The Singer, December/January 2009-10
Standing in what can only be described as a 1970s dole office-fluorescent strip lighting, orange plastic chairs and brown carpet tiles – I am, again in a SCRAPE. I have parked three inches out of my parking bay outside my flat and my poor innocuous little Corsa has been whisked into this carpound, a kind of hellish Bladerunner landscape, just off the Old Kent Road. Two hundred quid later and I get my car back. Only it won't start. Something to do with the immobiliser. Ouch. A kindly member of staff helps me start it and I chug away from the whole monstrous affair.
The motor vehicle and I have had a chequered past. From the exploding gear box of my first ever car in London, a brown Austin princess (the previous owner had SPRAYED it brown, an eccentric gesture that neither my father or I could fathom at the time) to the Ronnie Scott's-Nearly-Missed-The-Gig debacle some years ago. Keys to car lost on Brighton beach, I had been shopping with the singer, Claire Martin, and had a gig at the legendary club that night. Breakdown truck arrives, car is hoisted on board, breakdown truck BREAKS DOWN on the A23. Second breakdown truck is summoned, car is swapped to new truck, spare keys are collected from my flat and I eventually reach the Soho venue at midnight. The great man himself, unruffled, is at the door."It's packed in there son. I'll park the car and you get up there and don't come off stage 'til half two" Punishment indeed.
There's a strangely acceptable shabbiness in the jazz world where such scrapes are recalled over a few drinks. It's not that we're unprofessional or anything, it's a sweet given that my peculiar job with its long drives, odd promoters, massive sleep deprivation and a tapestry of adventures will allow the odd misadventure. Nowhere has this been so apparent as Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club. It celebrates 50 years this year and twenty of them have had this writer onboard its not too tight ship. Police raids, swansongs and fire alarms, it's certainly provided a heady background to my jazz singing career. Jazz occupies a rather strange place in the performing arts. Often unrehearsed, it will rely on the moment and seems to be the sweetest antithesis to anything, say, in the classical world. I recall with fondness a tour I did with the extraordinary Brodsky String Quartet a few years back and the laser precision that the project required. From the staging and light effects to the quality of the grapes in the dressing room and my funny old head microphone (hello British Gas, you're through to Ian, how may I help you today) it had none of the "this'll do productions" jazz magic.
The concept of one's "spiritual home" has always appealed to me. A safe place where you are truly at your best to do what you do best with stupendous clamour and occasion. At Ronnie's I can have all of this. From my earliest gigs there with a rock soul band, gradually learning the standards repertoire and finding my improvisation feet to being a part of its big celebrations there this year it's always felt like home. Given over to new management and ownership and possessing a slicker more brand oriented identity, for me it has become the perfect performance space. Recital room, comedy and cabaret club, concert hall and, well … jazz club. Its historic foundation is built on the premise that it was run by musicians, the redoubtable Ronnie himself and his friend and business partner, Pete King. Both hewn from the exciting post war jazz scene, these dyed -in-the-wool Londoners took no flak from anyone. Difficult and unpredictable, we were at their mercy, yet their kindness and loyalty to new talent was legendary and without Ronnie's constant nagging to sing more unusual songs and his insistence that I should use more vibrato, I would be a very different singer I think.
Parking my car that night was all part of Ronnie's world. I've never forgotten that night. A scrape deluxe that turned into one of the best gigs ever. Hard to find those old Soho faces these days. The little underground drinking clubs so much a part of my early days in London are also harder to find as the mojito gulping burbsters lurch screaming through the dear old streets, in search of a much different kind of thrill. Wonder what Francis Bacon would make of these ghastly new kids? Oh come on Ian, get with the game. But here's why I try not to get into "scrapes" these days. When I was younger, a misadventure was funny. Recounted over a few beers, the night I slept in a skip on Soho Square, very comfortably too I thank you . . . until somebody started refilling the skip again the next morning. Oh how we laughed. I'm clearly losing my sense of fun because the thought of being in that particular scrape now I am in my late forties (it wasn't that long ago) fills me with abject horror. Will it be funny again when I am in my dotty old sixties? Maybe the bonkers old man thing will make all the silliness fun again. God forbid.
These situations. I am sure, are always enjoyable in company. I recall with horror a scrape that was depressing beyond all measure. I had flown back from a gig in Germany and was doing a show in Stockholm the following night. A badly thought through itinerary meant that I had a few hours at home before going back to the same airport to go to Sweden. My gigging suit, shirt and shoes were in a black binbag crammed into my overnight bag. They could be cleaned at the hotel, so back in the bag they went. When I arrived at the Stockholm hotel I emptied the contents of the bag onto the bed. Out tumbled cans of beans, teabags, dogfood, potato peelings. I had packed my RUBBISH that was waiting to be put out. Just not funny at all. No clothes to gig in and a feeling of stupidity so profound and so real that alone, nothing about it was ever going to be amusing. Had I been with a friend of course, nothing would have mattered and we would have roared with the crazy madness of our lives on the road (bleuch!).
I have a wonderful friend called Esther who makes a delicious and detailed adventure into an almost life-affirming state. Lost purses and keys late at night is her speciality. Fuelled by too many spritzers she will enter into an adventure so rich in character, so eventful and unlikely, I become envious that my mundane car-based mishaps pale by comparison. One purseless night in Soho (of course) her sorry plight melted the heart of a bouncer outside a club. He gave her a fiver to get home. She went for tea and toast in an all night greasy spoon and went to church, making her bed on a pew. Class.
So… it's six in the morning. I have been writing my column. The radio gurgles in the kitchen, the foxes have started their tragic cries. I have the gym, a meeting at the South Bank, coffee with a friend in Clapham, a read through of a new play at the Soho Theatre and dinner with my landlady. I'm wide awake. Maybe I'll do an arrangement for my trio. Something really clever sounding . Or finish that new book by David Sedaris. Bit depressing though.
Should check the car first though.