Jazz & Bird Tables

I have to buy a washer dryer.   As the move gathers apace I have to fill the kitchen with white goods.  But for Monday to celebrate exchange, I filled my mojito glass and loafed off to Ronnie’s with my Jazz Buddy.  Although the evening centred around the compositions and arrangements of that winner of the 1987 Toronto Slimmer of the Year Contest, Oscar Peterson, my head was not in a jazz place.  I was not ready to slip into a syncopated place.  I was ready to make lists and draw neat, pencilled lines around words and think in straight, classical lines.  I kept remembering all the institutions and organizations I have to write to to tell them I’ve moved – the HMRC, the banks, The Nice Free Library, The Charming Expensive Library, not to mention The Bobby Darin Fan Club – and I kept working out whether I now have any money left (I don’t).  But, by golly, there was finance enough for a rare steak and a round of drinks, and although I wouldn’t exactly have to sing for my supper, I may have had to end the evening by washing up in the club kitchen.

First of all on early Monday evening, while enduring shock-Exchanged-on-a-flat induced hysteria, I calmed myself with a Bar Italia lemon tea.  This meant having to deal with the peculiar vortex of energy that surrounds Bar Italia and vibrates from it’s retro-chic glass counter tops.  Here, no sooner have you peered at the cheesecake and several family members manifest.  Why do the law of physics dictate that within a minute of poking my thinly sliced lemon in my cup of tea my brother will walk in, look  unsurprised to see me, and tell me I’ve got something stuck in my teeth?  Unnervingly, he says he knew I was in there because he was having me followed from Oxford Street.  But even he cannot deny the Bar Italia law.  Sometimes, it’s like a weird JB Priestley play (as if there was any other kind) where time starts going backwards and families get younger and stranger, balder and fatter, thinner and menopausal, but the room never changes.

The story of Ronnie Scott’s interior decor would make a chilling JB Priestley play.   The play would open in 2012 and with the club looking decidedly balder and thinner than it did after it’s all-singing, all-dancing makeover five years ago.  The carpets on the stairs now have holes in them and the ladies loos are almost back to looking as decrepid as they did in the 1990s, with scraped floors, damaged paintwork and a general feeling of being sweaty and unclean.  The carpeting on the main floor of the club is tacky underfoot and there are what appear to be food stains on the ceiling.  I don’t know how you even get food stains on the ceiling.  The drinks menus are extraordinarily sad looking – rocking the “lived in” look with a series of cracks, stains and rumpled, damaged edges.  This is a drinks menu that has lived.  You can smell the stale rum from the mouths that have jazzily breathed over them.  Then the curtain would come up on the Second Act of this depressing play and it would be 2006 .  The club looks shiny and sparkling, resplendent in it’s own chic glamour, following its extravagant overhaul and full with the taste of promise and the sight of young jazzers in neat suits and ties.  You can taste the lost hope because you’ve already seen Act One.  The Third Act would be set in its original incarnation in the 1960s to the 1990s.  This set would feature shabby, gaffer-taped carpet, astonishing toilet facilities, thin gingham tablecloths and brown wicker lampshades cradling orange lightbulbs, which would lend an increasingly sinister light onto the already sinister looking house vegetable soup.  The end of the play would be back at the beginning.  The audience would be shakily rising to their feet probably feeling queasy and a bit jazzed out.   It is wonderful that Ronnie Scott’s has survived, but must it be destined to return to its slightly cheap, uncared for look that it spent millions trying to eradicate in the early years of the Noughties?  Obviously, I can’t clean anything because I obviously don’t have a washer dryer, but I’m sure someone could get the Domestos out.

Yahama had lent the club a second grand piano for the evening so it was a crammed stage – two double basses, two grand pianos, a guitarist and a drummer.  The support was a surprise – not the support listed on the website – but the lovely Dave O’Higgins.  He looked very clean.  So did the main headline act, especially Matt Skelton who looked like a man who not only had a washer dryer but a lovely ironing board too.  As we were taken through the story of Oscar Peterson’s life in chronological form, we were treated to a beautiful rendition of Yesterdays featuring Dave Newton, as well as rarely performed sections from Peterson’s Canadiana Suite including “Place St Henri”, which I had never heard before and was a remarkably robust piece of double piano performances from James Pearson and Dave Newton ‘cutting heads’ throughout.  Backed by the already mentioned Skelton – his generation’s most reassuring and versatile drummer – the group also featured Len Skeet and Sam Burgess.  A wrong decision was made to place Burgess and Skeet on the spot somewhat by nonsensically encouraging them to awkwardly interview each other in the second set, but half way through the first set the two of them treated us to a beautiful double bass duet of Bye Bye Blackbird.  Hush fell on the club, until you couldn’t even hear the plop of the dessert spoons scooping into creme brulees.  The two double basses caught and carried each other’s melodies beautifully until:

“Do you want a microwave?”  said Jazz Buddy suddenly.

“Eh?”  I said.  “Got a spare one.  When you move.  Want a microwave?”    This was a quiet moment.  Bass player Len Skeet turned around, perhaps thinking he was being offered a microwave.

“Yeah – great.  Thanks.  Love one.”  

The waiter, pallid and looking a bit strained, returned.  There were new mojitos in front of us where our empty plates had been.  This was pleasing.

Dave Newton looked very cool.  I bet he’s got a microwave.  And a washer dryer.  In fact I bet he’s got a bird table and one of those washing machine lines you get from Lakeland that twirl about.   He dresses like a very popular History teacher, who would take his A Level class for tentative end of term beers at the pub.  His delivery was so lackadaisical as to be almost soporific.  The guitarist Colin Oxley took a solo at this halfway point in what was turning out to be a maligned evening for him.  The musical director had repeatedly forgotten to announce his name for a round of applause at the end of each set.  Whilst gazing at the flotsam that washes up underneath drumkits and grand pianos (plastic water bottles, various cables for some numpty to fall over, crumpled bits of sheet music, tupperware boxes) I wondered if I should invest in a new fridge freezer and thought about IKEA wardrobes.   I considered floormops.  I riffed on curtains whilst listening to a drum solo but by the end of Have you Met Miss Jones? I was still undecided as to whether to go to John Lewis or Homebase.   I thought of towels and remembered I had a Zara Home voucher stashed away since Christmas.  I would buy red towels I thought.  Then I realised that of course I wouldn’t buy red towels, I had just had five mojitos and all sorts of things seem like a good idea once you’ve had five mojitos.  Before now ideas I have had after five mojitos include:

1) A holiday in St Petersburg

2) let’s email a cinema and say that we want to rent it out and play Back To The Future in it really LOUDLY.

3) I’m going to put some tap shoes on.

4) I am going to take the tap shoes off, now that I have attempted and failed at a triple timestep and done something embarrassing to my groin which may or may not require Non Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug medication.

5) Berkshire.  It sounds lovely.  BERKSHIRE.  Let’s all go to Berkshire.

All too soon, the evening had swung to a close and it was – amazingly – eleven o’clock.  The last double bass solo was accompanied only by the brisk whir of twenty chip and pin machines as patrons gave payment, and the flourish of the rip of the Visa receipt from the machines was punctuated by a piano note.  We scooped up our bags and my head kept running with the things I have to do.  I thought, as I traipsed across the floor which had clearly not been vacuumed since 2009, that when I buy my heap of towels, my washing fluids and my diamante rubber gloves, it will take all my willpower not to march back to 47 Frith Street and scrub the whole, dastardly place clean.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is usually updated every Thursday, but please note there will be no update on Thursday 15th March.   See you on the 22nd.  Thank you!

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Curzon Cruising & West End Wendy

Do not worry readers, this is not a tale of sharking for sexual activity in lugubrious Mayfair.  Curzon Street is not just the home of mad sexual deviants, you know, nor just the grand, snooty home of Vanity Fair’s Rebecca Crawley.  It is also the home of our smartest and most cosmopolitan range of independent cinemas.  On Monday, filling the gap between work and going out to forget about work, I went to the Curzon Mayfair.  It’s an odd place.  The door handles are constructed of  imitation marble like some 1970s nightmare, with “LADIES” and “GENTLEMEN” in italicised, capital script written vertically along the massive handles.  It is the only place in the last five years where, on buying a ticket, you are asked to sign for your card transaction rather than key in the usual pin.  It’s a Euro-friendly time-slip.  In the main lobby of the Curzon Mayfair you could be in Rotterdam. Or Anywhere.  Liverpool or Rome. 

After sitting in the plush seats for two hours, with sleek adverts for high end products bleating out at you (“Our feature film starts in five minutes!  Still time to buy a Berry Bros & Rudd fine wine before the presentation…”) and being repeatedly told there is a iced Madagascan vanilla yoghurt concoction with organic everything called YooMoo in the foyer, it is easy to believe that you aren’t in London at all, but are instead in some European city of bizarre monied decadence, like Geneva.  The sense of geographical discombobulation was worsened by the fact that the film I saw was set in Paris in three time zones.  As I left the Curzon, leaving behind the thick as velvet carpets and the sense of cocooned comfort the cinema promotes, I walked back into Shepherds Market.  I was surrounded, for some reason, by five people all speaking French.  Shepherds Market is – like Soho – one of the very few areas of London that feel terribly Parisian. I wasn’t – for that moment – in London atall.  I had slipped into an imaginative hyper reality of pavement cafes and Romance languages that could place me anywhere in the continent. 

Of course, shortly I was in Ronnie Scotts grappling with a fatty rib eye steak alongside a diner complaining about her cold shallots, so it wasn’t long before I was reminded of the fact that I was in London.  After a night in the next day, Tuesday, I realised I’d had enough of this “night in” bollocks, frankly, and went out again, this time to see Crazy For You, the show I saw in repertory at the Open Air Theatre and which has now transferred to a particularly ornate and beautiful theatre at the wrong end of the Strand, The Novello.  Those of you who know me know that I find fortitude from shows featuring pink gingham, backflips and shuffle hop steps, but I had reservations about this transfer.  The kind of alchemy that must be in place to render a show successful is a delicately balanced combination of timing, casting, atmosphere and economic optimism.  It’s a brave (or foolhardy) investor who backs a show at the wrong end of the Strand at the wrong end of an economic boom but the preview performance of Crazy For You was oddly brilliant. 

In the Open Air Theatre, the set looked too anachronistic – 1930s Broadway theatre names in small white rectangles made by white light bulbs on a stage where the background is trees and where the musical cues are underlined by a wallop and a whoop from a creature in the nearby zoo.    It also seemed to grapple and grasp for space on what is not only a small stage at the Open Air Theatre, but a shallow one as well.  The Novello, I thought, wasn’t big enough.  It was going to be wrong on all kinds of counts.  Well, I was proved wrong  – the theatre, strangely, seems to suit the set much better than the stage it was originally designed for over in the Regents Park.  The actors aren’t forced to do battle with an over-zealous wind or gusts of rain.  The band, however, seemed to forget there was a roof on, had their amplification racked up to the max, and seemed to drown out half of the lyrics.  I could see the neck veins straining in the ingenue who was trying to make herself heard.   But this technical problem was my only criticism and one that I imagine this week’s preview performances will swiftly iron out.   The actors looked shattered when I first saw this production in August.  Now, settled into their roles and pleased as punch with the West End transfer, the cast has discovered the exuberance which is intrinsically vital to the show’s nature, and have injected the evening with a jolt of shimmy and glitter.  The Greek chorus (or cameos, rather than chorus really, although I’m not sure if you can have a Greek cameo) was particularly effective as Bobby Childs’ conscience, dreamscape and interpreter of plot.  There isn’t a dramatic scene I can think of that can’t be improved by ladies arriving in feather headresses and silver shoes.

The bar was – as always in the West End – woefully understaffed and woefully overpriced, I was stuck behind a large Russian woman in scarlet crepe du chine and an immoveable hair-do who manoeuvred her way into the bar area to order about seven Courvoisiers with ice.  There was a propensity of Europeans in the audience of course, a mark of how the consistently international patrons of West End musicals have changed in the last 30 years.    In the 1980s it was the Japanese and American market, bristling down the Haymarket in large shoulder pads rocking up to The Phantom of the Opera.  Today it’s the new European rich, who are like the Old European rich but without the breeding and snobbery.  The audience are less comprised of the Far East today and more compromised of the near European East; and thank god they are.  Not only are they having a fine old time, but as domestic markets struggle to keep theatres full, to keep actors in work and to keep producers in made to measure suits, the West End is surviving on a constant drip feed of cash injections from patrons East of Berlin.   No one else seems to have the money to spend £60 on a theatre ticket.   I certainly couldn’t have afforded to spend £60 on mine, so had to trawl the internet like a ticket whore, sharking for 2-for-1 deals to grab my piece of vaudeville.

The composer and lyricist of Crazy For You, George & Ira Gershwin, were Russians too, whose parents emigrated from St Petersburg to New York in around 1895, thereby unknowingly exposing their two sons to the Eastern Seaboard’s unique combination of European and American musical fusion and a hungry young Tin Pan Alley in a hungry young country.  And the rest as they say, is serendipitous American musical theatre history.  I suppose precious little has changed in 100 years.  This quintessentially American show is, much like living a cultural life in London today, a European experience.   A hundred years ago, as today, the vibrancy of our cultural life was vitally dependent on money and youth and vigour and hunger coming to the UK from overseas.  As soon as I thought of London’s cultural world as not being in England, I realised that, of course, none of it ever has been.   The show may have rhythm, may have music, may have its girl and its daisies in green pastures, but eighty years after it was written it seems that it still needs its Russians. 

Please return to the London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

How old are you?

A brief respite from flailing about the library stacks searching for a PhD topic came in the form of an impromptu trip to Ronnie’s on Monday night to see Buddy Greco, who may be 85, 105 or 45.  He has a strange timelessness that tells you he could be from anywhere at anytime, and that he may be older than half the 1890s books I tiresomely took home from the library, or as young as a Martin Amis paperback.  The thing is, with those who take great delight in what they do, you can’t really tell how old they are.

If you want to know how Buddy Greco appears, take Billy Crystal’s face and peculiar hairline that starts flourishing in a horizontal line half way along the top of his skull.  Add 20 years, and one tuxedo.  Finish with a coat of Florida sunshine and a creased, although not wrinkled face.  Add a piano and sort of sellotape him to it. Add a lady standing behind him (his fifth wife) in a heavily structured fitting sleeveless top studded with sequins and a face that looks like it was created in one of the better plastic surgery faculties of the West Coast, and folded vocal cords that competently replicate mid-career Peggy Lee.    Stir in a whack of musical prowess, a solid-as-gold popular song set list, and flamboyant and well-practised charming cheekiness and bake for 50 years.  Then serve on a Monday night in the dog days of summer, accompanied by a rare steak and two Camparis and prosecco (post Campari half bottle of red wine optional).

Now – the truth : Buddy Greco is 85.  I have to keep saying that, in order to convince myself it is true.  Buddy Greco is 85.  He is a phenomenal swinging piano player and singer who has been doing his job for 61 years.  He has the richness of voice and dexterity of performance of someone half his age and frankly, whatever he’s on – I want some of it.  He performed a two hour set with his four piece band and then gave in to the raucous standing ovation and came back to do another 20 minutes.  He was wonderful – concise with jokes, funny, smooth, swinging and just about everything you could possibly want for £34.50.  He has the seasoned grandeur of a performer who had to hone his craft in the unforigiving 1950s, when audiences were granted more luxurious choice and exhibited far more discerning tastes.  Astonishingly, this half-Spanish, half Italian American now resides in Southend-on-Sea and regularly referred to himself as an Essex boy.   Only this 85 year old could get away with calling himself a “boy” in any given capacity.

Sometimes, when you go to see the oldies perform, half the schaudenfraude thrill is wondering whether you are going to get to see them die.  You know what I mean – a breaking voice, a reach for that top note whilst raising the arm of a diamante-d sleeve and timber! some old girl who once had a song written for her by Duke Ellington topples off her stool at Ronnie Scott’s and it’s Good Night Las Vegas.  Or it’s the horrible feeling you get watching Liza Minnelli sing on film, when you think somewhere, something has gone ghastly, and foul and wrong, and she”s going to either internally combust or have a stroke.  Rare is the man who can listen to Minnelli warble “All The Single Ladies” on a full stomach and not feel queasy.

Ronnie’s toilets were a bastion of over-heated nuttiness.  I thought I was in a sauna.  There was a cluster of middle-aged ladies who all had the heated hand dryer machines on at the same time.   Outside on the London streets, it was the last blissfully mild evening before the rain started this week.  At Bar Italia they put the outside heaters on, in order to warm you whilst you sat at their newly designed tables.  Bar Italia has deservedly begun to sell itself more stridently in the last year, coating their tables with designs of recent-based London awards, interspersed with glossy prints of black and white photographs of some Italian chaps in the 1950s, like some kind of Godfather Pop Art.   It was the perfect place for a pre-dinner bicicletta (Campari and Prosecco) whilst watching the world go by.  Inside the club, the food was uncharacteristically good and the club packed to the rafters as usual, even on a Monday in the middle of the August holiday season – and even in a recession as mind-boggling as this one.  Mind you, it is a huge advantage to the club that by the time your food arrives it is too dark to see what you’re eating.  Could have been a 160million year old diplodocus shank masquerading as a rib eye steak for all I know.

August is the word I would use to describe Buddy Greco : venerable, majestic, in the eighth month (oh, all right DECADE) of his life, a little summery, a focus for admiration.  I loved what he did and the way in which he did it.  His vocal presentation was beautiful.  Unfortunately, he was only doing it for two nights, but what a reminder of what the club can do, and how it nearly made up for the unbelievably awful Gil Manly I saw there 6 weeks ago.  For a moment, time was suspended and spirits were raised and you can’t wish for more on a Monday night.  Although, intrinsic to this sense of timelessness was an illustration of how doing what you love keeps old father time very much on your side – no matter how old the songs are.  A real delight.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you have enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.