Finding London’s best jazz venues

Posted on March 14, 2012 by

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Ask a Londoner to name a jazz venue in town and chances are the answer will come in the form of a certain Soho joint with an unforgettable name and a cool sign.

Open since 1959, Ronnie Scott’s is, by a long stretch, the most renowned jazz club in London, if not in Europe. Founded by tenor saxophonists (and Eastenders) Ronnie Scott and Pete King, the club hosted some of the best American players in the 1960s and has been a massive part of the British jazz scene throughout its life. Today, the bill is more mixed but the vibe — the dark interior lit by dozens of red-shaded lamps — remains.

Its folklore might make Ronnie Scott’s the most recognisable name on the scene, but London’s jazz community is rich and diverse, and the number of venues across the city reflect that. The Soho club scene of Ronnie’s and the Pizza Express Jazz Club has a different feel to the Dalston venues, for example. Out east, two clubs – The Vortex, with music seven nights a week, and Café Oto – excel at the cutting edge, avant-garde side of the music.

Drummer Seb Rochford, a legendary figure in London jazz, is a regular presence at both these venues, both as a performer and a punter. “There are so many venues in London I have loved playing in like The Vortex, Café Oto, Southbank Centre and the Roundhouse,” he tells Londonist. “For watching gigs, it’s Café Oto and The Vortex again. I really like to see music where there will always be a good atmosphere.”

That Rochford (pictured) also highlights major arts venues like the Roundhouse shouldn’t be a surprise. Although they see most action during the London Jazz Festival in the autumn, both the Southbank and Barbican centres present top jazz artists on stage and for free in the foyers. The Friday Tonic, an early evening free gig in the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, reliably hosts cracking up-and-coming talent. Together with Kings Place, which is a hub for jazz programming in the concert hall, pianist Robert Mitchell (bottom picture) praises “the great concert halls that have been a staple since I was taken as a kid – the Royal Festival Hall and the Barbican”.

These aren’t the only classical music-focused venues to appeal to jazz musicians. Wigmore Hall is “a truly beautiful concert venue, up there with the very best in the world,” says Mercury Award-nominated pianist Gwilym Simcock. “It has a very unique atmosphere and a fantastic piano, making it a wonderful place to create music, whether classical or jazz.”

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Posted in: Jazz, Previews