Sunday Jazz Lunch At Ronnie Scott's  … c'est la vie (en rose)!


Excusez-moi the tres awful franglais, but I've come over all francophile! You see, I spent my Sunday lunch in Soho, learning and listening to the remarkable story of Edith Piaf, French icon, singer extraordinaire and all-round tragic character. Of course the Little Sparrow died almost 50 years ago, so we relied upon the work of the very talented, and very Parisian, jazz singer and chanteuse Caroline Nin and her 'Hymne a Piaf', performed to a packed house at Ronnie Scott's jazz club in London. It's an unlikely venue - not for Ms Nin, or even for the late Ms Piaf, but for me because, and whisper it very quietly, but I don't actually like jazz that much. 

So what was I doing at a world-famous jazz club? Well it's a legendary venue, and I've always been one for a new experience, so in for a penny in for a pound. And, while I say I don't like jazz, it's really only the stuff where one person plays the tune and another plays the same tune backwards that I don't like - or at least that's what it sound like to me. The jazz where you have to sit through half-hour long drum solos or vocalists doing the do-be-boo-be-bab-bab-boo bit. Sorry Ms Cleo Laine but yes, I do mean you. That being said, I know (growing up in a jazz-loving household), that jazz encompasses much more than just scat singing (see I have learned something!) I do like bluesier stuff, and swing, and I love Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone - both of whom performed at Ronnie Scott's in their heydeys  - as did just about all the jazz greats you (or at least I) can name. 

But I must confess I still felt a bit of a fraud stepping inside. After all Ronnie Scott's is the ultimate jazz venue. World-famous, and certainly the heart of the British jazz scene. Even jazz-phobes like me have heard of it, so you know it must be a special place. Would it be like the time I stepped into church in Poland in my sleeveless t-shirt only to find I needed to drape my headscarf around my shoulders to avoid offended glances? Would the jazz cognoscenti sniff me out and label me a disbeliever? Actually I needn't have worried; judging by the chatter as we waited outside, most of the people were first-timers too. I was pleased to find that few were culture tourists - you know the sort - they 'collect' people and places so they can brag about visiting them to their friends without really absorbing anything. No, no-one wanted simply to tick a box - been-there-done-that -  even those among us who had no great love for jazz respected the club and its history.

What makes Ronnie Scott's so unique? Well, it's been going for 50 years (in this location since 1965). Situated just inside Soho, on Frith Street, not far from Piccadilly. It's surrounded by niche music clubs and coffee joints which seems the norm for Soho, and the building itself, from the outside at least, is nothing special. The street is quite unassuming, if a little bohemian, as it happens. Even the flickering neon signs proclaiming 'Ronnie Scott's'  don't really do more than ring a familiar bell. But, in a way, it's very anonimity that draws you in. You see the long queue waiting for admission (not tickets - those sell out well in advance) and you just know something special awaits the lucky patrons who get inside. 

We'd come across the club quite by accident, while taking the air after a long lunch in a nearby Italian cantina. And, with the promise of the songs of Edith Piaf (hardly the hardcore jazz I so feared) I was easily persuaded to join the family excursion. I'm so glad I did - it's surprising how many times you decline something because you fear it's not your 'thing', only to find that, should you dare to try, you actually quite enjoy yourself. Admittedly, had it been a full-on jazz show I might have opted out.

The whole Ronnie Scott's experience is laid-back class from start to finish. You are greeted at the reception desk and introduced to your server who takes you to your table, takes care of your food order and generally looks after you while you are in the club. And the interior is much more intimate than I'd expected for such a prestigious venue. Low ceilings, closely-packed tables, subdued lighting - borderline dim, actually. And red and black lampshades and walls. And the loos - well the ladies' at least – are done up in leopard print! Miaow! 

You quickly forget it's a sunny Sunday lunchtime in central London. Lunching by candlelight on Sunday was definitely a first for me and added to the slightly subcultural feel that I've always assumed jazz clubs have. It's all-consuming too, and it was a bit of a shock to leave at 4 o'clock and realise I needed my sunnies!

All the staff at Ronnie Scott's are friendly and, given that all meals were served and consumed, and tables cleared  before the first set, remarkably efficient. But you never feel hurried. Pudding is served during the intermission. Prices, for admission at least, are surprisingly reasonable. And, should you choose to partake in the lunch part of Sunday Jazz Lunch (and you should, it's very good) you can choose to take a table on the floor in front of the stage, or on a tiered area further back. The food is reasonably priced - given that you're dining in London - and really very good. We had meltingly good salmon and, upon recommendation, some chips which came with both ketchup and mayonnaise. It was obviously always good - when a server asks you: 'And how was that salmon?' you know they've already heard plenty of compliments.

As for the show? Well that was fantastic, or should I say fantastique? Caroline Nin suits the intimate environment perfectly. She performs with the confidence of someone who knows they are darned good, but with the realisation that a natural talent isn't enough. This act is carefully-honed, sophisticated, slightly sensual and very compelling. It's not something a 20-year-old could pull off. To do justice to Piaf, you surely have to have lived a bit yourself?

Perhaps sensibly, Caroline Nin does not attempt an outright impersonation - after all there simply is no-one like Edith Piaf. And Ms Nin is statuesque, and blonde, yet embodies the spirit of the tiny, dark-haired Edith Piaf perfectly. She chats as she performs and involves the audience, drawing them in to Edith's story. And even manages to get us to join in a couple of songs - albeit la-la-ing during 'Milord' and evoking a heart beat for 'Padam, Padam'. An achievement in itself, particularly where I'm concerned since I'd usually rather stick pins in myself than join in any kind of audience participation! Caroline Nin has a fine voice in her own right and we were treated to a jazzy version of 'Autumn Leaves' as an encore. The end came all too soon, as it always does when you're too busy enjoying yourself to watch the clock.

It was a great lunchtime, and we intend to return. I may even manage something a bit more jazz-like next time. So, to upset my French teachers once more with more possibly ropey French:

Merci Bien Caroline Nin pour Hymne a Piaf! Et encore! Je ne regrette rien!