I think you have to have some kind of a sense of humour to be a jazz musician, or you’d go potty sitting in band coaches and trains for hours on end. But don’t think it hasn’t all been worthwhile because it hasn’t, it’s made a happy man very old.”
He would often crack jokes about the club’s chef, and tell the audience; “The chef’s half Japanese, half Negro, and every 7th of December he bombs Pearl Bailey.” As for the food, “how can you fuck up cornflakes? Ronnie would round on a punter eating and explain; “the food here must be good; a thousand flies can’t be wrong.” Going on to state; “The food in the club is untouched by human hand - the chef’s a gorilla.”
If any of the waitresses happened to be serving during his spot, he would introduce her to the audience stating; “She’s a very intelligent girl, reads a lot. I asked her what she thought of Dickens, and she replied she’d never been to one - she thought Moby Dick was a bad case of VD.” Many of the waiters and waitresses were foreign, and he joked about them. “We had a Hungarian waiter working here recently, and he didn’t understand the social security system. He used to stick Green Shield stamps on his national insurance card...he got nicked for it - the judge gave him six months and a tea set.”
Being half-Italian, when Ronnie told the next couple of jokes it always cracked me up, “Enrico’s Italian, he came to this country three years ago and couldn’t speak a word of English. Took a job working for nothing in a Jewish restaurant, and thought he was learning English. Now, he speaks great Yiddish and Italian, but no English. Enrico got married three weeks ago, and already he can hear the patter of tiny feet, his mother-in-law’s a dwarf.”
Ronnie often took the Mickey out of the audience, telling them; “It’s the first time I’ve seen dead people smoke,” and when heckled, he would look the person in the eye and dryly state; “I see you’re drinking on an empty head again sir.” He would announce the star attraction as “whatsisname, and he will be back on the stand shortly; meanwhile, our waiters and waitresses will be pleased to take you - er - to take care of you. We do, as a matter of fact, have six very good waiters and waitresses in the Club, and between them, they have a job opening a bag of crisps, but they are great, there’s one of our waiters moving.”
He would tell the audience; “We want you to enjoy yourselves, so eat, drink, and be merry. Pretend you’re on the Titanic.” When announcing forthcoming attractions, he would proclaim, “What a galaxy of talent the club has in store for you, appearing at the club later in the year will be, The Dagenham Girl Pipers, the massed bands of the RAF, and Charles Manson has agreed to do a week.” Followed by, “You don’t seem very impressed, why don’t you all hold hands and see if you can contact the living.” While researching this article I came across a piece on Eddie Condon, who ran his own jazz club in New York, from 1945 to 1967. He also cracked a joke very similar to Ronnie’s ‘galaxy of talent’ gag.
As for the club itself, Ronnie would state, “It’s just like home - filthy and full of strangers.” I recall being in Pete King’s office between sets with Ronnie and bass player Kenny Baldock cracked a joke that Ronnie hadn’t heard, and he liked it so much he introduced it into his act. Over the years, I attended the club the jokes hardly varied, and even though I knew the punch lines, I still laughed at Ronnie’s deadpan routine.
Ronnie was one of the most complex characters you could meet, he was a manic-depressive who suffered from depression, and on several occasions, it led to problems. I recall one time visiting the club, and when I asked about his whereabouts, I was told that he was resting. On this occasion, Ronnie took his tenor with him and practiced daily, which got on everybody’s nerves, and they had to take the reed out to give the other people a rest. Although Ronnie hated practicing, he kept blowing in a silent mode where only the clicks of the pads could be heard.
Throughout Ronnie’s late career, he had self-doubts about his playing, which is probably why he hardly recorded. I remember an incident when Ronnie performed at the 1978 Montreux Jazz Festival, in a group that included, Clark Terry, Milt Jackson, Oscar Peterson, Joe Pass, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, and Bobby Durham. Norman Granz paid all the musicians all their fees up front and, as there was a casino on the premises, Ronnie decided to pay the tables a visit. I was heading to the dressing room when I spied Ronnie coming out with a long face and asked, “What’s up.” He solemnly replied; “I’ve just been in the Casino, and I've done all my money on the roulette tables, I’m playing for nothing tonight.” In the space of an hour, Ronnie had blown his wages, and this may have been on his mind when he went on stage, as he didn’t play well. On one tune, he played in the wrong key and according to Oscar Peterson, was playing some weird stuff. It was like Ronnie was having an out of body, or out of wallet experience, and his performance was more ‘swung’ than swing, which was a shame. Ronnie a much better player than this performance suggests, and I genuinely felt sorry for Ronnie.
Later there were dental problems, and he underwent extensive dental surgery in the United States for tooth implants. The surgery was a failure, and on December 23, 1996, Ronnie was found dead at his home. He was 69, and the coroner’s verdict at his inquest was death by misadventure. He was discovered by one is daughters, and next to the body they found a glass containing brandy and an empty bottle of prescription sleeping tablets. Some years after Ronnie’s death, Pete remarked, “I keep thinking that he’s away on tour and any minute now he’ll walk into the back office.”
Many of his friends were aware of just how much Ronnie’s depression was affecting him, and he was dropping hints that he wouldn’t see his 70th birthday. When Stan Getz died, Ronnie stated; “I don’t feel so good myself.” Some said his fear of not being able to perform to his own high standards, drove him to suicide though I have doubts about this comment. Ronnie would have known he was past his best, having watched many of his own idols careers slip during their later years when they played his club. The failed dental operation meant he was unable to play his beloved saxophone, and all Ronnie ever wanted to do was play jazz and if he couldn’t....... Such was his loyalty to his great friend; Pete was adamant that Ronnie’s death was accidental and knew of no reason why Ronnie would take his life. Ronnie was not only a great tenor player, raconteur, comedian, MC, but he was also one of the legends of Soho, and when he died, half the club died with him. The singer and writer George Melly was very generous in his praise of Ronnie and stated; “Musicians would remember him as a wonderful player and a wonderful person.”
In 1981, Ronnie received his ‘gong’ and was awarded the OBE. Pete’s MBE came some twenty years later, and in the inaugural BBC jazz awards, Pete won the lifetime achievement award, presented to him by the Rolling Stone drummer Charlie Watts. As far as I am concerned, Pete’s MBE came a little late, and he should have been recognised at the same time as Ronnie. One critic wrote; “Few figures in the somewhat chequered history of jazz music in Britain can have so richly deserved the ‘Services to British Jazz’ award that Pete King received in 2002.” The truth of the matter is Pete deserved more, perhaps even a tap on the shoulder from the Queen. Over the past four decades, various governments have handed out ‘gongs’ like Smarties, and I’ve seen many film, and pop stars receive a knighthood, and for what?
Pete and Ronnie never had a contract, all they needed was a handshake. They rarely had disagreements, and it was never on the cards that they might split up. When not on stage Ronnie didn’t involve himself in marketing and promoting of the club, which bore his name. He left this part of the business to Pete, who built up the reputation of the club to where it became famous throughout the world. Pete once said, “I’m bloody proud of this place - and I know Ronnie is though he’s not inclined to say so.” It may be Ronnie’s name above the door, but the success of the club was down to Pete, he put in the long hours, booked the acts, and made sure the business ran smoothly. Pete’s ‘inner sanctum’ was a dark office situated behind the stage, and the walls covered with a montage of photos of all the great jazz artists that have appeared at Ronnie’s.
Pete King is the unsung hero of the club, and without him, it would have fallen to piece’s years ago. The Club has been through some great times and had its share of hard times, but Pete was always there, with a steady hand on the tiller until they had weathered the storm. The renowned British jazz critic Alun Morgan told me; “If he walked away with a million pounds for the club, it wouldn’t be enough for what Pete King did for the club and the British jazz scene;” a sentiment that no one can disagree with.
When I managed Steve White and Alan Barnes band, The Jazz Renegades, I phoned Pete to ask for a support slot at the club. I wanted the band opposite a heavyweight who could pull in the punters. Pete said, “Sure Dennis no problem, they can play opposite Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.” Not only was Art one of Steve’s heroes, but it also guaranteed the boys played to a full house every night. Pete didn’t have to do this, as he owed me nothing.
Pete had a less well-known passion for motor racing and competed in a handful of European Touring Car Championship races in the 1970s, and was persuaded by Brands Hatch boss John Webb, to sponsor a series of production car races at the Kent circuit. He was also briefly involved in the management of Johnny Herbert.
Pete carried on until the clubs 45th anniversary - some record, but without Ronnie by his side and the jazz scene he loved long gone, he knew it was time to go. He stated; Look, I’m a 75-year-old man with the body of a 76-year-old. Stella (his wife) has been used to me not being at home for 50-odd years, and now she says, ‘If I came to the club and saw an old man pottering about, it would put me off.’ After a bit, I realised she meant me. I have to be realistic. Time isn’t on my side.’
In June 2005, he sold the club to Michael Watt and the impresario Sally Greene, who owned the Old Vic theatre. The French designer Jacques Garcia handled the club’s refurbishment, which took three months and cost nearly a million pound. Ronnie must have turned in his grave, and I can hear him saying; “A million quid? Why didn’t they just chuck a hand grenade in the place?” They gave Pete the title of Honorary President, and Benny Green’s son Leo was hired as artistic director to take over Pete’s thorny crown.
Ronnie’s future looked to be secure, but everyone wondered whether it would make the grade without Pete at the helm. There were complaints about the policy of booking pop artists like Joan Armatrading and Marty Pelow, and the validity of them playing in the premier jazz club in Europe. It would have done wonders for their ego’s, but most jazz fans cringed at the idea of these artists appearing on the very same stage that Ella, Dizzy, Sonny Rollins and the many other jazz giants played.
Punters complained about the club being clinical, and another declared; “Too shiny, it reminds me of a sanitised cruise ship. One music publicist declared; “It used to be a jazz club, but the atmosphere has changed – it’s lost its heart.” He was half-right with that statement when Ronnie died the soul of the club died with him, and when Pete retired the heart of the club stopped beating. I recall when I last spoke to Pete, I had to shout as he was now deaf, though his mind was still sound. Pete died on December 20, 2009, joining his best friend Ronnie, in that great big band in the sky, which at least he doesn’t have to manage.
There’s no doubt that the best time to have visited Ronnie Scott’s would have been from the sixties to the eighties when it was at its apex. I recall one memorable moment when I was in the club during a sweltering summer. Everyone was in shirtsleeves and Speedos would have been the order of the day. During the break, I decided to go outside and on my way out, bumped into Pete and jokingly asked him to turn on the air conditioning. He dryly replied; “Den, what are you talking about, the front doors have been open for the last two hours?”
No matter how much they spend, or who owns Ronnie’s, the club will never be the same without Ronnie and Pete. They made the club, not the décor and they were the very essence of the club, the mortar holding the bricks together. What Ronnie and Pete put into The Club, no amount of money can buy. When they started out it wasn’t just an investment to make money, they wanted to establish a proper jazz club in Britain. While Ronnie had a more mercurial presence, Pete King had an imposing aura, and both are irreplaceable.
The club seems to be doing OK, but when I went to Ronnie’s it wasn’t just for the jazz, I enjoyed chewing the fat with Ronnie, Pete, and other regulars, something that I can no longer do. It is only now looking back that I realise and appreciate just how lucky and privileged I was that Ronnie, and particularly Pete allowed me to visit the club during their golden days.
Polydor’s Jazz A & R manager 1974 – 1978
Ronchi Dei Legionari, Italy.
Part One Here
Part Two Here