Ronnie Scott used to joke that the food his jazz club in Soho, London served was delicious because “fifty thousand flies can’t be wrong.” Four miles west, at the 606 Club in Chelsea where Steve Rubie oversees a business that’s one of the biggest employers of jazz musicians in the UK, with a programme that features ten bands a week, a gastronomic theme also emerges.
Rubie and “the Six,” as it’s affectionately known, have a working history that dates back to the early 1970s when, as a student who had decided that playing the flute had more appeal than studying dentistry, Rubie needed a job. He’d been going to the club since he was still at school and knew about its emergence in the 1950s as a small jazz club that swam with the folk music tide in the 1960s before becoming the sort of basement where jazz musicians were encouraged to hang out rather than hired. And when its then proprietor told him he was looking for a chef, Rubie said, “I can do that.”
He got the job, trained himself as he went along, working in the kitchen from 10:30pm into the early hours while studying at Trinity College of Music during the day, and as he says, “I never poisoned anyone.”
Rubie had been playing music since he took up the recorder at the age of seven and tried to play the Benny Goodman tunes and Ella Fitzgerald songs that his parents listened to at home in Dorset. After he’d switched to clarinet he heard Django Reinhardt and Joe Pass courtesy of his guitar playing older brother and he moved to guitar also. Flute and eventually saxophone followed as he became a working musician, which he continues to be and which gives him the benchmark that he uses to gauge prospective guests at the Six.
As much as he loved the music, however, running a jazz club had never been in his plans and when, in 1976, the Six’s then-proprietor asked if he fancied taking it off his hands, Rubie replied, “Not a chance.”
In those days the Six was actually situated at 606 Kings Road. It was licensed to accommodate thirty customers, had an open fire that burned logs in the autumn and winter months and would have been nobody’s idea of a potential goldmine. Rubie’s predecessor’s powers of persuasion prevailed, though, and with a deal that involved Rubie covering the outgoing licensee’s alimony payments for three years, he became mine host.
And a popular host he became too. The premises didn’t take much filling, especially on weekend nights, but under Rubie’s management the Six thrived. Musicians loved it. They’d go there to socialise after gigs even when they weren’t playing there and it became a regular after hours rendezvous point. It wasn’t without its stresses – not the least of which were caused both by its limited capacity and the numbers that were turning up – and Rubie was actually thinking about moving to somewhere bigger when, in 1987, the owners served notice that they were going to redevelop the building.
“I looked at a couple of places, one of which I actually bought and quickly sold on, which gave us some working capital,” says Rubie. “Then a friend of mine, who was in the property business, said he’d come across this basement in Lots Road. It was literally round the corner from where I lived and I could almost see it from my window.”
A former rehearsal room that had latterly been a recording studio but had been allowed to become derelict, the basement was in an ideal location but needed a lot of work – including having its own drains dug – and had no gas or electricity. It took nine months to fit it up and in May 1987 the Six reopened in its current premises. Initially it was licensed to hold seventy but gradual expansion into offices on site that were originally let out to bring in income has seen its capacity rise to 175.”
“The first ten, twelve years after we reopened were a struggle,” says Rubie. “Nobody gets into running a jazz club to make a fortune but we were losing money and I wasn’t a trained business person. So I took a course in business management and we got the club into a position where it more or less breaks even – and that’s essentially the aim still.”
The main thrust of the club is to support local musicians although the programming policy has expanded to include American players including Boston saxophone guru Jerry Bergonzi, who is a regular visitor, and guitarist Pat Martino, whom Rubie, as a former jazz guitarist himself, describes as “delightful, a huge thrill” to promote. The Six also operates an exchange scheme that sees musicians from Hungary (Rubie has developed strong links with Budapest Jazz Club), France and Romania visit the club in return for London-based musicians playing in the corresponding countries.
“Our programming policy isn’t set in stone,” says Rubie, “but we do tend to have Sundays as a singers night, which can mean a stylistic variation that includes, say, Christine Tobin or someone singing jazz standards or Hamish Stuart singing his more soul-oriented material. Fridays are generally Latin or groove-based bands and Saturdays are more straightahead jazz. But we operate seven nights a week as well as Sunday lunchtimes and we put on two bands a night on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, so there’s a lot of scope.”
One concern is not to be seen as too clique-ish and Rubie tries to ensure that two new artists a month are booked. Programming ideas come from Rubie keeping an eye on what’s happening on the scene generally, through recommendations from trusted musicians and staff and through musicians approaching the club, which they do in large numbers. Rubie prefers not to be inundated with CDs and would rather look at links to YouTube and other online outlets. He works closely with the Royal Academy and cites pianists Kit Downes and Gwilym Simcock as musicians who have played the club as members of student bands and been given an early chance to appear in their own right. The Six was also where Jamie Cullum was spotted and won his first recording deal.
Like many promoters Rubie finds himself booking further and further ahead these days and typically will be working three to six months in advance. His musician’s antennae make him a stickler for good tone, pitch and timing but essentially he sees his and the club’s role as providing a platform for jazz musicians.
“Ask me what keeps me going after thirty-seven, thirty-eight years and I’d probably say a mixture of stubbornness and stupidity,” he says. “But really, running the 606 Club is what I do. I truly believe in it and I love the music, and at the end of each session, if people go away feeling that they’ve had a good night out or thinking, Yes, I want to go and hear that band again, then I’ve done my job properly and the club has fulfilled its function.”
What do Stairway to Heaven, The Teddy Bears’ Picnic and the late John Peel have in common? They all have Irish connections that don’t take much digging to uncover on McKinlay Kidd’s Irish Music Trail.
Led Zeppelin first performed Stairway to Heaven in Belfast in 1971. Jimmy Kennedy, who wrote The Teddy Bears’ Picnic, as well as Red Sails in the Sunset, was born in Omagh, and John Peel’s favourite single was Teenage Kicks by The Undertones, from Derry-Londonderry, who were a crucial part of the movement that galvanised Northern Ireland’s young people in the dark days of the Troubles.
With the Peace Process meaning that the young people of today on this side of the water might require some explanation of what those troubles entailed, the murals on gable ends that survive as pictorial relics have become part of Ulster’s social history that can fascinate tourists in much the same way as Normandy’s battle grounds and military graveyards or even Rome’s Colosseum and catacombs. At least, that’s the Irish tourist authorities’ hope.
As our guide on a superbly informative tour of Derry-Londonderry’s city walls noted, people’s perceptions of this part of Ireland – the impressions gained from watching the news on television over thirty years and more – need to be changed persuasively. There is also the by no means small matter of the economies of both Northern Ireland and the Republic needing an injection of tourist income, and what better way to achieve this than through marketing a natural asset such as music?
The first stop on a trail that would take us along the Antrim coast to Donegal was Belfast. Its thoroughfares such as Ormeau Road and Falls Road still have an eerie ring to them but this is a city with much to offer culturally. The Titanic Centenary celebrations will reach full pitch next year – the then world’s largest liner was built in Belfast, launched as a still-to-be-fitted-out shell down Harland & Wolfe’s slipway in 1911 and sank in 1912 – and while Samson and Goliath, the shipyard’s twin giant cranes, dominate the skyline on the way into the city centre from Belfast City Airport, they’d have some competition in a trial of strength with the recently refurbished Ulster Museum and a newly established Belfast music tour.
Designed to be user-friendly, the museum hums with activity as parties of school children enjoy hands-on challenges, their pleasure borne out by the fingerprints on one particularly popular case, and are fascinated by sunken, glass-covered exhibitions of tableware and minerals. There’s still plenty of opportunity for calmer appreciations, however, of historical riches from time immemorial to times much more recent and to ponder why the archaeological displays caused more controversy than the thought-provoking section dedicated to the Troubles. (Answer? Creationists argued that exhibits suggestive of evolution were inappropriate.)
Our suitably soundtracked music tour began at The Limelight, the venue that local bands first aspire to play at and bands such as Oasis and Snow Patrol have used as a stepping stone towards much bigger things, with a tale of America and Ireland being divided by a common language. When the late Jeff Buckley appeared here in the mid-1990s, his rider requirements included, alongside certain specified alcoholic beverages, “a dozen assorted sodas.” The local interpretation of this request resulted in, instead of the soft drinks they were expecting, Buckley’s road crew tucking into a selection of soda bread sandwiches. Not exactly rock ‘n’ roll but doubtless appreciated all the same.
Among Belfast’s homegrown musical legacy, Van Morrison dominates, not just because his career began here but also because he references so many Belfast locations in his songs. As well as his old house on Hyndford Street, where the current inhabitant is apparently a grumpy wee man (there’s a continuing tradition for you), our knowledgeable guide, former NME journalist Stuart Bailey, showed us the former Maritime Hotel, where Van the Man and Them started out with a teaser ad campaign announcing their 1964 debut, and Cyprus Avenue, an address Van may have aspired to before eulogising it on his classic Astral Weeks album.
Going further back in time, the tour also takes in the Exchange Rooms, site of the 1792 harpers convention, where the teenage Edward Bunting noted down the dozens of tunes played and saved this priceless collection of traditional music for posterity.
One beneficiary of this would have been the late Derek Bell, the Belfast-born harper with The Chieftains, whose musical brilliance and mischievous humour are celebrated in the impressive Oh Yeah music centre. This venue, rehearsal space, and all-round music resource is our last port of call following visits to sites including blues guitarist Gary Moore’s birthplace, the Falls Road mural celebrating the great fiddler Sean Maguire, the former stamping grounds of the McPeake Family (of Wild Mountain Thyme and much else besides fame) and 1950s singing star Ruby Murray, and the shop where Kate Bush bought the lambeg drum that she played on Running Up That Hill, causing some hilarity with her request for it to be decorated with fluffy clouds rather than the usual marching band regalia.
It’s in Belfast, too, where the first of many confirmations of trail organisers, McKinlay Kidd’s expertise and attention to detail shines through. The company, which organises bespoke self-drive holidays and short breaks throughout Ireland, have personally visited and experienced everything they recommend and favour smaller hotels and guest houses over chains. They can help with travel arrangements to and from Ireland from anywhere in the UK, including ferries, flights, hire cars. Every holiday is covered by the McKinlay Kidd guarantee – the company will refund the £8 per person per night service charge to any holidaymaker who considers they have not provided value for money - and they provide a 24 hour helpline for customers on holiday.
Their Belfast stopover, Tara Lodge, a Travellers Choice 2011 winner, has everything its literature promises, including luxurious, well-equipped rooms, central location, free, secure car parking and free WiFi, and a few other things besides. I’d certainly recommend the power porridge.
We didn’t actually stay in McKinlay Kidd’s Antrim coast overnight choice, the Bushmills Inn, but lunch and a quick tour of its ultra-stylish rooms, at least one of which is on two levels, suggested that this would be quite an experience.
By this time we’d already had a different kind of experience, crossing the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge, which is not for the faint-hearted but is fine if you keep Go West’s Don’t Look Down spinning on your internal jukebox, and were on our way to the Giant’s Causeway, which contrary to Samuel Johnson’s estimation is both worth seeing and worth going to see. I loved “The Organ” round the corner, with its organ pipe-shaped natural sculptures towering up the rock face, and the spaghetti western location aspect of the surrounding cliffs. From there it was onwards to the splendid ruin that is Dunluce Castle, whose tale of its kitchen crashing mid-meal down its adjoining chasm having apparently been debunked doesn’t diminish its imposing power one jot, and then to the ferry over Lough Foyle into Donegal.
Donegal has music coming out of its rocks. Stand at Malin Head, the shipping forecast listener’s friend on the north coast of Inishowen, and you can almost hear the keening of relatives waving goodbye to emigrants on the ships that sailed below for America and Canada.
Over on the country’s western side you’ll find the origins of Clannad, Enya and Altan’s Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh in Gweedore, the Ranafast hereditary family home of the O Domhnaills, whose Triona and Micheal brought the Donegal tradition to the Bothy Band while their sister, Maighread, continues to break hearts with her stunning singing, and Dungloe, where master fiddler Paddy Glackin learned the finer points of the local fiddle style on summer holidays. Tommy Peoples, another great fiddler, lives down in St Johnstown and sign posts sing out song and tune titles and connections to the current crop’s musical forebears - be it the composer of Amazing Grace, which was written by a slave trader, John Newton, after his ship gained shelter in Lough Swilly, or travelling tinsmith-tunesmith and fiddling hero John Doherty.
Our final stop, Culdaff, on the Inishowen peninsula, produced someone who not only supports the Donegal music tradition through live sessions in the first class hotel he runs with his siblings, McGrorys, but can also talk eloquently, passionately and knowledgeably about local history. Indeed, as others have noted before, there’s something of Dennis Lawson’s Local Hero character about Neil McGrory – hotelier, tour guide, bass player (in a band that covers The Beatles, Bob Marley, Chic and the Scissor Sisters), record producer, music promoter, and probably much more.
McGrorys has hosted the cream of Americana, including Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and Little Feat’s Paul Barrere & Fred Tackett, in its back room and on the Friday night we were there, the front bar had a great traditional Irish session featuring the outstanding harmonica playing of Tom Byrne, who recently recorded an album with, among other musicians, fiddler Frankie Gavin of De Dannan.
With its – to say the least – generously proportioned bedrooms and superb food, McGrorys is a marvellous base for touring Inishowen’s copious highlights or for taking a day trip into Derry-Londonderry, whose UK City of Culture status in 2013 offers the perfect excuse to celebrate a roll-call of musical connections that includes Rory Gallagher, Paul Brady, Feargal Sharkey and Cara Dillon, from nearby Dungiven. They could even, if they wanted to commemorate a certain aviatrix’s unscheduled landing in a field just outside town on her round the world flight, invite Joni Mitchell to sing Amelia.
McKinlay Kidd (www.seeirelanddifferently.co.uk 0844 804 0020) can organise a 7 night Irish Music Trail from £545 per person. The price is based on two adults sharing a double or twin room for 7 nights on a bed & breakfast basis and includes a Belfast music tour, a live concert in Donegal, and a holiday pack with a touring map of Ireland and Robert Kidd’s personal recommendations for things to see and do off the beaten track, as well as lots of suggestions for places to enjoy live music.
From The Herald Magazine, Saturday, April 28, 2012.