Ronnie Scott's at 60: The man and his club that put British jazz on the map

24th Apr 19 | Lifestyle

From grotty Soho basement to iconic venue heard across the world, Luke Rix-Standing jams through the history of Britain's grooviest jazz joint.

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On September 16, 1970, Jimi Hendrix walked out on stage at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club to a ripple of applause from a notoriously hard-to-impress London crowd.

He completed a characteristically free-wheeling set alongside former Animals frontman Eric Burdon, riffing over a series of blues staples in front of a 250-strong capacity audience.

It would be his last ever public performance. A mere two days later, Hendrix was found dead at his girlfriend’s apartment, having asphyxiated in his sleep.

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An informal jam at a small London club was not supposed to be Hendrix’s swansong, but then, Ronnie Scott’s was no ordinary club. It was the first to bring the great American jazzmen to Britain, gave voice to local legends like Johnny Dankworth and Cleo Laine, and staged embargo-busting concerts in Cuba long before it became fashionable to do so.

Unpretentious, understated, and regularly underfunded, the club was made in the image of its owner. Ronnie Scott himself was a modest man but a natural entertainer, and would often take to the stage with self-deprecating jokes about poor attendance, disgruntled audiences and his own comedic misfires.

Ronnie Scott
An ageing Ronnie Scott doing what he did best (PA Archive)

An able tenor saxophonist, who headlined the club’s opening night, Scott was also a gambling man, as keen to chance a horse as he was an up-and-coming musician, and became a paternal figure to many of his peers. With no VIP area or dress code at the club, students and punters rubbed shoulders with musical and literal royalty. Princess Margaret was a regular, as were members of The Beatles.

As Ronnie Scott’s celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, here, we take a look back at the legendary jazz club’s journey…

An unlikely success
As with so many great creations, Ronnie Scott’s started life in someone’s basement. Alongside friend and fellow saxophonist Pete King, in 1959 Scott settled on a room below Gerrard Street, then a rather inauspicious cabbie’s tea bar. Armed only with their saxophones and a £1,000 loan from Scott’s stepfather, the pair could not have envisaged what was to come.

Ella Eyre performing at Ronnie’s during the Mobo Awards 2014 (Philip Toscano/PA)

Even Scott would later admit that, through the early years, the club’s success did not stem from calculated organisation. “When Pete and I look back on 20 years of trial and error, guesswork and gambling, bluff and blunder and all shades of luck,” he wrote in a memoir in 1979, “we can only wonder at how we ever had the temerity to plunge headlong into what has been described as a sure-fire recipe for financial disaster and mental breakdown.”

Ronnie Scott’s may have become synonymous with London, but artistically its roots lay in the dive bars of New York. Few American performers had made it across the pond – and the British Musicians’ Union wasn’t too fond of the ones that did – so it was Scott’s own transatlantic trips that sowed the seeds of his ambition.

On one visit, he heard Miles Davis blow with the Charlie Parker Quintet at the Three Deuces, while Dizzy Gillespie rattled the rafters next door. After the show, Gillespie dropped by for a nightcap and jammed with Davis until dawn.

Ronnie Scott's interior
The scene of many a memorable night (Ronnie Scott’s/PA)

These smoky evenings in Manhattan had a profound impact on the young Ronnie Scott, and his club would be the first to bring live American jazz to Britain. After marathon meetings with King, the Musicians’ Union agreed to let American artists perform – provided British acts also went the other way. Ronnie’s regular Tubby Hayes jetted off to New York, and Soho played host to Zoot Sims, Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz and many more.

These were icons of their art, and for Ronnie Scott’s it opened the floodgates. With demand far outstripping supply on the stage and in the audience, in 1965 the club moved up the road to 47 Frith Street – a much larger venue that houses Ronnie’s to this day. The decor more befitted the ‘Home of British jazz’ – rows of red lampshades casting an atmospheric glow across the black-and-white portraits lining the walls.

The Who playing at Ronnie Scott's
Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend kicked off their ‘The Who at 50’ tour at Ronnie’s in 2014 (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and Curtis Mayfield all graced the stage with varying regularity, while the upstairs room welcomed non-jazz acts like Tom Waits, Jack Bruce and Mark Knopfler.

Ronnie’s without Ronnie
1996 marked the end of an era. A long-time smoker, Scott endured a thrombosis and two operations in his legs. He developed teeth problems – disastrous for a saxophonist – and his subsequent dental implants were intensely painful and dogged by complications. Aged 69, he died after ‘incautiously’ overdosing on his prescription sleeping pills. The coroner ruled death by misadventure.

At the club, the evening’s entertainment went on as planned. Staff were told that Scott would have wanted everything to continue.

Ronnie Scott's hearse
A floral saxophone topped Ronnie Scott’s hearse (Fiona Hanson/PA)

King soldiered on for several years, but without his comrade-in-arms, it was a matter of when, not if. In 2005, Ronnie Scott’s was sold to impresario Sally Greene, a long-time attendee who’d made a name for herself reviving London’s dilapidated theatreland.

After a three-month refurbishment, the club re-opened under its new proprietor in 2006. Today, Ronnie Scott’s still serves up sumptuous slices of foreign and home-grown jazz, decades on from the days of Hayes, Rollins and Hendrix.

© Press Association 2019