The Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho is one of the most iconic music venues in London. Since 1976 this small and intimate basement setting has hosted thousands of world-renowned jazz artists, including Norah Jones, Amy Winehouse, Jamie Cullum and Gregory Porter, as well as encouraging emerging artists. It has won many awards and was named ‘Venue of the Year’ in both 2015 and 2016 by London Lifestyle Awards.
When Peter Boizot founded Pizza Express in 1965, opening his first restaurant in Wardour Street, Soho, it was revolutionary. After enjoying pizza in Italy, he brought back a pizza oven from Naples and a pizzaiolo (specialist pizza chef) from Sicily and introduced Italian pizza to London. Now there are 470 restaurants in UK and 100 overseas.
In this age of the fashionable artisan pizza with places like Pizza Pilgrims and Franco Manca, amongst many others, opening across UK, it’s easy to forget quite how special Pizza Express was. It really was the nearest you’d get to an authentic Italian pizza for a long, long time. Now that I can get wonderful pizza made by Italians just a few minutes walk away from my home in Twickenham at Masaniello and Ruben’s Bakehouse, I have to say that the Pizza Express pizza has lost a bit of its shine for me but I haven’t forgotten its heritage. But then I’m old enough to remember when it was ‘the’ place to go!
I didn’t think I’d been to the Soho jazz club before but had a vague memory of eating in the upstairs restaurant back in my pre-children publishing days and talking about there sometimes being jazz downstairs; now there’s jazz every night. The jazz club was one of those places I’d always meant to go to but never made it. Thus when my friend Linda told me that the well-known American tenor saxophonist, Scott Hamilton, was playing at the Soho venue this first week of January, and would I like to go with her and George, then I was very excited. George plays saxophone and it’s always a delight to hear him practising when I’m staying with them at their Spanish home as I’ve always loved the sound. He introduced me to Scott Hamilton’s music a couple of years ago and I liked it so much I’ve bought three CDs since then, which I play a lot.
A table was booked. Linda’s brother and his wife, who I know, came too and thus five of us settled down for an evening of sparkling jazz last night – and, of course, some pizza!
The basement area is quite small and this intimacy is, for me, a perfect setting for jazz. Doors opened at 7.00pm and the music was due to begin at 8.30. Thus we had plenty of time to eat first. The menu is the standard Pizza Express one. We ordered a plate of antipasti and some dough balls to share; wine and some Pellegrino water.
We didn’t actually all have pizza: Linda and her brother had salads. I chose Soho65 – a pizza obviously dedicated to the chain’s roots, though quite modern in its approach with fresh rocket on top of a base of tomato sauce, mozzarella and black olives, dressed with olive oil.
We’d finished eating by the time the music began. The already low lights were further lowered and we were almost in darkness. Scott Hamilton plays here a lot and has a regular UK support group of musicians with John Pearce on piano, Dave Green on bass and Steve Brown on drums. Born on Rhode Island in 1954, Hamilton began playing at venues there in the 1970s before moving to New York. He toured with Benny Goodman and accompanied singer Rosemary Clooney. By the ’80s he’d formed his own quintet and started touring the world. He’s still touring, regularly going to Germany, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Japan and Italy as well as Spain where George had seen him before. Hamilton plays classic jazz including old standards as well as originals. The quartet’s latest album is Dean Street Nights.
We had a good view from our table and it was really great to be so close to such a fabulous musician in a crowd of like-minded jazz enthusiasts.
They played for about an hour and then took a short break. Hamilton sat at the bar at the far end of the room with a ‘helper’ who was selling some of the CDs. The saxophonist was very friendly, chatting away to everyone in a relaxed way and that made the experience all the more special. I bought a couple more CDs to add to my collection.
The quartet played on well past the official finishing time, but this is jazz, this informality, this sense of some friends gathered to enjoy some fabulous music but this time with one of the world’s greats to play for us. It had been a wonderful evening and I’m now full of enthusiasm to head back to the Pizza Express Jazz Club very soon!