Ronnie Scott

Scott, Ronald [Ronnie] (1927-1996), jazz saxophonist and nightclub owner, was born at the Mothers' Home, 396 Commercial Road, Stepney, London, on 28 January 1927, the son of Joseph Schatt (also known as Jock Scott), a saxophonist and orchestra leader, and his wife, Sylvia (Cissie) Rosenbloom (d. 1962), a saleswoman who lived at 33 South Tenter Street, Aldgate. His father, 'an urbane, humorous, charismatic and hard-gambling man', abandoned the family when Scott was four years of age, leaving Ronnie to be brought up by his mother and grandmother (The Guardian). In 1935 his mother married Solomon (Sol) Berger, a tailor, and a year later Scott acquired a half-sister Marlene. After unsuccessful attempts to play both the cornet and the soprano saxophone, Scott was given a tenor saxophone by Solomon Berger, his stepfather, and almost immediately showed an affinity for the instrument. He took lessons from the musician Jack Lewis, father-in-law of the singer Vera Lynn, and later from the bandleader Harry Gold.

At the age of sixteen Scott was sufficiently competent to play with ephemeral bands appearing at clubs in the Soho area of London, then in 1944 he joined the band of the Belgian trumpeter Johnnie Claes, with which he remained for a year. During this time the band appeared in the George Formby film George in Civvy Street, with Scott clearly visible on screen. At the end of 1945 he worked briefly in a band led by Dennis Rose, a musician whose fresh ideas were to have a great influence on Scott and a rising generation of young British jazz players. In February 1946 Scott joined the new and prestigious Ted Heath orchestra; he remained for a year, appearing on a number of Heath's recordings made for the Decca label.

After being dismissed by Heath, Scott and the drummer Tony Crombie made their first trip to the United States in order to hear the new jazz form, called bebop, played by its creators in New York clubs. A few months later Scott was back in the USA, this time as a member of the drummer Bobby Kevin's band aboard the newly refurbished liner Queen Mary. By now he had become a member of a group of like-minded British jazz musicians, including John Dankworth, Dennis Rose, and Tony Crombie, and after a short stay with the sextet of the piano-accordionist Tito Burns, Scott became a founder member of the Club Eleven, a co-operative jazz group which opened its own club in a rehearsal room on Great Windmill Street, London.

Club Eleven lasted from January 1949 until April 1950 and gave Scott his first experience of running a jazz club. He worked in the bands of Jack Nathan and Vic Lewis until the spring of 1951, when the drummer Jack Parnell formed his first orchestra and asked Scott and other leading jazz musicians to join. In January 1953 Scott and a number of others left Parnell and formed a successful nine-piece band under Scott's leadership. This band brought together some of the finest jazz players in Britain, made several recordings for the Esquire record label, and firmly established Scott as perhaps the most important figure in his field. But Scott's decision to enlarge the band led eventually to its breakup through lack of bookings. He then co-led another band with Tony Crombie before taking his own sextet on a tour of the USA.

On his return to Britain at the beginning of 1957 Scott formed a quintet with the young tenor saxophonist Tubby Hayes and named it the Jazz Couriers. This was arguably one of the most important of all British jazz units, and the public responded by giving it considerable support. When it disbanded in August 1959 it was not for lack of musical success or popularity: Scott had decided to give up touring and open his own jazz club. 'Ronnie Scott's' opened its doors at 39 Gerrard Street, London, on 30 October 1959 and almost immediately became the focal point for jazz in the capital. The management of the club was handled by Scott's partner Pete King, a musician who had worked with him on many occasions, while Scott himself was responsible for its public image as well as frequently playing there with his own small group.

The club gave Scott the opportunity to display his natural talents as wit and raconteur as well as his unrivalled abilities as a first- class jazz improviser. For the first two years of the club's life the long-standing disagreement between the British and US musicians' unions was still in force, making it impossible for American musicians to work in Britain. Thanks to considerable negotiations by the manager Pete King, the American tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims was allowed to play at the club for four weeks in November 1961. Basing subsequent bookings on reciprocal exchange, the club played host to many famous soloists and bands over the succeeding years and, thanks in large part to Scott's and King's work, the union ban was eventually resolved. Among those who played at the club were Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Coleman Hawkins, and Stan Getz.

In December 1965 Ronnie Scott's moved to larger premises in Frith Street, London, and in October 1991 another branch was opened in Birmingham, but Scott, an inveterate Londoner, spent most of his time at Frith Street, where he had established a jazz club with an international reputation. Its clientele often included politicians, royalty, and prominent show-business personalities, all of whom found the relaxed atmosphere, plus Scott's policy of never capitalizing on their presence, to their liking. Scott was appointed OBE for his services to music in 1981. According to John Fordham, Scott could be 'dismissive, intimidating and self-preoccupied', and he could be generous, playful, and disarmingly modest. Indeed he 'had to be reminded of the remarkable role the [club] had played in the development of British jazz' (The Guardian). In 1979 he published Some of my Best Friends are Blues, written with Mike Hennessey.

In the final year of his life Scott suffered health problems including recurring dental difficulties, the bane of many musicians, saxophonists in particular. This resulted in his failing to appear at his club as a playing musician for most of 1995. A gum operation had resulted in the removal of all his teeth and in the fitting of a plate, which he hoped would enable him to perform again in public. He had planned to announce his return to work by playing at the club on Christmas eve 1996, but was found dead from barbiturate poisoning at his home, 21 Elm Park Mansions, Park Walk, London, on 23 December. An interdenominational service of remembrance for Scott was held at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, on 7 April 1997 and attended by hundreds of friends and musicians. Scott never married but had a number of lengthy relationships. He had a son, Nicholas (b. 1964), with Ilsa Fox, and a daughter, Rebecca (b. 1972), with Mary Hulin. Both Ilsa and Mary changed their surnames to Scott.

Alun Morgan


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