Photographer Freddy Warren documented the glory years of Soho’s famed jazz institution

Jazz drummer and photographer Freddy Warren’s incredible archive, saved from a house fire, can now be experienced in a new book published by Reel Art Press and a sister exhibition at the Barbican.

Soho, 1960s. In a tiny basement, the giants of jazz come out to play. Ella Fitzgerald performs to a small crowd at the peak of her career. Art Blakey signs autographs. Sonny Rollins rehearses before punters roll in. Tony Bennett, in the audience one night, jumps on stage to dance with Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davies and Mel Torme.

This is the electric, underground world of jazz juggernaut Ronnie Scott’s, captured by photographer Freddy Warren. A keen jazz drummer who took up photography while serving in the Royal Air Force, Warren documented every major happening at the world-famous jazz institution for over a decade. From the original Gerrard Street location to the current site in Frith Street.

Warren was tragically killed in a house fire in 2010, but his photographs survived, retrieved from the debris by his nephew Simon Whittle. Today they open a window onto the club’s trailblazing early years, and can now be experienced in Ronnie Scott’s 1959-69, published this month by Reel Art Press to mark 60 years of the iconic club, as well as in a sister exhibition at the Barbican.

In his introduction to the book, Whittle describes how his uncle became part of the club’s furniture, even performing spontaneously. “He was there one evening and the main act hadn’t turned up, so Ronnie dragged Uncle Fred on the stage to play the drums with little Dudley Moore, who was in the audience.”

Warren’s relationship with the club began after leaving the RAF. Working as a photographer’s assistant at small Soho studio Photography 33, the aspiring lens jockey began frequenting Ronnie Scott’s. A combination of sharp-eyed observation and rapport with the artists enabled him to shoot with a natural ease and assurance.

“Freddy’s style is very informal, as a photojournalist he was used to blending into the surroundings and choosing the moment, being a fly on the wall,” explains Dave Brolan, Head of Music at Reel Art Press and editor of Ronnie Scott’s 1959-69. “He was friendly with the musicians and they were comfortable around him, so he was able to get intimate portraits both on and off stage.”

Here, Brolan talks creating visual narratives, Warren’s photographic legacy, and what his images reveal about jazz club culture of the period.

How did you first come to work with Simon Whittle on his uncle Freddy Warren’s incredible archive of photography?

Simon was introduced to us by Soho legend Mark Baxter. He later came to our office with a suitcase full of negatives. Freddy sadly died in a fire at his home but his photographs miraculously survived undamaged.

Simon was aware how important the photographs were and started to preserve, scan and catalogue them. The case also contained some vintage prints and contact sheets which we have included in the exhibition at the Barbican Music Library, along with Freddy’s Yashicaflex medium format camera.

Ronnie out and about with Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis

Ronnie out and about with Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis

What goes through your mind when curating a book like this – what factors are you considering during the edit process?

The first challenge was to sift through thousands of negatives and work out a structure, what the story would be and to narrow down the selection to piece together a visual narrative. Freddy’s jazz photographs cover the wider London scene and extends into the 70’s, including album covers, promotional photos and commercial sessions for record companies.

The majority of Freddy’s jazz photos were taken at Ronnie Scott’s club and the strongest period visually was the 60’s, that was the hook. There is a consistent style – the musicians, the audience and the staff all had a certain look, very sharp, suits, ties, haircuts, all smoking and very cool – almost stereotypically ‘jazz’!

Ronnie & Sax

Ronnie & Sax

Ronnie's Colour Neon sign

Ronnie’s Colour Neon sign

Freddy was working for the Daily Sketch newspaper by day and hanging out at jazz clubs in the evening, always with his camera. He was at the opening night of Ronnie Scott’s Club in the original Gerrard Street location in Soho on October 30th 1959 with Tubby Hayes was on the bill.

Tubby was one of the most important UK musicians and a staple on the bill at Ronnie’s over the years. Freddy was also on site when Ronnie and his partner Pete King moved to the current site in Frith Street in 1965, just a short walk away. He took photos as they oversaw the construction, sitting around a builder’s fire drinking tea while the club took shape.

Tubby Hayes

Tubby Hayes

We decided to focus on the first 10 years, partly because the look changes quite dramatically in the 70’s and is a little less consistent, from handmade suits to factory made. The pictures we selected are timeless classics, all the major musicians of the period are featured, and all together really show what an incredible talent magnet Ronnie’s was. Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, the list is endless.

What, for you, characterises Warren’s photographic style and approach?

Freddy’s style is very informal, as a photojournalist he was used to blending into the surroundings and choosing the moment, being a fly on the wall. He was friendly with most of the musicians and they were comfortable around him so he was able to get intimate portraits both on and off stage and get up close for performance shots.

In one photo that we used in the introduction, Freddy is seen wearing a watch, sitting backstage with Miles Davis. In the photos he took later that night, Miles is on stage wearing the watch – he liked it and bought it from Freddy!

Although a few photos are posed, most are un-staged, capturing the intensity of performance or silent moments off stage. The club was in a basement with no natural light and very little artificial light, making it technically difficult to take pictures. The cameras he used, either a Yashica or a Rolleiflex, were medium format. They were held at chest height and you looked down into the viewfinder, basically looking upside down at the subject. He would need to be very close to the musicians and stay very still – imagine that with Miles Davis’ trumpet in your ear or Buddy Rich drumming! The detail is sometimes disturbing it’s so sharp.

Warren captured the megawatt names of jazz, can you describe an image that really leapt out at you when going through his archive?

Buddy Rich is a great example. You can see where he has smashed one of his cymbals by hitting it so hard – Freddy would have been inches away from it and in the line of fire!

The series of Yusaf Lateef, being greeted at London Airport by Ronnie, rehearsing with pianist Stan Tracey in the kitchen at the club – a legendary location in its own right – reviewing the music manuscripts next to a stack of uncooked steaks.

What Freddy had was unique access to these mega artists, but he also documented the lesser known musicians, the staff and the atmosphere of the club. For example, we found a rare photo of the empty club, taken from the stage that really shows you just how intimate the club was, the photos around the walls were mostly taken by Freddy too so it’s a real time capsule.

What do Warren’s photos reveal about the dynamics of jazz club culture at the time?

The most obvious thing is the style, everyone looks like they made an effort to be part of a scene. The audience, whilst mainly white, is a mix of young and old, men and women, with a hint of Beatnik.

Jazz, especially in America, was always very open, diverse and inclusive. Ronnie and Pete King were instrumental in overturning an archaic Musicians’ Union rule that restricted American musicians being able to perform in the UK. They negotiated a reciprocal arrangement which allowed the big stars to perform residencies at the club. Suddenly you could see the original jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington or Miles Davis or Dizzy Gillespie up close in a tiny basement – these were world class acts, unimaginable today.

Ella Fitzgerald and the audience at Ronnie Scott's Frith Street

Ella Fitzgerald and the audience at Ronnie Scott’s Frith Street

What do you hope the book and exhibition will bring to the legacies of both Warren and Ronnie Scott’s?

Hopefully Freddy will be recognised as a great and important photographer who documented the start and the growth of the club from tiny basement to world renowned venue. The exhibition at the Barbican Music Library includes original vintage prints. They are completely discoloured from the smoke over the years and we retained the dust and wear and tear that they suffered.

If you visit Ronnie’s today you can still see many of Freddy’s photographs in the entrance hallway. Ronnie and Freddy were both passionate about jazz and I hope that would both be very proud of this book.

Ronnie Scott’s 1959-69 is out this month, priced £29.95, published by Reel Art Press.

The free exhibition of the same name at London’s Barbican runs until 4th January

Ronnie Stevenson Rick Laird Stan Tracey Sonny Rollins

Ronnie Stevenson Rick Laird Stan Tracey Sonny Rollins