Ronnie Scott's at 50

From inauspicious beginnings, Ronnie Scott's has become a world-famous venue. As it celebrates its 50th birthday, Ian Burrell recalls the legends who have graced the West End club
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Ronnie Scott's has never been the kind of venue to bang its own drum. It might be regarded by many as the greatest jazz club in the world but, like the man who gave it its name, it's always had a nice line in self-deprecation.

Shortly after it opened its doors, 50 years ago this year, it took out an advertisement in Melody Maker saying, "Ronnie Scott's Club – sponsored by the Shoreditch Tsetse Fly Protection Society". Other promotional material promised that the club's food was "untouched by human hand – our chef is a gorilla".

Scott himself would famously take to the stage to entertain the audience with his dry patter. "You should have been at the club last Monday," he would say. "Somebody should have been here last Monday. We had the bouncers chucking them in. A guy rang up to ask what time the show started and we said, 'What time can you get here?' The band was playing 'Tea for One' and at the end of the number the audience was on its foot."

In spite of this, Scott and his partner Pete King persuaded much of the greatest jazz talent to come and perform before tiny audiences in London's Soho. Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Coleman Hawkins, Chet Baker, Ben Webster, Ornette Coleman, Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, Sarah Vaughan, Buddy Rich, Johnny Dankworth and Cleo Laine are but a few of the greats to have played there.

Thirty years ago, at the time of the 20th anniversary of the club, Scott published a memoir Some of My Best Friends Are Blues, in which he marvelled at how the club had survived. "When Pete and I look back on 20 years of trial and error, of guesswork and gambling, bluff and blunder and all shades of luck, from appalling to lousy, we can only wonder at how we ever had the cheek and temerity to plunge headlong into what has been described as a sure-fire recipe for financial disaster and mental breakdown."

He admitted – "between you and me" – that he was very proud of the club which, with its distinctive red lamp shades and black-and-white portrait shots of the great players, became the spiritual home of British jazz. Scott died in 1996 and so will not be here to see this year's programme of celebrations to mark the club's half century, including a weekend festival at the British Film Institute this month, at which will be shown archive footage of Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald singing at Ronnie's.

"Arriving in London for the first time in the 1960s, I'd never heard of the Ronnie Scott's jazz club and I was coming in as a single player to be accompanied by local musicians," says Rollins. "But by the conclusion of the engagement, I had experienced some of the best times of my life. As for Ronnie, he was one of the best people I've ever met – and I've met a lot of people!"

The club means different things to different people. Barry Fantoni, the satirical cartoonist, artist and jazz musician, says the club kept British jazz alive. "Ronnie and I both came from East End Jewish stock. We both played tenor sax and spent too much on booze and backing the wrong horse. When his horns were auctioned 10 years ago, I bought all of them. They are a personal treasure," he says. "A more public treasure is the legacy he gave British jazz. Without his club it would most likely have withered to nothing. Because of it, the greatest musicians of their day were given a chance to entertain and educate. And Ronnie had a place to tell his jokes."

Johnny Dankworth, or Sir John Dankworth CBE as he is now known, performed regularly at the club's original venue in Gerrard Street and at its current slightly larger location in Frith Street, where it moved in 1965. So did his partner Cleo Laine. One evening in particular stands out for Sir John: "The night when Tony Bennett, Mel Tormé, Annie Ross and Marion Montgomery formed an impromptu vocal quintet with Cleo made it one of those memorable occasions in jazz which could only happen at Ronnie Scott's," he says.

Ronnie Scott's club was founded as a shrine to the hard-bop and bebop that Scott had experienced when, as a young musician aboard the Queen Mary, he travelled to New York and saw performances by such giants as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. But the venue has never been tied to the music of the past. For Gilles Peterson, the founder of the Nineties record label Talkin' Loud, the club was his inspiration. "Ronnie Scott's was responsible for my live jazz music education. I must've seen Art Blakey at least 30 times there and when Sun Ra came to town I'd force all my bands at Talkin' Loud to go," he says. "The thing was you used to pay around 25 quid for an annual membership and then it was two quid Monday to Thursday, a great deal. I'd always go for the second sets when the tourists would be gone and the music would get a little deeper."

Today, the club is under the ownership of the impresario Sally Greene and, though Ronnie's witty introductions might be a thing of the past, the listings are as strong as ever. The club's managing director, Simon Cooke, says major artists who could sell out huge venues are still happy to take time out of a tour to play at Ronnie's with its "tiny" capacity of 220. Cooke has been told he is managing "a national institution" and says "I'm aware of the responsibility of looking after Ronnie Scott's".

For Cooke, Ronnie's is the only jazz club in Europe that stands comparison with great American venues such as Birdland, the Village Vanguard and the Blue Note. "I think most people would say we sit at the top table," he says.

Jazz has endured, he says, because of its ability to reinvent itself. "In the Seventies it got wiped away by rock'n'roll. There was prog rock and then funk came in and then punk came in. Suddenly, there was this massive explosion all on the other side of the tracks and jazz became just daddy-o music. There was a recovery job done in the Eighties and Nineties, which I always feel was done by world music and bringing in all these different musical influences."

He is determined that Ronnie Scott's should not live in the past. "I'm really striving to bring in acts to keep the place relevant, I hate the idea of us turning into being a jazz museum," he says. "There's a culture in American jazz clubs of putting on tribute nights. I'm very wary of it."

The club is trying to safeguard its financial future by using its brand name to create other revenue streams. "We are demo-ing a radio show," says Cooke. "You can syndicate them out because the Ronnie Scott's name carries weight if you go to jazz stations around the world and say, 'Here's a show live from Ronnie Scott's'. " The name travels further thanks to the touring Ronnie Scott's Quintet and the larger Ronnie Scott's Jazz Orchestra, which is hoping to go on the road in America.

Since Greene took the club over, the food (frequently lauded by Scott with the observation that "3,000 flies can't be wrong") has improved and the ticket prices often reflect the privilege of seeing a star performer in such intimate surroundings. "I accept we're a little bit expensive for people that don't have jobs, and students are going to find it difficult to come into Ronnie's but we try to attract them to the things we do upstairs," says Cooke, referring to the club's bar and its animal-print furnishings, where regular jazz jams and Latin music nights take place.

Ronnie's has always been prepared to broadly define the term jazz. The saxophonist Curtis Stigers has played at the club several times with his quintet but his first appearance, in 1992, was as a popular soul musician. "We were sound checking a particularly loud number, and an older gentleman whom I immediately recognised as Mr Scott himself walked onto the side of the stage," he recalls. "Ronnie Scott, the legendary tenor man, jazz impresario and friend of most of the great jazz musicians I had admired all my young musical life, stopped in his tracks, turned toward us and our loud pop/soul music and shook his head – in disgust, I fear – and then walked into the office and closed the door behind him. I wanted to shout, 'This isn't the whole story – I've studied jazz all my life, Ronnie!'"

A kudos comes with having performed at Ronnie Scott's. Cooke discloses that he recently turned down a request for a booking from a well-known television personality and pop singer because he does not want to compromise the club's reputation. "Essentially, we're still a jazz club and I think we're a bloody good jazz club," he says. "We will stay pure to the ideal of the jazz club that Ronnie and Pete set up in the first place, back in the day."

'The Independent' has teamed up with Ronnie Scott's and the BFI to offer readers a chance to win two tickets to Mica Paris's gig at the club on 10 June and meet the singer at her afternoon soundcheck. Five runners-up can win a pair of tickets to a film of their choice in the Jazz in June cinema season at the BFI in London. For details, visit