Once musical director for Berwick Kaler’s pantos, now James Pearson returns to York Theatre Royal with Ronnie Scott’s All Stars

James Pearson: Artistic director of Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club and musical director The Ronnie Scott’s All Stars…with a pantomime past in York

JAMES Pearson leads The Ronnie Scott’s All Stars on his return to York Theatre Royal tonight.

Artistic director at London’s legendary Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, where his trio are the house band, he has worked with Paul McCartney, Dame Cleo Laine, Maria Ewing, Jeff Beck, Petula Clark, Wynton Marsalis, Dave Stewart, Buddy Greco, Richard Rodney Bennett, Ray Davies, Nigel Kennedy, Robbie Williams, Rufus Wainwright, Gregory Porter, Imelda May and…York pantomime dame Berwick Kaler.

“I’d left the Guildhall School of Music & Drama when Mick Foster, who was the York panto’s saxophone player, from Harrogate, and was at college with me, got me the chance to play keyboards for Mother Goose,” says pianist and composer James.

Subsequently he was the musical director for Aladdin in 1997-1998 and Beauty & The Beast the next winter. “I did enjoy Berwick’s ‘Me babbies, me bairns’ and the Wagon Wheel throwing,” he says. “The atmosphere was a riot! A lot of the music was scored, but you always had to have your wits about you because Berwick would go off-piste.

“The reason a lot of jazz musicians do panto is that you have to improvise. Like if someone walks across in a funny manner, it’s highlighted by the drummer doing a flip-flop sound.

“I particularly enjoyed it as I got to spend ten weeks in York each year. I’m from Hertfordshire but I know York well because my sister, Kate, lives in Sheriff Hutton, and went to the University of York, where she met her husband, Daniel. Now they both teach music there. I must have been coming to York on and off for 30 years.”

James began working at Ronnie Scott’s club in 2006, becoming the artistic director the following year. “I’m largely responsible for its output both in and out of the club,” he says.

Tonight, he is at the piano for The Ronnie Scott’s Story, whose two 45-minute sets by The Ronnie Scott’s All Stars combines live jazz, narration and rare archive photos of Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis and video footage from the 1960s and ’70s. “Putting the series of pictures and footage together really helps it become an accessible show,” says James.

Set among the dive bars and jazz jook joints of London’s Soho, the show recalls the desperate hand-to-mouth finances of the early years and the frequent police raids. 

You will hear how Ronnie Scott’s became neutral ground within rife gang territory and their scrapes with gangsters, not least the Krays, who were rumoured to have taken Ronnie and Pete “for a little drive”.

James Pearson, left, performing with The Ronnie Scott’s All Stars

“The Krays tried to take over the club in 1965 when they were looking to get a London venue before they became The Krays as we came to know them. They went to Earl’s Court instead and then tried to get a foothold in the West End. There was always a strange relationship with gangs with their links with the jazz world.”

Life at Ronnie Scott’s is reimagined through tales of the club’s past visitors, from pop stars, film stars and politicians to comedians and royalty, but above all, the musicians.

“The thing about Ronnie Scott’s is, firstly, its history and legacy. Even though no-one has smoked there for years, it still feels smoky.

“Then there’s the intimacy, where the audience are so close to the stage, three feet from Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder…Lady Gaga…Prince.

“When Stevie Wonder came, he was just in the audience and then got on stage to play with the house band. Sting has done that too. That’s one of the great things about jazz: it’s free style.

“After Lady Gaga’s second London show with Tony Bennett had to be cancelled, because she absolutely loves performing, she asked if there was any way she could play here.

“She parked her gold Rolls Royce outside the club, and because you can’t really do a Lady Gaga gig secretly, the press were there waiting for her.”

Tonight’s show is built around music from the jazz greats who have performed at Ronnie Scott’s over its 60 years and more, complemented by stories of old Soho and miscreant musicians.

Look out, in particular, for Natalie Williams performing the songs of Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald and saxophone player Alex Garnett, who likes to tell old Ronnie Scott jokes as the boss was famous for his humour.

James is delighted to be performing in York once more. “We loved doing the Ronnie Scott’s shows in the Parliament Street spiegeltent at the Great Yorkshire Fringe,” he says. “It was such a lovely festival and it’s sad it’s gone.”

The Ronnie Scott’s Story, York Theatre Royal, tonight at 7.30pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

The poster for The Ronnie Scott’s All Stars, featuring vocalist Natalie Williams and saxophonist Alex Garnett