It’s a Monday night in a London club – onstage Lionel Richie is singing his greatest hits. Waiting in the wings is Chaka Khan. Listening and watching with total absorption are Amy Winehouse and Joss Stone. On a sofa in the corner, baseball cap pulled down over his eyes, is Leonardo Di Caprio, in the middle of the room are Tim Robbins, Orlando Bloom and Brad Pitt. In the corner sit Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera. By the bar the US Olympic athletics team is chatting with English soccer stars and being entertained by resident magician Dynamo. Behind a pillar lurks Spike Lee – straight from the airport comes Samuel L. Jackson, pausing only to dump his suitcases in the cloakroom. Fantasy? No, just an encapsulation of 8 exciting years at London’s most exclusive and little known Monday night entertainment. From 1999 to 2006 at an upstairs room in the heart of London’s West End, an unbelievable array of superstars performed with a handpicked house band for an invited audience – and none of them were paid a penny. And if you think I’m exaggerating, here’s a partial list of performers who graced the stage – R. Kelly, Lionel and Chaka, The Roots, Pharell, Black Eyed Peas, Nas, Sean Paul, Jah Rule, Narada Michael Walden, Shalamar, Chic, Roy Ayers, Sugar Hill Gang, Will Smith, Chris Tucker, Eddie Griffin, Macy Grey, Joss Stone, Wyclef Jean, Blu Cantrell, Angie Stone, Shaquille O’Neal, Mario, Tyreece and of course Amy Winehouse. Plus the best of British soul and pop.
So how did this all start? Well back in the 60s I cut my teeth jamming in various clubs around London. In those days it was very easy to play with the likes of Peter Green, Jimi Hendrix, Kevin Ayers, Keith Moon. Either you would be playing in a club and they would ask to sit in, or you would go to their gig and ask to sit in. Having a saxophone made it easier – they were rarities on the rock and blues scene. You’d get maybe one number as a test, then if they liked you, an invitation to stay for the whole show and to return for the next gig – sometimes even to appear on record. (My first album appearance was a blues LP recorded in a day for a budget label with various members of Fleetwood Mac) Bands like Kokomo and Gonzales continued this jamming tradition in the London club scene of the 70s, centred around the Speakeasy Club, which actively encouraged off duty rock stars to let their hair down and jam alongside their peers.
However, some time in the mid 70s, things began to change. Managers and minders appeared on the scene, the bands moved up a gear into the Enormodomes of Spinal Tap, and interaction between bands virtually ceased. And the arrival of the synthesizer seemed to toll the death knell for the jamming scene – quite often in the 80s I came across pop stars who had never performed live, let alone interacted with other musicians. So by the mid 90s, when I was ready to emerge from the studios and start playing my sax again on a regular basis, I found that, apart from the jazz scene, there was nowhere I or other like minded musicians could go just to jam with each other. A chance meeting in Amsterdam with one time Michael Jackson choreographer and dancer Patrick Alan (he’s one of the ‘leaners’ in the Smooth Criminal video) lit the fire again. Patrick had run successful singers’ nights in both Los Angeles and New York, and I had played at the China Club in LA with such notables as Skunk Baxter and Bruce Willis! Out of our meeting was borne a plan – to revive the jam session in London. We approached the 10 Room in the heart of central London and they were willing to give us Monday nights – traditionally the deadest night of the week for nightclubs. But we were in luck – the show Top of the Pops filmed on Wednesdays, which meant that most US acts appearing were flown in on Mondays. It just needed some good word of mouth, coupled with the best band that could be assembled at the time, and soon the club became the must attend for all visiting US artistes. Just how much of an institution we became was brought home to me by a friend who flew from Edinburgh to London on a Monday morning seated behind the US Athletics team. One was heard to ask ‘where are we going tonight in London?’ An old hand, probably Maurice Greene, responded ‘there’s only one place to be in London on a Monday, the 10 Room of course!’ Sure enough when she arrived at the club that night, there was the US team. Spike Lee would arrange his London visits to arrive on a Sunday to make sure he could be at the club, while Samuel L. Jackson used to come straight from London Airport. And no one would turn down the chance to perform with our amazing house band (Amy Winehouse, a regular performer before and after her fame, took the band en masse to be her touring group, and they stayed with her till the end.) Only Dave Matthews tried and failed (too much hospitality!) but everyone else managed magnificently, instantly gelling with the band and our talented backing vocalists. And with photographers of the caliber of Tim Holt and Harrison Funk on hand to capture the moments, we now have a treasure trove of photos and memories.
The club ran its course and is now a luxury hotel catering to the tourist trade. But our nights didn’t stop – we moved to the Pigalle and hosted Prince and the New Power Generation and helped kick start another young talent – the mercurial Jessie J. And still we continue around London, giving opportunities to talented young musicians to meet and jam with their peers – in fact this is where I came in!