Now came the time for Ronnie to make his dream come true, and with a thousand pounds borrowed from his stepfather Sol, Ronnie and Pete opened Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club on Friday October 30, 1959, at 39, Gerrard Street in Soho. They furnished the club with second-hand tables and chairs and hired a piano. The annual membership was 10 shillings (50p), and admission one shilling and sixpence (7½p). The advertisement, which appeared in Melody Maker, announced on the opening night the following musicians would play. Tubby Hayes Quartet, the Eddie Thompson Trio, Stan Roberts, Spike Heatley, a young (19) alto saxophonist Pete King (no relation), and an old tenor saxophonist, Ronnie Scott. Ronnie’s wry sense of humour came out when he stated; ‘It’s the first appearance in a jazz club by Jack Parnell, since the relief of Mafeking.”
Their idea was to present the best of British jazz music, Stan Tracey was the house pianist until 1967, and during the mid-sixties, Ernest Raglin was the house guitarist. In an interview in Melody Maker, Ronnie stated this about the club; “Too many clubs degenerate into ‘jiving palaces, where it is difficult to appreciate what is happening on the stand. Here, there will be plenty of room to sit and listen – and see the musicians.”
The clubhad no liquor license, and as people couldn’t dance, attendances were low making it difficult to break even, let alone make a profit. Ronnie later stated; “First of all, we knew that we couldn’t lose money in the venture because we didn’t have any, and secondly, we didn’t know that running a jazz club was impossible. People would say to us, surely there must be easier ways of earning a living, and we would reply, ‘who’s earning a living’?” He wisecracked, “Things were going so badly that we had to sell clothes pegs to gypsies to keep in business.” As well as, “We can only wonder at how we had the cheek and temerity to plunge headlong into what has been described as a sure-fire recipe for financial disaster and a mental breakdown.”
When asked about why he wanted to open a jazz club, Ronnie stated; “I started the Club so that I could guarantee myself somewhere to play - and it’s absolutely true. If I hadn’t have been a musician, there would have been no Ronnie Scott’s Club. However, the possibility of being anything but a musician, never really occurred to me.”
During the sixties, many gangs were operating in London who demanded protection money. If you refused to pay up, they made sure you didn’t stay open for long. Not long after they opened the club, they received a visit from Albert Dimes, a notorious underworld figure. Fortunately, Dimes was a friend of Ronnie’s father who also knew him as a lad, and when he turned up with a magnum of champagne, he wished them good luck in their venture. He also offered his help in case other criminals called on them. “If anyone comes around making trouble, just ask them politely to come back tomorrow and discuss the matter with your fellow director, Mr. Albert Dimes.”
To make the club viable, Pete and Ronnie had to book the big American names to draw in the crowds. However, appearances by American musicians were prohibited in Britain by a long-standing feud between the two countries’ unions, which stopped foreign musicians appearing in the UK. This ban had been in place since the thirties, although some slipped through the net. Pete flew to America, and the discussions were tortuous, but after a marathon meeting, he managed to persuade them to lift the blanket ban, and accept an exchange system. It must have been heavy as he had this to say about the meeting. “I found myself in a room full of cigar smoke, I was introduced to a lot of men with Italian names, and they all seemed to be wearing trilby hats. They didn’t say much, but I must have said the right things because I came away with an exchange agreement for the club.”
The deal would allow British jazz musicians to play in the USA and their American counterparts to play in Britain. What also helped was the sixties American invasion of British pop groups like the Beatles. In Pete’s own words; “Suddenly, there was a demand for British music in America. We sent them Freddie and the Dreamers and Herman’s Hermits. They sent us Sonny Rollins, Wes Montgomery, Bill Evans, and Stan Getz. I’d call that a pretty good bargain.”
The first ‘swap’ was Tubby Hayes, who played the Half Note in New York, and in November 1961, the first American to play at the club was Zoot Sims. Naturally, many of Ronnie’s favourite saxophonists appeared at the club including Stan Getz, Lucky Thompson, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Al Cohn, Johnny Griffin, Sonny Stitt, Roland Kirk, Don Byas, and Ben Webster. A lot of skin must be given to Pete for his part in these negotiations as this turnaround made big changes to the lives of musicians on both sides of the Atlantic.
After the last show on Saturday night, Ronnie and Pete would meet up to decide whether they had enough money to open the following Monday. They were surfing on the wave of a large overdraft, and for them to be truly successful, they realised bigger premises, were needed. In the summer of 1965, Ronnie and Pete decided to seek out a new club. After looking around, they plumped for 47, Frith Street, which they leased from Charles Forte. Later Pete recalled; “When we were looking for new premises a couple of heavies came in one night and said they would pass on the word. Lo and behold, one of the Kray’s walked in and took us off to Knightsbridge to have a look at Esmeralda’s Barn, but it wasn’t suitable.”
Ronnie and Pete knew that new premises would be costly, and it would take more than the £1000 they borrowed to open their first club. Financial help arrived from Harold Davison to the tune of £35 000, and Pete recalled this in an interview. “I think he is a tremendous bloke, not just because he lent us the money, but because he built a lot of his business from jazz, and this was his way of giving something back.” During a conversation with Pete and, after a heavy meeting with Norman Granz (who was tight with Davison), Pete intimated that Granz too had given money to the club, and stated, he wanted a lot for his donation.
When the premises next door became available, it enabled Ronnie and Pete to expand the club, and they installed a TV in the existing downstairs bar where fans and musicians would congregate to watch football. Up Stairs, as it became known, was given over to British musicians, but the policy of having an American attraction playing downstairs and British acts upstairs didn’t work. Over the years, the musical policy of Up Stairs frequently changed and it became a venue for a disco, pop, rock music, and in the seventies, a popular venue for punk bands.
Some fans and musicians grumbled about the ‘American’ music policy, but the new place could now hold 250 people, and it was all about putting bums on seats. No matter how good British jazz musicians were, few could fill the club for a two-week residency. Both Pete and Ronnie realised early in the club’s life that it would go bust, unless they had star attractions, and it was the case of American acts or close. British jazz musicians weren’t neglected and many played opposite the American headliner, giving them the opportunity to play before a packed club.
In October 1968, The Buddy Rich Orchestra opened the refurbished premises, although it was still unfinished, there were candles on the tables, and it’s a wonder the GLC granted the club a license. Buddy Rich announced it was the first time he played in a condemned building. There was hardly a name jazz musician who didn’t play at Ronnie’s for the next three decades, as well as big bands, and how all the musicians fitted on to the tiny stage was a mystery. Count Basie, Louis Bellson, Kenny Clarke and Francy Boland, Peter Herbolzheimer, Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, as well as the Charlie Watts big band have played at the club. While Pete was watching the Watts big band, which also contained the drummers, John Stevens and Bill Eyden, he was asked for his verdict on the band. After considering his reply carefully, he replied drolly; “Not enough drummers.” The BBC recorded several series from Ronnie’s, which included Miles Davis’s only appearance at the club.
In the early eighties, there were more problems when the Customs & Excises presented the club with a VAT bill for £40 000 and forced Ronnie and Pete into administration. The inspector explained to Pete; “If you’d been shrewd businessmen, you’d have seen this coming.” To which Pete astutely replied, “If we’d been shrewd businessmen, we wouldn’t be here.” During another late-night chat with Pete in his inner sanctum, he told me that both he and Ronnie had to take out mortgages on their houses.
It was Charles Forte who saved the club, as Forte had inserted a clause in the original contract leasing the premises to Ronnie and Pete that precluded the club from being reassigned to another business. If they could find new backers and buy back the club from the administrators, they could continue. Fortunately, Pete and Ronnie had many friends, Chris Blackwell, who founded Island Records offered to help, as did the Performing Rights Society, Charrington’s Brewers and the Musicians’ Union. Following this, the club went from strength to strength, and there were no further problems for Pete and Ronnie.
Between 1974 and 1978 I was Polydor’s Jazz A & R manager and the label manager for Norman Granz’s Pablo label. When I first started attending Ronnie’s, it was a magical time, and whenever I entered the club, I felt like a ‘face’. Roxie, who sat by the front door would nod me through, and I was on first name terms with all the staff. They looked after me, and in return, I made sure they got plenty of free drinks and records. I even had my own table, which was directly in front of the stage and I could watch the great jazz from pole position. It wasn’t just the Pablo artists I went to see, for over two decades I caught most of the great jazz artists that played the club. I would treat my mates to a show whenever I could, as I didn’t have to pay for admission or drinks. Pete would invoice Polydor directly, and luckily, my bosses never queried my expenses.
Ronnie’s Maître d’ Martin Lyder was a bit part actor, and you often see him in old sixties and early seventies TV shows, like The Saint and Danger Man. He was the double of Dean Martin and knew the actor, as on occasions he’d doubled for him in his movies, and there was a signed photo from ‘Dino’ in his sound booth. Whenever I attended the club, Martin always took care of me and knew he could help himself to a drink or three and charge it to my table. He would often introduce me to any spare women and sit them at my table. One time he sat a very interesting oriental girl at my table, telling her to; “Look after Dennis he’s a good man.”
Martin would often get the names of the group leaders mixed up, and he would announce the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band as the Thad Lewis and Mel Jones band. Another time, after announcing the headline act, Martin forgot to turn up the piano mikes, and all you could hear was the rhythm section. He was often at the pointed end of Ronnie’s scathing wit who when he introduced Martin, would tell the audience. “Martin’s the best sound-man in the country, but in the city ‘kin useless,” and “Maître d’ is French for moron.”
‘Big’ Henry Cohen, a 32-stone weakling, handled the security and Ronnie would joke about him. “Henry’s suit size is two sizes bigger than Poland” and “he eats furniture for lunch.” As well as; “Henry was so ugly as a baby, his mother had to tie a pork chop around his neck so the dog would play with him.”
One Christmas, I recall an incident where Ronnie decided to do a bit of ‘bouncing’ himself. I was in the half full club early, and noticed a short man had sat himself down at one of the tables directly in front of the stage, which was highly unusual. Suddenly Ronnie appeared and told the man to leave, and when he refused, Ronnie grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and dragged him from his seat. Unfortunately, the man clung to the tablecloth and pulled everything off the table, which made Ronnie angry and he frog-marched him out to the foyer. Not giving this much thought I returned to listening to the band playing and decided to check this incident out later.
During the break, I quizzed Henry, and he explained; “Some ‘frog’ just walked into the club, didn’t pay and sat himself down at a table.” As the man was on the small side, instead of asking Henry to evict him, Ronnie decided to eject him personally. As they reached the lobby, the man began to struggle and ripped Ronnie’s spectacles out of his shirt pocket, threw them to the ground and stamped on them. His action annoyed Ronnie, and he whacked him on the back of his head, which broke a couple of his knuckles, and he had to pay a visit the local hospital. The Frenchman’s action had now drawn the attention of Henry, who executed his job in his typical professional way. The police arrived, arrested the felon, and he was incarcerated in a cell for the Christmas holidays. Ronnie returned from the hospital with his arm in a sling the hero, and we all had a good laugh at his escapade.
The atmosphere in the club was great, and whether you were a film or TV actor, sporting personality or prominent businessman, Ronnie’s was the place to be seen. One evening Jack Nicholson occupied the table next to me, he came in late wearing Rayban sunglasses and looked cool. I think he’d just finished shooting ‘China Town’. Cassius Clay came in with his entourage, and if my memory is correct, it included Mr. ‘T’, who later found fame in the TV show the ‘A-Team’. The singer Jack Jones attended the club whenever he had engagements in London. During one visit, he arrived with a friend, but the girl on the door failed to recognise his pal and insisted he pay to enter the club; Jack’s friend was Tony Bennett.
Spike Milligan popped in regularly, and one night he turned up to hear Ruby Braff and George Barnes. At the end of each tune, Spike would stand up applaud and give Ruby and George [loud] verbal encouragement. Any other member of the audience behaving in this manner would have had Henry sorting him out, but this was Spike Milligan, and they cocked a deaf ear to his behaviour. The politician’s Kenneth Clarke and John Prescott were also regulars, as well as Michael Parkinson.
While watching Joe Pass play a solo gig, Martin suddenly appeared, at my table with Oscar Peterson and Norman Granz. As soon as Joe realised they were in the club, he upped his performance, and it would be just a matter of time before he introduced them to a packed audience. I knew Joe to be a loose cannon, but I wasn’t ready for what happened next. He announced Oscar to the audience and there was a huge round of applause and following this, I expected Joe to introduce Norman. To my surprise, Joe announced my name and I received a small ripple from a much-bemused audience. My ego went up several notches until I realised the audience hadn’t a clue who I was, and while my head shrank back to normal, I started to panic and wondered just how Joe would introduce Norman. Joe rambled on for some time about what a great deal of work Norman had done for his career and jazz music. When he finally arrived at the point where he had to introduce this legendary icon of jazz, he calmly announced. “Ladies and gentleman, would you put your hands together for the best booker in the world - Norman Granz.” After dropping that bombshell, he played, ‘The Best Things In Life Are Free’. I stole a sideways glance at Norman, who was staring stonily at Joe and wondered what was going through his mind. Oscar sat tight-lipped, desperately trying not to laugh and I had visions of Polydor handing me my cards the next day.
Norman disappeared to Pete King’s office at the end of the set to discuss some business, and at last, Oscar and I could have a good laugh at Joe’s announcement. Even Oscar couldn’t believe what he’d heard and the tune Joe had chosen to play. Later, in the downstairs bar, I collared Joe and queried him about what his announcement. He muttered; “I couldn’t think of anything else to say.” I then asked, of all the tunes you could have played why an earth did you pick ‘The Best Things In Life Are Free’. He casually replied; “It was the first tune that came into my head.”
Princess Margaret often attended the club, and during one of Oscar’s appearances, I sat in the dressing room chatting to Oscar between sets. He looked a picture, as he had taken off his shirt and was cooling down in a string vest. Ronnie stuck his head round the door and announced; “HRH Princess Margaret is in tonight and she would like to meet you.” Oscar stared up at the ceiling with a bored expression on his face, replied; “OK, if I must, I’ll do it.” Then, turning to Ronnie, he asked; “Are the other fans still outside waiting to meet me.” Ronnie, who must have been wondering what was coming next replied; “Yes, they are still here.” To which, Oscar responded deadpan; “When I’m dressed bring the Princess with them.” Ronnie looked uncomfortable as this would be a breach of Royal etiquette, and not entirely sure whether Oscar was joking, and could see his OBE flying out of the window.
After winding Ronnie up a little more, Oscar finally agrees to meet the Queen’s sister at her table. I was amused by all of this and laughing at Ronnie’s predicament when Oscar turned and said; “You think this is funny, well you can accompany me.” At first, I thought he was joking, but he wasn’t, and he stated emphatically; “If I have to do my duty, so do you, after all, it’s your Royal family.” He dressed quickly, and after following Ronnie out, we headed for the Princess’s table. Oscar chatted to her for a few minutes, before turning to HRH, and to my complete embarrassment gave me a big introduction. I don’t recall whether I bowed or curtsied but at that moment, I wanted the floor to open and swallow me. When we returned to the dressing room, my embarrassment was the subject of much laughter by all who had witnessed my ‘Royal’ introduction.
Polydor’s Jazz A & R manager 1974 – 1978
Ronchi Dei Legionari, Italy.
Part One Here
Part Three Here