Close your eyes and imagine London without its dark little secrets.
Don’t worry, why would you want to. To imagine such a London is like imagining a family without its drug-addled aunts and uncles no one speaks off. What would be the point? It would be a little dull indeed.
The Cellar Door jazz bar on Essex Street, just a couple of blocks south of Covent Garden, is certainly one of the most decadent little secrets in town as not many people seem to know about it which is a shame in some ways but selfishly, I was a little pleased about this. It occupies a tiny subterranean converted space that once was a Victorian gentleman’s convenience.
The entrance is quite non descript and in fact, unless you knew it was there, you could scurry past it many times without knowing it was there. In fact, I had mistaken it for the entrance to some underground construction site as you can see below:
My friend and I indeed walked past this spot several times looking for it at night until I saw a remarkably well dressed man descend down the steps at 7pm. Either he was a ghost or someone who didn’t mind getting his threads dirty in an underground sewer. I deduced he was neither and on closer inspection, I saw a very small poster on one of the perspex panels. It was then I knew we had found the right spot.
We made our way down and through the black doors and into a world of black sobrieny and shimmering rose-red where we were greeted by a hostess who took us to our table. The interior decor put me in mind of all those 1920’s Berlin and 1950’s Soho cabaret clubs that we have seen in dozens of movies and retro-television depictions but a lot smaller. At first, it seemed a lot bigger but the far walls were decked in floor to ceiling mirrors that gave a false but welcome sense of roominess otherwise it would have felt a little claustrophobic.
Just enough room to swing a cat in more than ways than one.
We took our seats. There were only a dozen or so people in. A mixture of city girls catching up with one another over salads, night time prowlers, couples, city types, office workers delaying the homebound train until as late as possible and two very intense looking Chinese businessmen with white shirts open and ties so distressingly undone that they looked like tightly coiled wires of stress.
We were there for the evening’s entertainment, Kitty La Roar and Nick of Time in the longstanding Kit Kat Kabaret evening of decadant jazz and swing. The black curtains in the corner were opened to reveal Nick on keyboards, a saxophonist and Kitty herself.
She looked like Betty Draper from Madmen meets Marilyn Monroe. She looked every inch the tragic bottle blonde. Her mannerisms, facial expressions and stance were almost cartoonlike in their faithful representation of the eras that her chosen musical genre incubated in. I dont mean that in a negative way however. I had felt I had timetravelled to that certain past of the smoked-filled 20th century and had come face to face with one of it’s citizen femmes fatales.
The lights dimmeds, the cocktails were served, the ice cubes chattered and the music started.
Jazz and swing standards, infused with experimentation, improvisation and original numbers filled the next couple of hours with the most perfectly and enigmatically executed jazz and swing performance I have seen for a very long time. These were artists at the top of their field. Being at close quarters magnified the force of the impact. This was an evening of sultry, sexy jazz in a sumptious, glitzy little cabal of a retro yet sleek winebar. As the evening wore on, more people melted in from the outside and I think there were no more than forty people present at any one time.
Kitty La Roar is no work-a-day jazz singer. She has performed for Hugh Hefner and Prince Ranier of Monico as well as much bigger audiences. I doubt very much Kitty La Roar is her real name but I want it to be her real name.
She seemed to much in character to be a real person. I couldnt imagine her shopping for ready meals in a Tesco Metro or queuing up to have her gas card being topped up. She only comes into existence when the lights go down and the music strikes up. She does not come on stage but is conjured. She doesn’t so much as perform but embody a bygone age and sling it into the far future which we occupy right now. Her highheels, each a dagger that has speared a man’s heart or twenty, sharpening on each and every note ready for the next lady-kill.
She was jazz. She was swing. She was night-time itself.
Later on that night, an older man sat down in front of me. He wore a shades, a hat and what looked like a sheepskin jacket. Many people made their way to him to greet and pay homage to him. I have no idea who he was but he seemed to be a face. My friend and I exchanged many postulations and imaganeerings of who he might be. A gangster, an impressario, a major artist?
Who knows and I don’t want to know. In my mind he was presumed-dead gangster who faked his own death and only spends his time amongst a small coterie of the entrusted. Who were these people? He was adulated by scruff and Savile-row alike before they slinked back to their seats moments later.
At around eleven, the performance segued to its conclusion and fini.
My friend and I had trains to catch so with sadness, we gathered our coats, scarves and bags and left and made our way back to the real world above. I emerged too quickly as I felt the onset of artistic bends forming bubbles in my blood.
How the cold air of this February evening felt like the kiss of an aunt hot on the heels of being kissed by a vampiress.I’ve always maintained that the singular fatal flaw of addiction is that it opens up the doors of rooms that are beautiful but forbidden and it’s the devil himself to leave them. Sure, we can leave them but the memory of their evil splendour can never be got rid off.
That was how I felt on my way to Covent Garden tube station, snaking through the snakes and dancing past the detritus of the night. I kissed my friend goodbye as she went eastwards on the Jublilee and I westwards to Green Park. On my way back to my hotel, I felt deflated at being flung back into the arms of the ordinary world I had only a few hours earlier, took leave off but yet I was still in a mellow haze and I never felt so chilled out in such a long time.
Jazz like that beats valium any day of the month.
A mesmorizing performance and only for a tenner entrance fee too and the drinks menu was surprisingly reasonable in price.
So, you might be wondering, is held on the other nights of the week. At the time of this going to press, The Cellar Door plays host to burlesque, drag nights, Saturday afternoons of ‘High Tea and Tease’ which includes card games and magic and open-mic night on Tuesdays.
If you love jazz or the sultry-but-ever-so-slightly-seedy but in a respectable and safe and kosher setting, I cannot recommend The Cellar Door enough. I will be setting many scenes in this bar in my next novel such was my inspiration.
As I alluded to earlier in this review, I get the impression not many people know about this place. It’s a shame but like that free car parking spot you found that’s handy to work, why spoil it by telling everyone.
My many many thanks to my dear friend Fiorina for recommending this! It always takes an Italian to recognise a class act I always say!