This was originally posted by Frankie, who left E2, and I felt it was too good to not have here, especially as Frankie and I spent a memorable evening at Ronnie Scott's watching one of Bob Berg's final performaces. I took this w/u from Frankie, so despite my name up there, this is 100% Frankie's.
Good evening ladies and gentlemen. My name is Ronnie Scott. Thank you for your applause. I'm very impressed with the way some of you seem to be controlling yourselves. Not keeping you up, am I, Sir? No, don't move, I want to forget you just as you are.
I was at Aldgate Tube station this week. There was a man in pearls and lipstick, drinking a can of cheap beer and talking to himself while strutting up and down soliciting. I stood near him, waiting for a friend. Left and right, pin striped corporate types dodged the pair of us as they scurried from their important jobs.
In the late 1920's, Aldgate housed an equally motley crew. The crowded dockland district of London's East End was the landing place for hundreds of migrants a day. Many of them were Jewish, fleeing Pogroms in Eastern Europe either hoping to make a new life in England or else on a pit stop before their final voyage to the new world of the United States.
On January 28, 1927, Sylvia Cissie Schatt gave birth to her first child, a son for her and her husband Joseph, they named him Ronald. Joseph was a musician and Cissie a saleswoman. They lived at Number 33 South Tenter Street, a stones throw from Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, in a tiny terraced house that more than likely still stands today. Maybe one day I'll go and look and come back and tell you about the knocker on the front door and how big the windows are. In 1927 this was the heart of one of the biggest Jewish communities in Europe. Not surprising then, Joseph was of Russian Jewish lineage.
Jock Scott, an alto-saxophonist in the fashionable dance-band genre, lead a lifestyle that P.Diddy would be proud of. Good looking, snappy dressing, practical joking, talented and as interested in gambling and women as he was in music. Jock's career and his indiscretions kept him away from the family home that Cissie and her mother, Rebecca, tried to create, for long periods. Eventually, in 1930, Joseph left and did not return. Little Ronnie was three and his mother returned to work - at a department store - with Nana Becky looking after the toddler.
Though lacking a father, Ronnie did not lack for paternal influences. Ronnie's family made sure that his young mind was exposed to a rich array of influences, including Jock's brother Dave who played the violin in a dance-band. Ronnie also had a gambling Uncle Harry, who would sought his fortune on the ponies. Uncle Gypsy Rafie was also in the racing trade, selling tips for a sixpence down in Petticoat Lane. Ronnie's Aunt Julie and her Romanesque husband, Uncle Muchie, were hoteliers. Grandpa Samuel took Ronnie to the Portuguese Synagogue in Alie Street -- if it's still there, it's not marked in the London A-to-Z.
In 1935, Cissie married Solomon Berger, a diligent and devoted tailor. Later that year, Ronnie acquired a half-sister, Marlene. They moved a few miles north to Stoke Newington (think High Fidelity) with it's slightly less crowded streets and occasional parks. In 1940, just before the beginning of The Blitz, they moved to Edgeware in suburban North West London. While German planes bombed his old playgrounds, Ronnie abandoned his music and pondered the wonders of aeronautics.
Planes were just a passing phase, however, and Ronnie's childhood had instilled in him a solid love for music. Passing a junk shop one day, his eye caught a battered comet held together with black tape, which he bought for five shillings. Soon after, he acquired his first saxophone, a soprano, in a similar fashion. Like most of us, Ronnie's enthusiasm belied the quality of the sound he was producing, and Cissie turned to some old friends. They pointed her and Sol to a silver plated tenor sax with a gold bell, which they bought for their son.
During the 20's and 30's, while people were flocking to the Land of Hope and Glory, it seems only the music was coming back. Sidney Bechet visited London in the 20's, paving the way for Louis Armstrong (1932) and Duke Ellington (1933). In Jewish youth clubs like the Steney and the Oxford and St George's, teenagers could rub shoulders with rising celebrities like Vidal Sassoon and Mike and Bernie Winters while listening to records on the gramophone and paying billiards. In one of these clubs, Ronnie met Tony Crombie, an aspiring drummer. Crombie's pedigree was also packed with musicians: his mother was a cinema organist, his father a pianist, his uncle a drummer. Tony and Ronnie were to remain lifelong friends.
Cissie and Sol paid for Ronnie to attend saxophone lessons with Jack Lewis (father-in-law to Vera Lynn) in Stamford Hill, around the corner from Stoke Newington. Ronnie was a fast learner, and supplemented his musical education after leaving school by working as a packer at the Keith Prowse organisation, dealers in records, instruments and sheet music. The war was still raging, but the entertainment scene in London was alive and well. With many of his contempories still in the armed forces, an inexperienced Ronnie started picking up occasional gigs.
Tony Crombie was helping to carry the drums for Flash Winston, was a young drummer already working the West End clubs and the glamorous Soho dives. Crombie found work in the Bouillabaisse, a black club playing swing-based jazz and calypso music. Ronnie was enthralled, and began hanging in the alleyways and looking longingly down the stairways into the decadent basement clubs. Sometimes he'd take the last tube home, and sometimes he wouldn't, instead spending all night in the Lyons Corner House, just off Leicester Square, drinking tea with the musicians. Ronnie was well aware that he was walking the same streets as his father, but he never did bump into him.
A Paying Gig
In 1942, a fifteen year old Ronnie sat in with the blind drummer, Carlo Krahmer, and his band. He made an awful racket, but Krahmer saw a flicker of something in his style, and offered him a two-week gig the following year. Ronnie didn't know the tunes, but he did good. When he told his mother, she was less than impressed, but luckily for you and me, she didn't try to put him off a career in music. By his late teens, the passionate fire of music burned brightly in his soul, leading him fearlessly through the burning streets of London's East End.
In Oxford Street's Feldman Club, Art Pepper told Ronnie to listen out for Charlie Parker. American musicians were a world away to Ronnie, who was focused on the local stars: band leader Johnny Claes and saxophonist Reggie Dare. Dare's mellow sound and smooth phrasing swing left a lasting impression on Ronnie: these were to become his trademark.
Denis Rose, a friend of Tony Crombie's and second trumpeter for Claes' band, was an up-and-coming player in East End circles, with a special understanding of the new bebop. Rose spent much of his spare time listening to records and transcribing ideas on the piano. Ronnie joined Claes' band in October 1944, when still only 17, and went on tour. It was his first time away from his parents' home, which affected him more than you would expect given his nocturnal lifestyle.
When the war ended, Ted Heath hired Ronnie for his swing-band orchestra and paid him a fine salary. A pretty brunette, Joan Crewe, taught him to dance at a Hammersmith Palais gig, and stole his heart. Ronnie was a bop man, and Heath's music wasn't bop. On a Sunday in January 1947, Ronnie and Tony were with friends in Carlo Krahmer's flat in Bloomsbury, just off Oxford Street, where they were listening to American import records. A particular saxophone break caught their ear and they played it over and over: it was Charlie Yardbird Parker, Bird. Ronnie knew from that moment that his days with Heath's orchestra were numbered.
Heath disagreed, but after a few choicely placed bop solos and missing a gig, Ronnie got himself fired. He quickly got a job at Coconut Grove -- dubbed Coconut Grave by musicians -- on Regent Street, the heart of the West End. Ronnie and his fellow musicians would race motorbikes in the back streets during intervals to alleviate their boredom. Eventually that wasn't enough, so they packed their bags and went to the home of the greats: New York City.
New York was a world away from London. Devoid of post-war rationing, it was faster, harder, bigger and fatter than the London scene. They club hopped on 52nd Street, living breathing, laughing, singing, shouting, playing, arguing and listening to modern jazz. Ronnie heard Charlie Parker and Miles Davis in the Three Deuces club on 52nd Street, Sixth Avenue side, and noted that London did not have a club that could compare.
Setting the London Scene
Back home, the Londoners found Mac's Rehearsal Rooms in a tatty basement opposite the Windmill Theatre in Windmill Street, close to Archer Street, where musicians were bought and sold. They were just around the corner from Krahmer's flat where he had first heard Charlie Parker and Ronnie's life had changed. The regulars were Ronnie, Johnny Dankworth, Tony Crombie, Laurie Morgan, Hank Shaw, Leon Calvert, Lennie Bush, Joe Muddell, Tommy Pollard, Bernie Fenton, Johnny Rogers -- occasionally Denis Rose -- and photographer Harry Morris, who became the unofficial doorman. Dubbed Club Eleven, it opened on December 11, 1948, London's first all-jazz club, run by musicians for musicians.
Club Eleven was a dump, but, as we say in Afrikaans, it was a dumb with houding -- personality, atmosphere. Today it would rock, in 1950 it swung. The musicians packed their reputation in their bags and moved west, to the more upmarket location of 50 Carnaby Street. The post-war era had opened up the streets to drugs, and the thuggery that go with them. Club Eleven was raided in April 1950 and Ronnie was amongst the musicians arrested and locked up in the slammer over night. The club was closed down shortly afterwards, but the group of musicians were not to be stopped.
Carlo Krahmer set up a record label called Esquire and recorded Ronnie Scott, Johnny Dankworth and Victor Feldman, amongst others. Ronnie was developing his style and receiving rave reviews. His delicate, muted and fragile style had been influenced by hearing a teenage Stan Getz in 1948; Ronnie was a master mimicker.
International labour rules kept American musicians out of Britain in the 50's, but on March 8, 1953, a charity concert was held in aid of flood relief. Lester Young, Oscar Peterson, Flip Phillips and Ella Fitzgerald were on the bill. Ronnie was privileged to join Lester Young in his dressing room after the show, where the great saxophonist showed Ronnie a thing or two. ON THE SAX. The concert reaffirmed in Ronnie's mind the need for a venue to bring the American greats to London.
Ronnie was leading a band and winning awards -- in 1953 he won the Melody Maker tenor saxophone poll for the fourth time, earning over 1,500 more votes than his nearest rival. The band was growing a following, based as much on the music as on the leader's humorous interludes to the songs. Pete King described Ronnie as young, good-looking, bright; he had a good dress sense. He was made to be a bandleader.
Still, mainstream success was not in the offering. The BBC would not broadcast the band's music because it was too modern. Between 1955 and 1957, Ronnie suffered two breakups: Joan Crewe left him and his bad fell apart. Rock 'n Roll hit the scene, and 55 year old Jock Scott committed suicide, leaving an adult Ronnie to ponder what might have been.
It wasn't all doom and gloom, however. Teenage Tubby Hayes asked to sit in on a club date and proved to be the best bop saxophonist Ronnie had heard outside America. With him, Ronnie formed the Jazz Couriers, a sharp and technically accomplished group. Towards the end of the decade, Ronnie and Pete King occasionally played 39 Gerrard Street in Chinatown, also just off Leicester Square. In October 1959, 39 Gerrard Street became better known as Ronnie Scott's Club.
Welcome to Ronnie Scott's
A year before his club opened, Ronnie had been interviewed by Melody Maker, where he'd voiced his dream:
I'd like to see a new type of jazz club in London, a well-appointed place which was licensed and catered for people of all ages and not merely for youngsters.
Pete King was a full-time promoter and agent when 39 Gerrard Street came up for offer. Ronnie borrowed £1,000 from Sol and Pete King's father-in-law who was a carpenter, came down from Manchester to help with the furnishings. Opening night saw a bill with hedged bets: new radical Tubby Hayes coupled with mainstream drummer Jack Parnell.
The club was informal and did not charge nightclub scale fees. International musicians occasionally dropped by to wish Ronnie and Jack well. All-night sessions became a regular feature, drawing after-hours players. During the day, the club was used as an actors' studio by the likes of Maggie Smith, Michael Caine, Georgina Brown and Lindsay Anderson. The club was doing well enough, but filling the bill six nights a week with interesting musicians was a challenge The club needed to fulfil Ronnie's dream of it being a haven for visiting Americans.
With Unionism in the United States still in full-swing, getting the Americans over was a challenge. Having first won support from the British Musicians' Union, King headed to New York to meet American union boss James Little Caesar Petrillo to discuss swapping Tubby Hayes for Zoot Sims. Eventually Petrillo consented, and the exchange took place in November 1961. The proprietors were almost more excited than the patrons, and the exchange was a resounding success, paving the way for the future.
Lucky Thompson was the first black American to visit the club, followed in September 1962 by Dexter Gordon, who had a marvelous on-stage banter with Ronnie. In 1963, Roland Kirk visited the club. Kirk was a blind multi-instrumentalist from Columbus, Ohio, a real one-man-band. One night after enduring heckling from a critic Steve Race, whom Kirk knew to be a pianist, Kirk insisted he join him on stage to play with him. It was obvious to all that Race was out of his depth and no doubt he was more mindful of his criticism in future. The Beatles came to Ronnie Scott's to hear Kirk -- the year they had five chart hits. When Kirk was introduced to the British jazz showcase, Tubby Hayes, he remarked He's very fast, but the best player I've heard here is Ronnie Scott.
Bring on the Greats
I could now go on a great diversion describing at length all the people who visited Ronnie Scott's, but this writeup is about the man, not the club. Still, the success of the club is how our generations came to know the man. The mid-60's were an awesome time: Sonny Stitt, Duke Ellington, Ben Webster, Roland Kirk, and then one of Ronnie's all-time favourites: Theodore Walter Sonny Rollins, who became a regular in 1965. Rollins was particularly impressed by his local accompanist, Stan Tracy, and quipped to the press Does anybody here know how good he really is?
Bill Evans, who had joined Miles Davis on the Kind of Blue album, formed part of an ensemble hired in March 1965. He requested the hire of a grand piano, to replace the battered and quirky upright played masterfully by Stan Tracy. West End piano hire companies were mortified at the suggestion, drinks will get spilled on it, girls will sit on it. They ended up borrowing a piano from a friend. Evans' playing justified the trouble.
Success of Ronnie Scott's lead to a public expectation. Flying in American stars did not come cheap, but there is only so much you can charge 150 guests for the privilege of hearing them play. Still, moving shop comes at a price, but Harold Davidson helped by providing a £35,000 loan. In the summer of '65, Ronnie Scott's moved to its present day home at 47 Frith Street. The new venue was a success and the American greats continued to grace its mic, with Miles Davis making his only appearance in the late 60's.
Approaching his 40th birthday, Ronnie Scott was not at his best. Being the most famous jazz club owner in the world had eclipsed his own musical career and he was in the eighth year of a relationship with Mary, a 25 year old who worked in the club and wanted children. In September 1972, Mary gave birth to Rebecca, named after Ronnie's grandmother.
Sadly, when Ronnie took on his father's stage name, he took on his ways as well. When Rebecca was just 18 months old, Ronnie began an affair with a waitress at the club and Mary fled from their Fulham flat to New York, taking Rebecca with her. Ronnie went from bad to worse, filling the void with the bottle and sedatives. His playing was suffering and at Christmas 1974 he broke a finger removing an unsavory from the club. Unable to play his sax, Ronnie took an overdose. Henry Cohen, the club's bouncer, broke down the door of his flat, which saved him, and he ended up in rehab for months. Mary returned with Rebecca for a spell, but stayed with Pete and Stella King.
The 70's were not the best years for the club, but the greats still came - both to play and to listen. Dizzy Gillespie was one of Ronnie's favourites. The audience included Spike Milligan, a regular, and Princess Margaret, during the prime of her social butterfly years. But at the end of the 70's things were still not much better: an unexpected £40,000 VAT bill and another bad-news liaison for Ronnie with a much younger lady. King was the businessman at the club, and it was he that Island Records boss Chris Blackwell approached to offer a £25,000 investment. The Musicians' Union also paid homage to the club with a £30,000 loan. The club landed on its feet.
Into the 80's, Nina Simone became a regular on the bill. Ronnie played the Havana Jazz Festival, which went down a success, and opened the doors to Cuban music in Frith Street. In 1985, some of the Club Eleven crew decided to stage a reunion gig. Denis Rose and Tommy Pollard had passed away, and Ronnie was less than enthusiastic about being reminded of his upcoming 60th birthday. Two bands were put together, lead by Johnny Dankworth and Ronnie Scott, and played brilliantly on Sunday September 1, 1985.
Jazz becomes the new Pink
The club found financial success, but at age 59, Pete King had a heart attack. King was visited at his hospital bed by an array of jazz legends, including Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey, to the point that it got out of hand and only Ronnie and King's immediate family were allowed in. King recovered, and in the process realised that the club could function without him, while Ronnie realised that he was not interested in getting involved in the business side of the club.
Ronnie and King were unphased by the late-80's jazz revival, but they could not escape its benefits. The BBC put on a documentary celebrating the club's 30th birthday which featured Sonny Rollins, Mel Brooks, Kenneth Clarke and John Prescott. Ronnie was interviewed by the Guardian newspaper:
Those people were idols for us. And when those guys came here it was a chance to see they were human, that they were wonderful - and that sometimes they fuck up like everybody else. Audiences have been able to understand the approach of some of these great players to their music - you can get the content off records, but not the approach. It never stops being an education to me.
In 1991, Alan Sartori and Barry Sherwin struck a deal with Ronnie and King and opened a Ronnie Scott's in Birmingham. The same year, he went to Buckingham Palace and received an OBE in recognition of his services to jazz. He and his friends joked that OBE stood for "Other Bastards' Efforts".
The rest of the 90's were bitter sweet. Ronnie was in a relationship, but she lived in the United States. The new stars, like Mark Knopfler, Bob Berg and Joshua Redman, flocked to Ronnie Scott's doors, but many of the old greats were passing on. By 1995, Ronnie had dental problems and treatment was slow, painful and not always successful: he was losing the ability to play the sax. His depression returned, as did his drinking.
Rebecca came to spend Christmas 1996 with her father, who was now taking medication for thrombosis and insomnia. On December 23, 1996, Rebecca found him dead, collapsed in his Fulham flat. His death made front-page news.
The Show Must Go On
Today, Ronnie Scott's club is alive and well in Frith Street, still run by Pete King. It celebrated its 40th Anniversary in 1997 and continues to host the best jazz musicians in the world. Footprints and I visited it in September and listened to Four Walls of Freedom with Bob Berg and Gary Novak.
Source: The Story of Ronnie Scott's, a 40th Anniversary Celebration publication