Basement — 39 Gerrard Street

Steps down to the basement of 39 Gerrard Street — Photograph: Jackie Hopfinger

“He conducted us to Gerrard Street, Soho, to a house on the south side of that street. Rather a stately house of its kind, but dolefully in want of painting, and with dirty windows. He took out his key and opened the door, and we all went into a stone hall, bare, gloomy, and little used.”

Charles Dickens — Great Expectations

He may well have been describing number 39, a century after writing those words. Gerrard Street is a street of fame and infamy. Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism lived at number 37. While believing that Africans were “barbaric” he nevertheless campaigned for slaveholders to be barred from sitting in the Commons, as their values ran counter to those of “British liberty”. A few doors down (and many years later) “The 43” was an infamous and decadent nightclub of the jazz age. Now home to the Loon Fung Supermarket, it was once the haunt of Europe’s royalty and London’s drug gangs.

Soho’s basements play a vital role in the district’s culture. They were favoured venues for private and gay clubs because of their invisibility and the discretion this provided. Music clubs and recording studios enjoyed a degree of soundproofing from being underground. And for locations right in the centre of London, they were relatively cheap.

Currently a Taiwanese restaurant, in the basement of 39 is where Ronnie Scott had his first club, set up with business partner Pete King. As the first jazz club of its kind in London, the venture was a risky one — but all the pair had to do in 1959 was find the £12 weekly rent and a few hundred pound to fit it out in a fairly basic way. The original club was nothing like the current club on Frith Street. According to the club’s ‘official’ history: “For a while it had been used as a kind of rest room for taxi drivers, and had occasionally, as a tea-bar, also been a haunt for local musicians. To begin with, the plan was simply to provide a place where British jazz musicians could jam.” A piano, microphone, some lights, basic furniture and a bar. That was it. But it was enough to start something remarkable.

During the Club’s time in Gerrard Street, Ronnie Scott hosted artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Zoot Sims, Roland Kirk and Stan Getz. There were inevitable financial crises, but their love for the music, the people who made it and the audiences who enjoyed it helped them survive, and in 1965 a move was made to larger premises on Frith Street. Still with the lease running on 39, Scott and King opened the door of The Old Place to a new, diverse generation of musicians with the idea that it would be more of an experimental space. For this they needed some radical experimenters, and they found them in The Blue Notes.

As a white South African teenager, Chris McGregor would go blackface to gain entry to Soweto — not that any resident of the township would be taken in by his disguise, but the police guarding its entrances would be. There he played piano in a mixed race jazz group, developing a style that has been described as “a synthesis of South African black traditional music and the wonderfully evolved black American contribution to jazz.”

The group — The Blue Notes — was a sextet that became exiles in 1960s London, took up a residency at Ronnie Scott’s Old Place and quickly became a focus for a new generation of British jazz musicians who were embracing a more experimental approach. John Surman and Keith Tippett are among those musicians who acknowledge the significant impact that The Blue Notes had on late 60s European jazz.

Louis Moholo-Moholo, drummer in The Blue Notes, is forthright about how the musicians inspired and supported each other at that time in his conversation with Lloyd Bradley: “We came to England and bang, there you go, even the pop guys are playing their arses off! There were some fucking good drums on the pop scene! Then there were people like Keith Tippett and John Stevens, who embraced us and we embraced them, we taught each other… In a way England was leading the way. That scene brought a lot of guys from the States, these so called masters like Sonny Rollins and them to play at Ronnie Scott’s. There was phenomenal music happening then, man.”

The Blue Notes evolved into The Brotherhood of Breath, a twelve-piece big band that brought in many key players in London’s young jazz scene, and had an important influence of the development of jazz in the city. The line up deliberately shifted from gig to gig, with the intention of creating as community of players who could perform in any combination.

WC Bamberger describes the uniqueness of the Brotherhood: “What caught jazz and even pop fans’ ears and imaginations was the feeling that the band was barely under control, a raging giant rhythm and sound generator that might take them anywhere… There is in fact so much musical excitement in the track (MRA) that the listener may not at first notice something just a little odd on the opening track on the debut album of a jazz band: there are no solos. The playing, however densely interwoven, is all ensemble.”

Like Ronnie Scott’s itself, the Brotherhood of Breath outgrew this small basement in Gerrard Street, and they went on to become popular and very influential on the European jazz circuit of the 1970s. But the basement had one final role to play in our musical history.

After the lease ran out in 1967, the basement was disused for a time, and it was in 1968 that it was used as a rehearsal space. Session musicians John Baldwin and “Lil’ Jim Pea” knew each other through working on records such as Petula Clark’s Downtown. The latter — also known as Jimmy Page — had been in The Yardbirds that had just broken up, but were contracted to play some concerts. As the short lived New Yardbirds, the four musicians who would become Led Zeppelin first played together for a trial in the basement of 39 Gerrard Street. But theirs was a sound that drew on influences from other Soho basements.

Jimmy Page was a regular around the music clubs of Soho in the sixties. He will almost certainly have gone along to the Round House blues club on Wardour Street where Davy Graham played using the DADGAD guitar tunings he picked up during his travels across north Africa. He may well have also dropped in at Les Cousins folk club where Sandy Denny was a regular. The Led Zeppelin song Kashmir was one of a number they performed that used Graham’s DADGAB tunings, and the only guest singer the band ever had on an album was Sandy Denny, on Led Zeppelin IV.

Soho’s unique culture of musical creation based on spaces and places where musicians and audiences could gain a new sense of home as they shared and inspired each other, often across and between different styles and genres, is nowhere better expressed than in the basement of 39 Gerrard Street.

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Songs

MRA — Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath

Ramble On — Led Zeppelin

Downtown — Petula Clark

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Sources

I first learned about The Blue Notes from Lloyd Bradley’s wonderful book Sounds Like London: 100 Years of Black Music in the Capital, 2013

South African History Online — https://www.sahistory.org.za/people/chris-mcgregor

WC Bamberger quote: The Brotherhood of Breath By W. C. Bamberger(August 2008) https://www.furious.com/perfect/chrismcgregor.html

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