I’m a Londoner and while I’ve listened to live jazz in New York, Chicago, the West Coast and at numerous clubs and festivals in Europe, many of the standout moments in my live jazz listening have taken place at Ronnie Scott’s club in Soho.
Ronnie Scott and Ronnie Scott’s
“The best player I’ve heard here is Ronnie Scott” Rahsaan Roland Kirk
Ronnie Scott (1927-1996) was a complex and frequently misunderstood individual. Because his name is forever associated with his club it easy to forget how skilled and distinctive, he was as a saxophonist. Ronnie maintained a laconic and humorous public face, not least in his introductions on stage where he ran through his stock litany of one liners, it easy to forget the deep seriousness of his commitment to modern jazz and to his support and encouragement of the careers of countless jazz musicians on both sides of the Atlantic. Ronnie Scott suffered from depression and from his own less than glowing assessments of his musical talents (which were considerable) when compared to his idols-Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Dizzy Gillespie Sonny Stitt, even Stan Getz whose volatile and often unpleasant behaviour drove him mad. While taking on the perilous business or running a jazz club for over 40 years with his partner, ex-saxophonist Pete King, Ronnie continued to play and tour right up until the end.
And the end, sadly, was his suicide in 1996. In his last years Ronnie became remote and withdrawn, had problems in retaining relationships with his friends, lovers and family, and began to suffer severe problems with his embouchure, a nightmare for any saxophonist. I don’t think he ever fully understood his worth as a musician or bandleader.
Ronnie & Pete ran his eponymous club, initially in a tiny downstairs basement at 39 Gerrard Street, before the move to its current location in Frith Street. For most of that time the formula involved four, sometimes six sets of music with the opening band, very often Scott’s own quintet or an emerging British band followed by the visiting American headliner, starting at 9 and ending around 3AM. The visiting American musicians were booked solo and would be accompanied by local musicians with the great London pianist Stan Tracey almost always present. In the 60’s and 70’s Ronnie often scheduled residencies of up to two weeks offering musicians with crowded touring schedules, often endless one-nighters, a friendly and supportive environment in which to play and really stretch out. It also meant that jazz fans could listen to visiting jazz greats night after night, and many did.
A major part of the club’s uniqueness throughout the Scott/King ownership was that it was run by musicians (Ronnie & Pete) for musicians. The positivity worked in both directions. Visiting musicians, mainly from the U.S. knew and rated Ronnie, and felt comfortable in his club environment with many returning year after year. In addition to being an international class player himself Ronnie was also a fan. He booked Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt, Dizzy Gillespie or Ben Webster for long residences because he wanted to hear them and get to know them. Ronnie & Dizzy’s dressing room games of chess became a club legend.
Familiar audience members, and I was one, were not greeted at the door by anything close to a welcome, more likely a low-key insult, but that was all part of the vibe, and no umbrage was taken. It was allied to Ronnie’s distinctive schtick and drew on the unique and often seedy culture of its Soho surroundings.
In addition to being a fan Ronnie was also a promoter of home-grown talent. So often the opening sets provided opportunities for UK bands to play and share a bandstand and dressing room with jazz greats. Ronnie Scott’s was and remains the jazz venue in London where aspiring jazz musicians would want to establish their credentials, their jazz chops. And since the club opened its late-night upstairs venue, it has become the place for visiting jazz musicians to meet and jam with local players. That practice and tradition continues to this day.
I can’t think of another jazz club in Europe or the States that works or worked on that basis. In his celebrated announcements, which regular attenders became all too familiar with, Ronnie would aim gently ironic jibes at the audience and himself, but when introducing the bands, he was always serious and sometimes reverential. The club, particularly since the move to its present location at Frith Street was the perfect size and ambience for a jazz club It has a great acoustic, making those occasional magic nights where the music reached the stratosphere , the audience silent and receptive truly special. In my opinion hearing great musicians at Ronnies beats large auditorium performances every time. Jazz is always best heard in an intimate club setting.
Yusef Lateef, Stan Tracey and Rick Laird
Those countless nights were certainly special for me and in a future blog I plan to raid my memory bank for great gigs at Ronnies over the last 50 years.
I was incredibly honoured- as a regular attender and club member, to receive an invitation to Ronnie’s memorial event at St Martin’s in the Fields, just around the corner from his club. Jazz greats from around the world came to pay their respects, each happy to contribute a brief number as their personal contribution to the memorial programme. He was remembered with both deep seriousness and humour, and of course great performances of the music that he loved and devoted his life to. His plaque at Golders Green crematorium says it all,
Ronnie Scott OBE. Jazz musician, club proprietor, raconteur, and wit. He was the leader of our generation.
Ronnie Scotts Jazz Club
My curated playlist is in two parts. Firstly, a selection of live recordings of visiting jazz greats from the 1960’s. While the recording quality is not always great, they do provide a real sense of what went on on that bandstand during that era. Zoot Simms was the first American to make the trip to Soho in 1961. The Ben Webster tracks feature a two-tenor line up with Ronnie. I couldn’t resist adding a couple of live Sonny Rollins tracks from the same era, recorded live in Holland not at Ronnies. I have added a few examples of Ronnie’s own playing at that time, particularly his collaborations with the great multi-instrumentalist Tubby Hayes. If you’d like to hear Ronnie Scott in a big band setting, he was a key member of the multinational Francy Boland-Kenny Clarke big band from the mid 60’s and played on all their classic recordings.
And to finish, a few of Ronnies well-worn one-liners;
“Quieten down, you’re not here to enjoy yourselves!”
“It was so quiet last night I had the bouncer bouncing them in”
“You don’t seem very impressed. Why don’t you all hold hands and contact the living?”
“It’s the first time I’ve seen dead people smoke”
“I love this club, it’s just like home. Filthy and full of strangers”
In preparing this piece I re-read John Fordham’s excellent biography of Ronnie Scott and Ronnie Scott’s, Jazz Man. It’s still in print and I recommend it.
The photos were all taken by Freddy Warren and appear in Ronnie Scott’s 1959-69 by Graham Marsh and Simon Whittle