When Sonny Rollins, the great saxophonist, was commissioned to write the score to the 1966 film Alfie (only the title song was by Burt Bacharach), he was playing at Ronnie Scott's. At the end of the evening, he asked to be allowed to stay after the club had been locked up. As he sat there alone, he could feel all the musical memories, the ghosts of former performances, breathing from the walls, he later recalled. And by the next morning, he'd written most of the film's soundtrack.
Ronnie's, as aficionados of the Soho club call it, has long had that kind of magic about it. Go through its glass doors, and you enter a world where it's always somewhere between cocktail hour and way-past-nightcap time. In here, the photographs of Ben Webster, Bill Evans and all the other greats who have played the club seem to say, a different set of rules apply: those of swing, and silence during a solo; of nods across the floor between local musicians who've popped in after their own gigs to catch a young lion from across the Pond; and still, of Ronnie himself, tall, pale and beaky at the microphone, now departed to tell his dry, sardonic jokes at the jam session of the hereafter.
Ronnie died in 1996, and when the club celebrated its 40th birthday three years later, one long-standing regular, querying the need for all the fuss, answered his own question when he said, "Some of his contemporaries aren't optimistic about being here in 10 years' time". The same could have been said for the club at the time. Even with Ronnie's business partner, Pete King, still around, just how long could the club survive without its namesake?
In fact, when Ronnie's reopens next week after a three-month closure for much-needed refurbishment, the club may well be on a surer footing than it has been in its entire history. A year ago, Pete King, now 76, sold the club to Sally Greene, the theatrical impresario responsible for saving the Criterion and the Old Vic, where she also persuaded Kevin Spacey to take over as artistic director. Greene may, as a 19-year-old, have caught the eye of Frank Sinatra (she laughed at him when he walked out of his hotel bathroom wearing suspenders on his socks), but her connection to the jazz scene seemed slim.
However, she immediately made King honorary lifetime president of the club, and hired the saxophonist Leo Green as artistic director. Subtle changes were noted in the club's booking policy, with top-notch names from America who hadn't headlined at the club for years (if at all), such as the pianist Kenny Barron and the trumpeter Lew Soloff, reviving a rota that had begun to look stale.
And now, the list of acts appearing at the club after it reopens is breathtakingly impressive. Musicians such as Wynton Marsalis, David Sanborn, Billy Cobham and Chick Corea, all of whom will be at Ronnie's over the summer, are rarely seen in Britain outside massive concert halls. But jazz is a music best heard in a more intimate setting, and the chance to sit and stare right up Marsalis's trumpet bell, or see the lightning flicker of Cobham's sticks is one well worth paying an increased ticket price for.
The club's beginnings were much more humble. In the 1950s, Ronnie Scott was one of the UK's foremost tenor saxophonists, performing with the likes of Jimmy Deuchar and Victor Feldman (later to be called up by Miles Davis), and co-leading his own band, the Jazz Couriers, with Tubby Hayes. Ever since 1947, though, when, as a 20-year-old, he'd heard Davis and Charlie Parker at the Three Deuces in New York, and then sat in with the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, he'd nursed the dream of opening his own club where he could invite his heroes to play.
Scott's wish finally came true. A cramped basement, formerly used as a taxi-drivers' tearoom, on Gerrard Street, in Soho, became the first home of Ronnie Scott's Club, with Ronnie and a young altoist named Peter King as the opening acts. In his jazz memoir, Such Sweet Thunder, the late Benny Green recalled Scott's approach to running the club as "that blend of derision and dedication typical of the man ... derision in selling the music, dedication to playing it".
For a while, the premises were used on Tuesday nights by Lindsay Anderson's actors' group. As Maggie Smith and others rehearsed, Ronnie would put on a Shakespearean voice and dispense coffee. Scott also had to fight a case against the gown manufacturers who occupied the floor above and wanted the music to cease. Scott won the case, but his solicitor demanded life membership of the club as part of his fee. "Whose life?" replied Scott. "Mine or yours?"
In 1961, Pete King negotiated an exchange deal to lift the blanket ban on American musicians visiting Britain and vice versa, and in November, the first name was engraved on the long and glorious roll-call of overseas acts to play at Ronnie's. Zoot Sims came first, followed by Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt, and two more of the saxophonists who made up the "Four Brothers" in Woody Herman's band, Stan Getz and Al Cohn.
Musically, the club was on a firm footing, although some of the visitors tried the patience of Scott. Getz was the worst: shortly after his visit, Scott slipped a disc, and complained to a BBC interviewer that it was the result of his having to bend over backwards to please certain musicians.
By 1965, the "Old Place", as the Gerrard Street club became known, was too small, and the club moved to its present premises in nearby Frith Street. Princess Margaret would drop by with Peter Sellers, as would Sammy Davis Jnr, and Ronnie's friend Spike Milligan had a regular table and a supply of Mateus Rosé. In more recent times, Ken Clarke, John Prescott and William Hague have all been regular visitors.
Under Sally Greene, we can be sure of a decent meal and more sensible opening hours. As for Leo Green, he will have the ghost of his father Benny, an old bandmate of Scott as well as a writer and broadcaster, looking over him. As Benny once wrote, Ronnie's success "is perhaps the most astounding victory of hope over experience that the local jazz scene has ever witnessed".Reuse content