Obituary: Ronnie Scott

Steve Voce
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:20

"His mother was a titled lady - she was the Southern Area Light Heavyweight Champion." Ronnie Scott's much recycled jokes made him almost as famous as his tenor saxophone playing and the London jazz club that bore his name.

Frequently his jokes were about the size of the club's audience on a bad night: "It was so small we opened up with `Tea For One' ", or, if he felt the listeners weren't showing enough enthusiasm, "Let's join hands and try to make contact with the living", or "You've made a happy man very old". Nonetheless, Ronnie Scott's, which he and Pete King founded in 1959, was one of the most eminent jazz clubs in the world, and one of the most successful in Europe.

Scott, along with his friend Tubby Hayes who died in 1973, was amongst the most highly rated and universally recognised of all British jazz musicians, hugely popular in Australia and Europe and one of the few Europeans who could draw audiences to the New York jazz clubs.

He was an outstanding tenor saxophone player with an inventive style of his own who admitted the American players Hank Mobley, Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson amongst his influences. He disparaged his own playing, and the continuing disappointment and deep frustration of his life was that he never met the ideal standards he had set for himself. He was a modest man and a brilliant raconteur who, although he always claimed his jokes were lousy, was unstoppably funny whether on stage or in normal conversation.

His powers of observation and recall of both minor detail and major disaster made people relish his compering as much as his modern and eloquent music. "I remember touring Ireland with the Ted Heath band when a chap came by and asked if we played requests. Ted told him we would try and asked him what he would like to hear. `Oh, anything at all,' said the Irishman."

Scott's humour took on practical manifestations. While touring Britain with the American brass men Clark Terry, Bob Brookmeyer, Maynard Ferguson and others, the group's coach was nearing the Scottish border. It pulled off the road and on to a large car park, and halted beside a large shed. Scott shouted "Quick, everyone in a line." When the Americans lined up in the aisle of the coach Scott checked that each one had his passport in his left hand. Then he led them off the bus in an orderly file into what turned out to be a transport cafe.

His father, Jock Scott, who abandoned his family in 1931, had also been a saxophonist and band leader, and Ronnie began taking saxophone lessons from Jack Lewis (who was later to marry Vera Lynn) and Harry Gold when he was 15. "Harry Gold was very helpful, but the best tip he gave me was never to wear brown shoes with a blue suit."

Scott won his first job with Felix Mendelssohn's band and began playing frequently in the various London clubs when he was 16. After work for several leaders including Carlo Krahmer and Cab Kaye, he joined the band led by the trumpeter Johnny Claes in October 1944.

During the period of post-war austerity he played with Denis Rose's band and Sid Millward's Swing Circus and did Ensa work (for the troops) and concerts for factory workers with the pianist Pat Kaye and the saxophonist Jimmy Skidmore. He joined the Ted Heath Band in February 1946 and stayed for a year.

Drawn by the turbulent events in contemporary American jazz he then took the first of many jobs playing in bands on board the transatlantic liners. The British jazz musicians who grabbed this, their only chance to visit the States, became known as Geraldo's Navy (the band leader Geraldo worked as musical director for Cunard). The turn-around time gave the young jazz musicians a few days in New York to listen to Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and the pioneers of Be-bop in the flesh, and Scott's own playing gained immeasurably from this exposure to their music.

Back home in October 1947 Scott joined Tito Burns, an accordionist who was trying to popularise Bebop with British audiences, and stayed for a year. He worked with Ambrose's Orchestra and then became a founder member of the Club Eleven Band.

This was a group of would-be Bebop musicians which met in a shabby basement in Archer Street in Soho. The trumpeter Denis Rose, slightly older than the rest, was their musical guru. His progressive thinking inspired them, and he was a gifted teacher. "I got most of my theory from Denis," said Scott, "but then so did everyone else. Even in the best of bands the professional life of a musician represented a constant artistic compromise because the music we had to play in order to live wasn't the music we lived to play." There were 11 musicians, including Johnny Dankworth, Hank Shaw, Lennie Bush and Tony Crombie, as well as Scott and a manager, hence the group's name.

They presented concerts in London and Birmingham, with one from April 1949, featuring Denis Rose in the Ronnie Scott Boptet, appearing on record.

Scott continued his transatlantic travels and worked with the bands of Vic Lewis and Jack Parnell before forming his own regular group in 1952. He augmented the line-up in 1955 in an attempt to appeal to wider audiences. "When we were auditioning for a girl singer about 30 girls turned up. Twenty-nine of them sang `The Lady Is A Tramp' all wrong and the other one sang `Deed I Do' all on one note. We had the audition, really, so that the band could have a good laugh."

In 1957 Scott was established enough to take a sextet of his own to the States and soon after he formed The Jazz Couriers, a very successful quintet with a two tenor front line co-led by Tubby Hayes.

He opened the first Ronnie Scott Club in Gerrard Street in London in October 1959, moved to Frith Street in 1965 and opened a Birmingham branch in October 1991. Despite many hair-raising financial moments, the clubs burgeoned, largely due to the intelligence and skills of Pete King, who gave up saxophone-playing to be the business manager. Scott was usually resident with his quartet and the London club became a showplace for the greatest talents in the world, providing a major platform for American giants like Zoot Sims, Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz and the Buddy Rich Big Band.

"Jack Jones regularly visits the club when he is in London," said Scott. "I remember one evening when we had a cashier on the door who was not really au fait with that sort of guest. She told Jack he could come in free but his friend would have to pay. His friend was Tony Bennett."

Scott experimented with free form jazz, too, although he didn't go as far as Archie Shepp, an American avant-garde tenor saxophonist whose band featured at the club playing 30 minute incomprehensible "free" outbursts. One night during Shepp's season there, the tenor sax titans Stan Getz and Coleman Hawkins were sitting at a table. "Hey," said Hawkins to Getz in the middle of such an onslaught, "they're playing our tune."

Another of Scott's idols, the tenor player Dexter Gordon, accused him of playing "all that free shit". Scott denied it: "I don't play free. I play very cheaply, but I don't play free."

Ill health and dental surgery had caused Ronnie Scott to take rests from playing in recent years, though he had been planning to play again in the club on Christmas Eve. For many years his humour graced the BBC quiz programme Jazz Score where he was predictably one of the best raconteurs, and his many records under his own name, made from 1949 onwards, are much sought after by collectors. In 1979 he published Some Of My Best Friends Are Blues, written with Mike Hennessey, and co-operated with John Fordham for the 1995 Jazzman: the amazing story of Ronnie Scott and his club, a comprehensive account of his life and times in jazz. He was appointed OBE in 1981. He never married, but is survived by two children.

"All the great jazzmen are going," he said when he heard of the death of Stan Getz in 1991. "I don't feel so good myself."

Steve Voce

Ronald Schatt (Ronnie Scott), saxophonist, band leader and club owner: born London 28 January 1927; OBE 1981; died London 23 December 1996.

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