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ronnie scott's 47 Frith Street...
Ronnie Scott and Pete King opened their first club at 39 Gerrard Street, in London's Soho district in 1959. Seven years in 1965 they moved to larger premises in Frith Street, also in Soho, and just a few streets away from the original place. Their club has become what is widely regarded as the premier jazz club in the world today and has continued to operate at Frith Street to the time of writing (2010)...The start at 39 Gerrard Street in 1959
When the new premises were opened Messrs Scott and King decided to keep the Old Place going in order to present the best players on the local scene. Financially this was a precarious project and heavy subsidies had to be taken from the parent club's meagre profits. Unfortuanately premises in Soho can be vastly more profitable for the landlord if they are put to other uses. The lease expired, rents were doubled and another artistically admirable idea fell by the wayside. For a brief period the same policy was carried in upstairs in the new club, but dividing the jazz audience did not work well and finally the upper room was given over to lovers of more popular forms of music and became a disco.

The Club had a tremendous store of goodwill and many people were keen to help the club step up to bigger premises. Pete King (in 1978) continues the story:
We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Harold Davison who allowed us to borrow 35,000 to open the Frith Street club. I think he is a tremendous bloke, not just because he lent us the money, but because he built a lot of his business from jazz and this was his way of giving something back.

A fire ravaged the new building in 1968 occurring as the proprietor was heard to announce, almost a year before it was scheduled. This might well have been a typical bit of Ronnie Scott humour, but it did not disguise the fact that it was a disaster that nearly closed the club for good. Pete King continues:
We'd hardly made a dent in repaying the loan when the premises next door became available to us in the spring of 1968, Harold Davison helped us out again and we knocked down the party wall added an upstairs area with a bar. (The existing downstairs bar in this newly acquired building had a television fitted for the convenience of fans wishing to keep up to date with the football scene). The extended club opened in October 1968 with the Buddy Rich big band putting us still deeper in the red!
On a good night we get 270 people, on a really good night 300. But to get a full house you have to have attractions and they don't come cheap. One of our great disappointments is that we can't do it with British musicians. It's one thing we had to face up to many years ago and accept - but it's still disappointing.

I hope people can't accuse us of neglecting British musicians because we've always tried to use them when we can. Ronnie's Quintet works here often, of course, and Tommy Whittle, Stan Tracey, Kathy Stobart, and so on. One of the difficult things is that we spend a lot of time here running the place and don't get out to hear musicians in the field. You can hear bits on the car radio or TV or the occasional tape; you try to keep up but it's hard. There might be more rhythm section guys around than the ones we normally use, but we've tried various permutations and if we keep coming back to the same dozen guys, it is because they are more adaptable than some of the other British musicians.

One of the most staggering things about the Scott Club is that it has an astonishingly trouble-free record when it comes to destructive drunkenness, punch ups, loud mouthed heckling and other undesirable disturbances. King admits the record is amazing:
And I don't really know why. When we started the "Old Place" there used to be a couple of hooligans put their head down there a few times but I honestly don't think they could stand the music. I suppose we must get a few villains in here in the course of a normal week, but we've never, ever been approached for protection money. Never. It's amazing. The only contact we ever had with the underworld - well, as far as we know anyway - was when we were looking for new premises in the Gerrard Street days and a couple of heavies came in one night and said they would pass the word on. Lo and behold a couple of nights later we got a call and one of the Kray's walked in and took us off to have a look at a club premises in Knightsbridge, Esmeralda's Barn. But it wasn't suitable. That's the only contact we've had that we're aware of.

Pete and Ronnie are principal shareholders in the Club and disagreements between them are rare:
I don't think there's ever been a point when the parting of the ways seemed likely. There are times when I am sure I must drive Ronnie mad, and he can drive me mad - but never to the extent that you can't go home and sleep on it and come back the next day and work out a compromise. It would never have occurred to me to do all this without Ronnie - and my only real regret is that he doesn't involve himself enough promoting and marketing the Club. I'm bloody proud of this place - and I know Ronnie is, though he's not inclined to say so. He's a reserved sort of guy when he's not on stage. Basically he's shy. But the marketing side is enormously important in running a place like this. We have a good reputation which we worked hard to build up and we need to accelerate the growth of our business activities by exploiting this reputation intelligently.
How we've achieved it I don't really know, but a lot of people regard Ronnie Scott's as the leading jazz club in the world. Seems funny when you think we only took Gerrard Street so Ronnie could have somewhere to play.
Ronnie Scott - why did we do it?
When Pete King and I decided to open a jazz club in 1959 I took heart from the fact that we were starting with two significant advantages. First of all we knew that we couldn't lose money in the venture because we didn't have any - and secondly we didn't know that running a jazz club was impossible. In the early days people would say to us "Surely there must be easier ways of earning a living? ". And of course we would reply "Who's earning a living?". It's sometimes hard to believe, looking around the club today (1979), that it had such humble beginnings and that there were times in the early days when things were going so badly that we had to sell clothes pegs to gypsies to keep in business. When Pete and I look back on 20 years of trial and error, of guesswork and gambling, bluff and blunder and all shades of luck from appalling to lousy, we can only wonder at how we had the cheek and temerity to plunge headlong into what has been described as a surefire recipe for financial disaster and mental breakdown.
But what, you may well ask, induced a carefree happy-go-lucky easy-going guy like myself to get involved in running a jazz club? Well, the traditional answer is that I started the Club so that I could guarantee myself somewhere to play - and it's absolutely true. If I hadn't have been a musician, there would have been no Ronnie Scott's Club. however, the possibility of being anything but a musician never really occurred to me.


Ronnie Scott - Moving to 47 Frith Street
We had to raise something like 35,000 in order to convert and decorate the premises and we were extremely lucky to have a good friend in Harold Davison, a promoter who always had a soft spot for jazz. We made him an offer he could easily refuse - but he still lent us the money. Without that generous help there would be no Ronnie Scott's today.
We finished at the Old Place on 27th November 1965 - closed as it had opened, six years earlier, with a tenor saxophonist. Benny Golson was the last American jazzman to play at 39 Gerrard Street.
We opened at Frith Street on Friday December 17th - and extraordinarily enough we featured a tenor saxophonist, Yousuf Lateef. He was rather a special visitor, however, because he also played oboe and flute - an excellent musician. Opposite him was Ernestine Anderson, a lady who had sung with Johnny Otis and Lionel Hampton.
Although we had shut up shop in Gerrard Street, Pete and I planned to re-open the basement as a place in which to present some of the excellent younger musicians who were coming on to the British jazz scene and we finally took that step in September 1966. Absolutely no prizes for guessing that the first attraction was a tenor saxophonist - West Indian Harold McNair, a most gifted player who doubled on flute. Harold was never to achieve his true potential however because he died of cancer in March 1971 at the age of forty.
For the next two years - until the lease ran out and we were unable to afford to renew it at treble the previous figure - the Old Place presented some outstanding musicians including Graham Collier, Mike Osborne, John Surman, Chris McGregor, Tony Oxley and Mike Westbrook. It ran at a loss, but we were happy to subsidise it as long as we could afford to.

A much acclaimed debut at the Club in February 1969 was the big band co-led by Francy Boland and Kenny Clarke which existed between 1962 and 1972, and I had the honour of playing in it. It was a fantastic band while it lasted and among the fine musicians who worked in that band were Johnny Griffin, Derek Humble, Sahib Shihab, Tony Coe, Benny Bailey, Idrees Sulieman, Ake Persson, Dusko Goykovich, Nat Peck and Ron Mathewson.
Another superb big band which that year made the first of several appearances at the club was that of Thad Jones and Mel Lewis.
The BBC filmed a number of jazz programmes at the Club that were shown on BBC2 and this led to Miles Davis making his first and only appearance at the Club. Others filmed at the Club included Lionel Hampton, Sarah Vaughan, Cecil Taylor, the Oscar Peterson Trio, the Clarke - Boland Band and the Buddy Rich Orchestra.
As anyone who has visited the club in the last 15 or 15 years knows, I have a special liking for oblique humour, I began doing regular, between-sets routines soon after we moved into Frith Street. I think you have to have some kind of a sense of humour to be a jazz musician, otherwise you'd go potty sitting in band coaches and trains for hours on end.
But don't think it hasn't all been worthwhile. Because it hasn't - it's made a happy man very old...

Ronnie Scott (1979)

In the early 1980s the club's lease expired, a 40,000 VAT bill arrived and it was only due to loans from the Musician's Union, Charrington's the clubs brewing franchise and a significant donation from Island Records boss Chris Blackwell that the club survived. The long hours worked by Pete and Ronnie took their toll. In 1988 Pete King suffered a major heart attack that required bypass surgery. Ronnie was suffering from depression due to crises in his personal life and dental trouble that was making it increasingly difficult to play.



Ronnie Scott's says goodbye sticky carpets - hello decent food and air conditioning (Daily Telegraph 24/6/06)
The legendary Soho jazz club has had a long overdue revamp. Farewell, then, the sticky carpet, stale air, and food of which the original owner used to say, only half-joking, "A thousand flies can't be wrong." On Monday, Ronnie Scott's club, that venerable Soho institution which proudly calls itself the home of British jazz, reopens after the first major re-fit in its 47-year existence.
Now 1 million has been spent by the club's new owner, theatre impresario Sally Greene. This makeover will be scrutinised with as much interest as the one she carried out at the Old Vic after acquiring the theatre in 1998, although on this occasion Greene has delegated a lot of the decision-making. The person calling the shots round at Frith Street now is the club's manager and booker, Leo Green, son of musician Benny Green, who played in Scott's legendary band of the early 1950s. His contacts across the worlds of jazz and R&B landed him a job which entails keeping the musical menu pretty much as it was. "In terms of the music, Ronnie's wasn't broken and we haven't fixed it," he says.

For those anoraks who believe that jazz can only be truly appreciated in louche, poorly lit dives, the good news is that the club has retained its trademark brothel-red table lighting. Getting in is much easier now that you won't have to fight through a crush of bodies queuing at the bar, which has been sensibly moved from the side next to the entrance to the middle at the back. The carpet upon which oceans of drinks have spilled down the years and on to which the great jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie once threw up has finally been replaced. Air con, comfy seats and a range of edible snacks promise a hitherto unknown level of comfort. The upstairs part of the venue, for years a semi-detached irrelevance, has been turned into a DJ bar - jazz only. The new regime have been careful to preserve one thing: the club's excellent acoustics. This has meant not messing around with the low ceiling, not moving the stage or otherwise altering the layout of the main room. "What musicians love about Ronnie's isn't the tradition of the place, it's the intimacy and clarity of the sound," says Green.

(It was widely reported at the time that Sally Greene spent 1m on refurbishing the club but sources now suggest that 2.5m was the final figure.)

December 17th, 2007 - Numerous complaints about the booking of non jazz musicians, and the steepling cost of admission have led to the resignation of the manager Leo Green. The owners promise that the jazz policy will be restored and a new manager will be appointed in the near future...

October 30th, 2009 - The club celebrated it 50th birthday and the general opinion is that the club's problems are behind it. The jazz-first ethos has been revived and things look healthier than for many years. Talent booking is in the hands of James Pearson, Paul Pace, and managing director Simon Cooke, formerley events and promotions manager at Jazz FM. With a stable staff and top jazz attractions booked the future prospects are looking good.
The 50th anniversary of the club, sadly, was followed by the death of Pete King on December 20th after a period of illness.
Many major American jazz musicians have played at the club, some on more than one occasion. The heyday was probably the 1970s when the following musicians appeared: Charles Mingus, Stan Getz, Charlie Shavers, Earl Hines, Roland Kirk, Harry James, Manard Ferguson, Herbie Mann, Anita O'day, Stan Kenton, Bill Evans, Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band, Chico Hamilton, Moden Jazz Quartet, Stephane Grappelli, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, Buddy Rich, Jimmy Witherspoon, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Herman, Ella Fitzgerald, Sonny Rollins, Elvin Jones, Joe Pass, Illinois Jacquet, Junior Mance, Clark Terry, Cecil Taylor, Milt Jackson, Roy Eldridge, Zoot Sims, the Count Basie Band, Cedar Walton, Frank Rosolino, Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Horace Silver, Milt Buckner, Betty Carter, Woody Shaw, Dexter Gordon, George Coleman, Sarah Vaughan, Roy Eldridge, Bobby Hutcherson, Helen Humes, Mary Lou Williams, Harry Edison, Eddie Lockjaw Davis and Johnny Griffin.

All the top British modern jazz musicians played at Ronnie Scott's. Ronnie himself stopped recording for a time when he opened the club and through the rest of his life virtually all the records he made were live from the Club. Tubby Hayes and Jimmy Deuchar played regularly and were also recorded live. Stan Tracey was resident pianist and accompanied virtually every American soloist who came over in the first half of the 1960s.

This page was last updated during December, 2009.
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