Saturday, 12 February 2022

Ronnie Scott's--Famous London Jazz Club

   It often takes only a word to suddenly bring back memories half a century old. Anyone who has read this blog regularly will know my fondness for London and how it has influenced my work over the years.

   I made several trips to the great city in my twenties. This was back in the mid to late 70s. I stayed in the Tavistock Hotel B & B in central London, not far from the British Museum. During each of several trips during this time, I spent about six weeks in the city, long enough to be able to explore and to walk miles each day, the best way to see London.

   It was during one of these wanderings that I happened by chance to pass an unimposing establishment with a sign that declared: Ronnie Scott's--Open Nightly. There was an outline in neon lights of a saxophone. By chance, I had heard of this place via a friend, though I had forgotten about it.

   Ronnie Scott's has been a jazz institution, nightclub if you prefer, in London for over sixty years. It first opened in 1959 in a basement on Gerrard Street in Soho with Scott's partner, fellow saxophonist Pete King. King managed and promoted the establishment, and jazz players were attracted to play there as a result of the presence of Ronnie Scott, who was widely known and had played in Europe since he was a teenager.

   Scott began playing tenor saxophone at an early age. By the time he was sixteen, he was playing small jazz clubs and with other well-known musicians throughout the 1940s. From 1946 to about 1950, he worked intermittently on the Cunard liner Queen Mary. When the ship sailed to New York, Scott and friends were exposed to Bebop, the new form of jazz being played in the clubs there. One of his early influencers was Charlie Parker. Scott played in a variety of groups throughout the 50s and 60s. He performed the solo on "Lady Madonna," the 1968 single by the Beatles. Charlie Mingus said of him in 1961, "Of the white boys, Ronnie Scott gets closer to the Negro blues feeling..."

   With its narrow hallways and tiny stage, the club soon featured grand performances by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Sonny Rollins, Ben Webster and Roland Kirk, among many others. Scott and King's vision was to create a place where British jazz musicians could refine their material. All strains of jazz were welcome, and groups received payment, which was no small thing in that period. At the time of my visits, I had started my own bar back home called The Wild Oat in Potsdam, N.Y. Ronnie Scott's became the stimulus for my developing live musical entertainment in my own place. We had the benefit of considerable local talent to draw from via SUNY Potsdam's Crane School of Music. Many young players had their own fledgling groups. Jazz, blues, string bands, even an electric xylophone player performed at The Wild Oat.

   I regret I never got to visit the earliest version of Ronnie Scott's. In 1968, the club moved to a larger space on Firth Street, which became known as the birthplace of British jazz. This was where I first stumbled upon the place. I remember entering a somewhat dark, intimate space with small tables and red tablecloths, where I sat down to listen to wonderful music. I loved the tenor saxophone and was hooked early, visiting during my later trips to London as well. I had no idea that in these early years, the club struggled financially to survive.

   Scott was an enigmatic figure. I may have seen him play but have no such memory. He struggled with his inner demons. He was an out-of-control gambler at the time, and it was something of a miracle he didn't gamble away the club in an effort to resolve his financial problems. He also struggled with mental health issues. After a dentist replaced all of his teeth with porcelain dentures, Scott's ability to play the sax was hampered, and his sound changed completely. His career and life took a downward turn. He died in 1996, age 69.

   But Ronnie Scott's, the institution, survived, run by King and then sold to the producer and restaurateur Sally Greene and another entrepreneur named Michaael Watt in 2005. Today, it still has a reputation as a place to hear local and international jazz. Among the artists who have played there are Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Buddy Rich, Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan and Wynton Marsalis. Indeed, virtually any jazz musician you can think of has played Ronnie Scott's at one time or another.

   Much of the information here came from a recent New York Times article written by Marcus J. Moore. Reading it, my long-ago memories of Ronnie Scott's came flooding back. Years after I discovered the club, I took my wife there as well. I hadn't thought of those wonderful visits in years, but now I will have to go back the next time I am allowed in England in this covid era.

   Ronnie Scott's is today considered the world's most stylish famous jazz club, packing them in nightly and playing well into the wee hours. The scene includes not just jazz but latin, blues, jive, flamenco, even tap dancing. London's most hip young people flock to hear the music.

   I suspect Ronnie Scott would be pleased at his club's success and longevity.

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