. I had never heard or seen anything like it. The guy in white with the twin-necked guitar, he was good, but the drummer was something else. Finding out about him led me to Larry Coryell and then back to Miles Davis and beyond. Billy Cobham sparked my interest in jazz. “So it’s my fault?” he laughs when I tell him this. I also followed his post-Mahavishnu work, including the seminal Spectrum album and his later bands, which sometimes included a young trumpeter from the UK called Guy Barker.



Billy still takes plenty of photographs, but these days he has embraced pixels. “I made the switch four or five years ago. I’ve retired my M3 and shoot with an M8 or, especially for documentaries like my recent Art of the Rhythm Section Retreat in Arizona, an S Typ 007. Everything I used to do in the darkroom, I can do in the camera now. And I don’t feel like I’ve been sniffing airplane glue for five hours.”

He thinks that photography has a way of enhancing his music . “For me, taking a photograph is like capturing an instant in my life, like a single “cel” in an animation, a frozen moment of my time of this earth. What it also does, it takes my primary mind away from what I am always thinking musically, and gives that part of my brain a rest for a minute while I do something visual. I’m still being creative, but in a different way. Then, when I come back to the music, it has more meaning.”

Billy wouldn’t be drawn on a favourite image, not even given a this-is-the-one-I’d-save-from-a-burning-house challenge. “I’m still exploring,” he insists. Which is true of his music, as you can experience when Billy plays Ronnie Scott’s with the Guy Barker Big Band  from June 25-30th (www.ronniescotts.co.uk).


From last time at the club… but much the same killer band

I have worked with Guy on the narrative of some of his large-scale compositions and Billy and the Big Band will probably play Guy’s brilliant arrangement of Stratus from the Spectrum album. You’ll recognise the dynamite drum motif, because it was sampled for Massive Attack’s Safe From Harm, which became the title of a novel I co-wrote (as R J Bailey). How many degrees of separation is that?