The first law of jazz

'You can generally tell the character of saxophonists from their tone. The rougher they sound, the sweeter they are in real life'

Miles Kington
Monday 03 March 2003 01:00 GMT

One of my favourite musicians died the other day, an American jazz trumpeter (actually, cornettist) called Ruby Braff. He was small, truculent and pugnacious, and seemed to dislike everyone he played with. As Humphrey Lyttelton said in his tribute programme to him on Radio 2 on last week, you would not be surprised to find out that Ruby Braff was born aggrieved.

And yet the odd thing is that you'd never guess it from his playing, which was ravishing, beautiful, seductive, not soft but sinuous and shapely. When he hit the bottom notes, which he did better than any trumpeter I ever heard, they were firm and round, like perfectly ripe plums. He let his phrases go off into little enchanted noodles, as if he were a wayward poet. But he wasn't. Not in life, anyway. He was an awkward cuss and a pain in the neck.

He was, in fact, an example of what I think I ought to call Pete King's First Law of Jazz. Pete King is the man who has been running Ronnie Scott's jazz club all these years. You thought it was Ronnie Scott who ran Ronnie Scott's? No, Lord bless you, child. Ronnie played there and fronted it and compered it and told the jokes between sets, but I don't think he actually ran the place any more than the Queen runs Her Majesty's Government. Pete King did that.

(I remember once many years back sitting next to Pete King at a table at Patisserie Valerie's in Old Compton Street, back when I was a bit of a Londoner, and Pete King turned to me looking harrassed and said, "Miles, you couldn't lend me £3,000, could you?"

And while I was patting my pockets for loose change, he explained: "The thing is, I've got Sarah Vaughan arriving at the club in a fortnight, and I didn't realise that she was bringing her entire trio with her, so I've got to find an extra £3,000..." That's what I call having to run Ronnie Scott's.)

Anyway, I was once discussing the character of various musicians with Pete King, and he suddenly said: "You can generally tell the character of saxophonists from their tone. The rougher they sound, the sweeter they are in real life. The guys who play with a gritty, attacking tone, as hot as you like, are always the nice ones. It's the ones who sounds so lush who turn out to be the ruffians. Remember Don Byas? Lovely sweet tone? Seductive sound? When he came to the club, he kept pulling knives on people. And who do you think is the most sweet-sounding tenor saxophonist of all?"

I thought. Ben Webster? When he played slowly, he was ravishing. But when he played fast, he had a quite different, scorching tone. Obviously a split personality there. Mr Nice and Nasty in the same person. So it had to be... Stan Getz! Stan Getz had the most voluptuous sound of any tenor player that ever lived, silky and strong, totally mesmeric.

"Stan Getz," I said.

He nodded.

"He was without doubt the most unpleasant and disagreeable person who ever played at Ronnie Scott's. Everyone loathed him."

I have heard it said that Ronnie Scott himself used to arrange to be out of the country when Stan Getz came to play at the club, and I have managed to unearth this chunk of Ronnie Scott conversation from a nice old storehouse of anecdotes called "The Best of Jazz Score", edited by Roy Pellett and published by the BBC.

"Stan Getz is a truly marvellous saxophone player and I have been an admirer of his for longer than I can remember, but he is definitely no shrinking violet. In fact, he has an ego like the side of a house.

"It so happened that one of his visits to the club coincided with my contracting a very bad back. I told everyone that I got a slipped disc by bending over backwards to please Stan Getz.

"Soon afterwards I was on tour with my group and we used to pass the time away by planning tunes that Getz could use on his next album – 'All The Things I Am', 'I am Your Heart's Delight', 'There'll Never be Another Me' and so on..."

And, just to square the circle, quite by accident I find this little reminiscence by Ronnie Scott about the equally self-absorbed Ruby Braff.

"I heard that someone wished Ruby Braff a Happy New Year, and he turned on them, saying, 'Don't you tell me what kind of new year to have!'"

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