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Ronnie Scott’s, 1989: my (literal) brush with fame

Hugh MasekelaA recent article in The Guardian about the 50th anniversary of London jazz club Ronnie Scott’s reminded me of my own visit to the Soho music venue in 1989, the club’s 30th anniversary year. It was one of the best performances, jazz or otherwise, that I’ve seen, and a memorable adventure all in all.

I was a student at Queen Mary College, living in the Redbridge suburb of South Woodford; British professors set a very low bar for American students, so I took advantage of their deflated expectations and explored the city every chance I got. While in Soho, I stumbled on Ronnie Scott’s, which one of my professors back home had mentioned, and I saw that Hugh Masekela was going to be playing soon. It was a couple years after his album “Tomorrow” had come out, the era of divestment from South Africa’s apartheid regime and growing interest in “world music,” and “Bring Him Back Home” was on my personal soundtrack.

I couldn’t interest any of my friends in going to see Masekela, but my roommate and one of our English friends decided that they’d go to a seedy “bed show” in the neighborhood and joined me on the Central Line ride to Soho. We parted ways near Ronnie Scott’s, they giggling like schoolboys and me anxious to hear a musical legend.

It was standing room only at the club, and I found myself a dark corner with a not-too-bad view of the stage. My entertainment budget took quite a hit from the cover charge, so I had to ration the two bottles of Newcastle Brown I could afford very carefully. The first bottle lasted through the opening act–I recall it was a London quartet, doing a bop-inspired set–and I made my way to the bar for my second bottle before Masekela was scheduled to start.

As I stepped up to hand over my last wrinkled notes for a beer, the man in the queue in front of me suddenly turned around and bumped into me. He was a short man, solidly built, wearing a dark jacket; he mumbled “Excuse me” in a melodious South African accent and disappeared into the crowd. I got my drink and went back to my corner. It wasn’t until Masekela took the stage a few minutes later that I realized that it was, in fact, South Africa’s great trumpet player who had collided with me at the bar.

I don’t remember the specifics of set list. “Grazing in the Grass” was performed, and a couple songs from “Tomorrow,” but most of it was straight-ahead jazz with a hint of South African rhythm. Masekela was animated, his distinctive playing bright and round, but he made sure the share the spotlight with the rest of his band. Even in my distant corner, the club had a warm and intimate feeling, and even if I hadn’t had that bar-side collision I would have felt that I had come close to one of the best players in modern jazz.

After the show, I made my way out of Soho and caught the night bus home; I recall it as a slightly-scary, dream-like tour through darker streets than I had ever seen before. It was well past midnight when I got to my room, and I was surprised to find my roommate already sound asleep. I put “Tomorrow” on my Walkman and lay on my bed, exhausted.

The coda came in the morning, when I saw the “bed show” aficionados at breakfast to compare notes. Their entertainment was a lot less than they had been promised: they paid a high cover charge and drank over-priced beers while watching an empty bed on a dark stage, images of bikini-clad women flashing on the screen above; after what seemed hours, a woman in a bikini came on stage, sat down on the bed, did some desultory and uninspired rolling around for a few minutes, then left with her bikini intact; then the lights went up and they were hurried out for the next group of suckers valued customers to take their places.

It would appear, at least in the Soho district, that there’s an inverse proportion of sizzle to steak. Ronnie Scott’s, dark and unassuming as it was, offered far more than the cover charge suggested it would. I look forward to taking in another show there some time in its next fifty years of magic.

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