Beyond the jazz itself what do we want from a venue?
Everyone into jazz goes for the music first and foremost. However, jazz is also a social call, in other words unless you are listening in actual fact at home you are always experiencing it in a place other than home among people.
In an interview with marlbank back in the autumn, the managing director of Ronnie Scott’s, Simon Cooke, spoke about when he is inducting a new floor manager starting at the club he asks them to imagine that they’re bringing, and hoping to impress, a date. Let's, he encourages, ‘‘Get the lights right, the right temperature and the right sound volume.’’
These extra-music factors we often do not consciously think about nor need we. In places like Ronnie’s where everything has been fine tuned and finessed to the nth degree over 60 years that is part of the magic, you walk into a room and you just know that you are in the right place and it is not only the lights, temperature and volume. I suppose you are transporting yourself into a world that you imagine a jazz club to be. The pictures on the walls help whether a mural (like the 606) or paintings and photographs (the Vortex) but again these only contribute to the whole.
Some of the best clubs offer food on the menu to turn themselves into supper clubs although I hesitate to use the term in case it diminishes what they are because it needn’t. I am generally in favour of dining and listening even if sometimes my appetite has disappeared. Jazz clubs don’t have to have food however. If they do it is better to eat in situ before the music starts or if there is time in the break between sets because you can then concentrate on listening more and not worry about forkfuls of pasta falling messily on to obscure parts of your body.
Good clubs train the waiters to be quieter than usual in a restaurant but background noise is impossible to completely erase. The sound of a waiter shaking cocktails is not that unpleasant a noise but to some it might as well be a jet engine. Worst of all though is if the concert involves solo piano is the sound of doors opening and banging shut the Pizza Express Jazz Club used to suffer in this regard a lot and more so when there was direct access from the street as people traipsed in after fumbling with coat hangers on descending the stairs.
Everyone in a public space has small gripes about their personal experience. Even in Ronnie’s, the best and most unrivalled experience imaginable, you get thudding bass leaking through from the bar upstairs. Does that matter? Well, it depends on your ranking of gripes. Top of my list since you didn’t ask is noisy hecklers (worst case scenario: security has to carry the most recalcitrant out); next is overheard boring conversation especially if involving train journeys or the weather although if a sound engineer is attentive and the band is electric enough this can be offset a bit; and then there is that unfortunate type of door person who looks at you suspiciously when you come in and reluctantly grants you admission inspite of their better instincts to see you off with a flea in your ear. What dreadful deeds, commit murder, exactly do they think you are there to do?
Pictured, the Kansas Smitty's jazz club in east Loncon. Photo: marlbank.