Ronnie Scott – The Leader of a Generation

In 1984/85 I stumbled into, at times, the frankly baffling world of modern jazz. I was soon buying vinyl albums by the likes of Kenny Burrell, Thelonious Monk, Coltrane, Anita O’Day, Billie Holiday, and many many more.

I used the word baffling in the first sentence because, the sheer amount of choice available made my head spin. Never daunted I jumped straight in and continued my education. I attended gigs at as many Jazz venues as I could and I bought tickets for weeks of jazz at The Royal Festival Hall where I saw the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Lionel Hampton and Miles Davis perform, towards the end of their glittering careers.

Of course, the one club in London you HAD to attend was Ronnie Scott’s. It was an institution, a place of learning if you will. I first became a member in 1985 when I was 22. By then a lot of the artists who’s albums I was buying had long since died or stopped performing, but occasionally you’d get a chance to see Chet Baker or Nina Simone and for a couple of hours you realised why you loved this genre of music so much.

‘This place reminds me of home, filthy and full of strangers’

To my shame back then, I didn’t really know much about Ronnie Scott, the man. But that changed as I began to buy up vinyl reissues of The Jazz Couriers, the finest bebop line up the UK has ever had. In the front line was someone who was to become very important to me, namely Tubby Hayes. But alongside him was Ronnie Scott, who it was revealed by listening to tunes on the record was a fantastic player in his own right.

Born Ronald Schatt (stop sniggering) in 1927 in Aldgate, East London into a Jewish family, he began playing professionally at the age of 16. He did time in the bands of Ambrose, Ted Heath and Tito Burns amongst others. Just after the Second World War, he played on ocean liners, among what was called ‘Geraldo’s Navy’ (Geraldo was the musical director for the Cunard line) working his ticket to New York, and whilst there on shore leave he attended the clubs on 52ndStreet. It was there that he saw Charlie Parker perform live and he also saw first hand, how the jazz clubs operated.

When back in London, he opened ‘Club 11’ – it had eleven founder members – in the basement of 41 Great Windmill Street in Soho in 1948 with Johnny Dankworth and drummer Tony Crombie among the others. The club was the first UK Be Bop venue and attracted many like minds. All was good for a while, however, it was forced to close in 1950 after a police drugs raid, found amphetamines and marijuana being sold on the premises.

Subsequently, Ronnie led his own big bands from 1953 to 1956 and then he teamed up with Tubby in The Jazz Couriers quintet until 1959.

It was after that line up came to an end that Scott, teaming up with an old sax playing pal Pete King, opened the Ronnie Scott jazz club at 39 Gerrard Street, in what is now Chinatown in October 1959. The club was revolutionary in London and soon had a hard-core following.

‘His mother was a titled lady…she was the southern area light heavyweight champion…’

IN 1965, Ronnie Scott opened at 47 Frith Street in larger premises and it is still there today, despite many financial troubles over the years. It is rightly recognised as one of the best known and highly regarded jazz clubs in the world.

Anyone who is anyone in the world of jazz has graced that stage. Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Sonny Rollins, Sarah Vaughan and Buddy Rich to name just a few.

As well putting on the finest in jazz performers from around the world, Scott became famous for his dry wit when acting as the nightly Master of Ceremonies.

‘Don’t forget to try our food. A million flies can’t be wrong…’

‘Our cook is Japanese. Every 7th of December he comes out of the kitchen and attacks Pearl Bailey.’

Scott continued to perform at the club and around Europe, Australia and New York, where he would always draw a crowd. He was also in demand as a session player. That’s him with the sax solo on ‘Lady Madonna’ by The Beatles.

Legendary bassist Charles Mingus once said ‘Of all the white boys, Ronnie Scott gets closer to the negro blues feeling.’

High praise indeed.

Over the years, dental problems, the curse of many a brass instrument player, meant he had to cut down on gigs and eventually stop completely playing in his later life. But the jokes continued.

‘I’ve been suffering from a slipped disc. I got it bending over backwards trying to please Stan Getz’

Ronnie was awarded the OBE in 1981. He died in London on the 23rd December 1996. His memorial stone at Golders Green crematorium states ‘Ronnie Scott OBE. Jazz musician, club proprietor, raconteur and wit. He was the leader of our generation.’

‘I can stop a run away horse just by sticking a fiver on him…’

Pete King continued to run the club before selling to theatre owner Sally Greene in 2005.

I still go to Ronnie’s today and for me it is still a place of learning. Long may that continiue.

The Mumper of SE5