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The Man Behind The ClubCopyright © 1999The Scotsman, 1996
Scott, RonnieRonnie Scott's rich, lyrical tenor saxophone style made him one of the two or three most significant musicians to emerge on the post-war British jazz scene, but he became even better known as the proprietor of one of the most famous jazz clubs in the world.
He was born Ronald Schatt in the east end of London, into a family of Russian Jewish descent on his father's side, and Portuguese antecedents on his mother's. His father, Joseph Schatt, was a dance band saxophonist who worked under the professional name of Jock Scott. He separated from his wife when Ronnie was a young child, and played little part in his son's upbringing, although their paths did cross again -- sometimes uneasily -- when Ronnie became a musician.
He was brought up by his mother, whose given name was Sylvia but was universally known as Cissie, and, from the age of 8, by his stepfather, Solomon Berger. As a teenager, an early interest in airplanes and flying was quickly overtaken by a fascination with music, and he took his first steps toward a musical career when he bought a semi-functional cornet, and shortly thereafter a soprano saxophone in similar condition, in a local junkshop.
Despite the failure of her marriage, Cissie saw no reason to hold her son back from following his father's career, and she and his stepfather encouraged his interest. The most significant manifestation of that encouragement came with their purchase of a tenor saxophone, his first decent instrument, and the one on which he would make his reputation.
He began to play in his local youth club, where he met like-minded youngsters like drummer Tony Crombie, and took lessons from Vera Lynn's father-in-law, saxophonist Jack Lewis. He worked briefly in stores selling records and musical instruments, and began to play his first semi-professional gigs in the East End. As well as being a staple dance band instrument, the tenor saxophone was central to Jewish musical activities, and Scott cut his teeth on barmitzvahs, weddings and youth club functions.
The lure of both jazz and the perceived glamour of the West End club scene grew ever stronger, even in war-torn London. Encouraged by band-leader Carlo Krahmer, who was able to discern some real promise in his still callow playing, Scott made his first tentative inroads into the world of professional music in 1943-4, and had his first taste of touring with a band led by the Belgian-born trumpeter Johnny Claes in 1945.
He joined the successful Ted Heath Band in 1946, but the jazz scene itself was now changing, as the pre-war big bands became economically less feasible, and the radical evolution of Bebop in the USA began to take hold on the younger generation of British musicians. Released by Heath (he was replaced by Scottish saxophonist Tommy Whittle) in early 1947, he and Crombie scraped together enough money to visit New York and see at first hand the developments now emerging on the early records of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
He found an early means to repeat the exercise when he was recruited as a musician on the newly refitted transatlantic liner the Queen Mary, in a band which also included alto saxophonist Johnny Dankworth. Back home and between subsequent cruises, he remained highly active on the London scene, and became involved in setting up the co-operative Club Eleven in Soho, which became the country's first club devoted solely to modern jazz when it opened on 11 December, 1948.
Although enthralled by Parker's music, the primary influence on Scott's own playing was the softer but still harmonically complex approach exemplified by the playing of Stan Getz and Zoot Sims, and it remained the core of his mature style. He played in drummer Jack Parnell's band in 1952, and then took the inevitable but long-postponed step to leading his own nine-piece group in 1953.
The band initially formed on a collective basis, but Scott was its undisputed leader. He utilised arrangements by their Scottish trumpeter, the late Jimmy Deucher, which combined dance band swing with bebop innovations in wonderfully effective fashion. Their debut coincided with a visit from Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic touring package to London, the first major American jazz show to beat the ban on visiting musicians since the war. Scott opened the shows, which had a catalytic effect on British jazz musicians and fans, with a sextet version of his new band, and was felt to have held his own against the stiff competition.
He led the nine-piece band until 1956 (with a brief expansion to a full-size big band in 1955, a decision he later described as "one of my worst ever"), and then co-led with saxophonist Tubby Hayes one of the most important of all British jazz groups, The Jazz Couriers, from 1957-9. Now well-established as one of the two or three leading British jazz musicians, Scott turned his attention to a venture that would make him even more widely known than his music.
The memory of the jazz clubs on New York's 52nd Street in those post-war visits had stayed with the saxophonist, and the experience of Club Eleven, however mixed, had done nothing to eradicate it from his mind.
In 1959, Scott and a long-time associate, Peter King, a tenor saxophonist who had decided that playing was not the route to success, joined forces to open his first jazz club, with some financial aid from Scott's stepfather.
They had used the premises at 39 Gerrard Street on an occasional basis for concerts in the past, but when an opportunity to secure the lease cheaply came up, they decided to act. Ronnie Scott's Club opened on 31 October, 1959, with a bill which featured Scott himself, the Tubby Hayes Quartet, Jack Parnell (billed as making "his first appearance in a Jazz Club since the relief of Mafeking"), and a sensational newcomer on the London scene who shared a name with Scott's partner, alto saxophonist Peter King.
The club began a slow build toward international status. Zoot Sims, a personal favourite of the owner, was the first major American artist to play there in 1961, followed by Lucky Thompson and Dexter Gordon the following year, Roland Kirk in 1963, Stan Getz, Sonny Stitt and Ben Webster in 1964, and Sonny Rollins in 1965 (all, not entirely coincidentally, tenor saxophonists). Scott continued to lead his own quartet throughout this period, with Stan Tracey as both his band and club pianist, and formed a more experimental eight-piece band with John Surman and Kenny Wheeler in 1968-9.
Running a jazz club brought endless problems, from dealing with the off-stage predelictions of their often unpredictable or just plain difficult artists to trying to convince skeptical rental companies that a grand piano supplied for pianist Bill Evans in 1965 would not meet a dreadful fate in what most dealers clearly still saw as a den of iniquity.
Major artists from all areas of the music were now appearing as a matter of course at the club, from Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson to more avant-garde figures like Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman, and it was relocated to its present premises in Frith Street at the end of 1965, where it is a world-renowned jazz centre.
It was not always plain sailing -- there were hard times, and the club was on the verge of collapse on more than one occasion. While King's no-nonsense administration did much to keep it afloat in times of real financial hardship, Scott was very much the figurehead of the enterprise. A visit on a night when he was away did not seem quite right without his famous deadpan delivery of unchanging jokes, while the cramped backroom, where he would play chess with like-minded guests, has harboured most of the world's great jazz players and singers at one time or another.
Scott never forgot his own struggles for acceptance, however, and the club's booking policy has always found room for British musicians, both the well-established and those in the formative stages of their careers. Scott himself continued to lead his own quartets, quintets and sextets, and also found time to play with the Boland-Clarke Big Band in the 1960s and 1970s. He remained active as a player until his death, and will be remembered with affection as one of the finest European jazz musicians of his era.