Pete King: The power behind the throne at Ronnie Scott's jazz club
Wednesday 23 December 2009
We want you to enjoy yourselves," Ronnie Scott told the audience in his club, "so eat, drink and be merry. Pretend you're on the Titanic."
Scott provided the dry humour at the club, but he was just the front man, and it was Pete King who raised the money and did the hard work. The two first met in the middle Forties when King was playing tenor saxophone semi-professionally with the Jack Oliverie band, and they came together again when King followed Scott into Vic Lewis's big band.
King's earliest professional work had been in 1947 with Leslie "Jiver" Hutchinson, followed by spells with Kenny Graham, Teddy Foster and Paul Fenhoulet. He joined Oscar Rabin in 1948 and stayed until he went into Kathy Stobart's band in May 1950. Moving on again in 1952 he played in the sax section of drummer Jack Parnell's Music Makers along with Scott and a number of leading jazz musicians.
"With Jack's background and judging by the guys he booked, it was generally thought that the Music Makers would be a jazz band," he said. "Of course it wasn't possible, and Jack just had to compromise... Overall I think we probably leaned on Jack to play more jazz than was fair."
The mixture of dance music and Bebop made the band popular but the lack of a female vocalist prevented it being given broadcasts by the BBC. Parnell's solution was to hire the singer Marian Keene. She would only join on condition that Parnell took her tenor saxophone-playing husband into the band as well. To do this Parnell had no option but to fire Pete King.
When he did this, Scott and the fine jazz soloists Jimmy Deuchar, Derek Humble and Ken Wray all decided to leave too. With King included they formed a co-operative band which they called the Ronnie Scott Band. It was an excellent group of good musicians with an imaginative library that, as Parnell had done, managed to bridge the gap between jazz and "commercial" music. As well as playing, King managed the band and did all the paperwork.
"He got himself virulently hated and wildly loved in turns," wrote Benny Green. "He was popular whenever he considered it prudent to draw upon the band funds to swell the wages, but was hated with dangerous hysteria when he suggested that we should settle a bill or save for the proverbial rainy day."
In 1957 Scott combined with another tenor saxophonist, Tubby Hayes, to form the quintet known as The Jazz Couriers. King gave up playing the saxophone for good and became the band's manager. On 30 October 1959 Scott and King opened the first Ronnie Scott Club at 39 Gerrard Street in London's West End.
The scruffy Soho building had been a haunt for taxi drivers and was furnished with second-hand chairs and an upright piano. The featured musicians were paid about £3 a night and Stan Tracey, who led the resident trio, about £35 a week.
"The thing about Soho," King said, "it was always a bit naughty – not really bad, just a bit naughty."
King ran the club, manning the door in the blunt, sometimes world-weary – and, when required, pugnacious – manner that he was to hone while in place at the door over the subsequent years.
Scott provided eye-catching advertisements for the new club in the Melody Maker. "28 November – the late, late, late show. Now featuring a tremendous step towards inter-racial relations - ham bagels." "5 December – Free Admission! – for Somerset Maugham, Sir Thomas Beecham and Little Richard." "2 Janauary – Special offer to our 1,000th client – a pair of exquisitely matched giant bird-eating spiders, or a week in Manchester."
Despite predictions, the Scott Club survived, if it did not at first flourish. While Scott took life more easily, King worked hard, for the next 40 years or so arriving for work in the middle of the morning and leaving the club around 1.30am, unless, brilliant raconteur that he was, he regaled a small, privileged audience after the club had closed into the small hours over a drink at one of the club's tables.
In 1960 the club was granted a supper and liquor licence but King realised that if he was to draw the crowds, he had to put on American musicians. In 1961 he made a huge contribution to the British jazz scene when, after long and tortuous negotiations that lasted over a year, he persuaded the Ministry of Works to lift the ban that had been in place for more than two decades on American jazz soloists playing in Britain. The first result in November that year was a four-week season for the tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims at the Scott Club. In a newly set up system of exchanges, Tubby Hayes played in New York's Half Note Club.
With pianist Stan Tracey's trio as the Scott Club's regular band, visits followed from an American jazz multitude that included Lucky Thompson, Roland Kirk, Benny Golson, Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Griffin, Dexter Gordon and the notoriously difficult Stan Getz.
"I got a slipped disc," said Scott, "from bending over backwards to please Stan Getz."
The arrival of the Americans, brought, as King had predicted, an upsurge in customers. Soon the audience was too big for the premises and on 17 December 1965 Scott and King moved their club and opened at bigger premises at 47 Frith Street. They were able to have proper kitchens and a much longer bar. To enable the move King had to persuade the concert promoter Harold Davison to lend him £35,000. For decades afterwards he would show people the bottle of champagne kept in the fridge to be opened when the debt had been repaid. He and Scott kept on Gerrard Street and called it The Old Place, where they featured less popular and more experimental jazz.
The club was by now famous across the world and King and Scott were able to maintain its musical integrity, bringing in the cream of top-notch jazz musicians, while giving a chance to younger ones that they felt were deserving. King suffered a major heart attack in 1988, but the loyal staff he'd built up over the years managed the shop capably for him until he was able to return.
Scott died in December 1996. "I was completely wiped out by Ronnie's death," King said. "But I never had any doubt that we would carry on. The thing was that even though I'd had the main say in running the place, I really felt I had to prove myself."
King was made MBE in 2000. In June 2006 he sold his share of the club and retired, reputedly by now a rich man. The club was then refurbished and continues, but the idealist policy of Scott and King has changed and it is today highly organised and merchandised, a very different animal.
Through the last years of his life Pete King suffered from dementia.
Peter Stephen George King, saxophonist, club owner: born London 23 August 1929; married (one son, and one son deceased); died London 20 December 2009.
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