When (the late) Ronnie meets Sally - and a temple of jazz is saved for the nation

Jonathan Brown
Friday 05 July 2013 01:53

It began life in a basement where taxi drivers supped tea between fares. But yesterday, seven years after the death of the man who gave his name to one of Britain's most famous music venues, Ronnie Scott's jazz club signed a deal with the most influential woman in British theatre in a move which will keep the sound of saxophones drifting into the Soho night for years to come.

Sally Greene, chief executive of Old Vic Productions, agreed a partnership deal with the club's co-founder, Pete King. It followed several weeks of intensive negotiations designed to ensure that Ronnie's continued to operate as a world-class venue in the heart of London.

A spokeswoman for the club told The Independent yesterday that details were being finalised, but said: "It's going to be a partnership with the Old Vic. Pete will remain, as will the staff."

The tightly-knit British jazz scene feared that the club would pass to the big pub or club chains on the death of Mr King, who is now in his 70s and who has already undergone a heart bypass operation. But the plan will see Mr King and his staff stay in control of day-to-day affairs and offers the tantalising prospect of a seat at the top table of the capital's arts scene.

Ms Greene is one of the most high profile of the so-called Labour luvvies and can arguably claim to be one of the best connected women in London. Married to the multimillionaire property developer and Labour donor Robert Bourne, she came to the rescue of the Old Vic in 1998. She recently lured Kevin Spacey to be the artistic director of its resident company, while Lord Attenborough is chairman of her Old Vic Theatre Trust 2000, Sir Elton John its chairman and Peter Mandelson a member of its associate board. She also owns the Criterion Theatre in the West End, a small theatre in Islington and another in Manhattan.

From an unfashionable base in Waterloo, where she workshopped the stage adaptation of Billy Elliot: The Musical, she has been effective in holding her own against the big West End productions. Investors in her productions can expect an invitation to the annual drinks party at The Ivy, or even a place at Sir Elton's Oscar party in Los Angeles.

The deal with Ronnie Scott's, which will be announced at the club on 3 August, was welcomed by those who champion the art form.

Jon Newey, editor of the monthly music bible Jazzwise, said it was the best possible outcome for the club. "We have all heard the rumours that have been doing the rounds since last week, and if they prove to be true - and all the indications are they are true - it sounds like a carefully constructed, well thought out plan to safeguard a national treasure. Ronnie's is internationally acclaimed as one of the best venues in the world, and is loved by fans and the musicians that play there," he said.

The club celebrates its 45th anniversary this year and will stage a concert at the Barbican, as well as a special programme of events. The original venue, funded with a £1,000 loan from Scott's stepfather and publicised with a small ad in Melody Maker, opened on 30 October 1959 at 39 Gerrard Street.

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At the time, British jazz fans were being starved of hot American talent because of restrictions put in place by the Musician's Union (MU). Scott had recently returned from the US, where he had fallen under the spell of live performances from players such as Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. Scott and Mr King, both accomplished saxophonists, performed on the first night and for two years showcased the best of British talent. It was only when the two men negotiated a deal between the MU and the American Federation of Musicians that the ban on transatlantic musical exchanges was dropped.

The club moved to its current home at 47 Frith Street in 1965 and the rest has become jazz folklore. Scott, who received the OBE in 1981, died in 1997 after drinking brandy and taking sleeping tablets.

Despite the efforts of Mr King, who has continued to run the club since his friend's death, jazz has remained the poor relation in the arts, enjoying little public subsidy. Those who play and promote it continue to do so for love rather than money. According to Mr Newey, jazz suffered an image problem. "It had the perception of a bunch of old men in stained suits in the back room of a pub. The aim now is to take jazz ... back on to the streets," he said.

Music insiders are confident that the deal will safeguard the future of Ronnie's. According to one club insider: "Pete wouldn't make a false move with the club." As for the man himself, he was in typically phlegmatic form yesterday. "This either works, or we fuck it up," he said.

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