|Ronnie Scott (1963)...|
In 1963 Val Wilmer interviewed Ronnie Scott. The article appeared in Jazz Journal and this is an extract from it...
Ronnie Scott of 39 Gerrard Street has probably done more for British jazz than anyone else in recent years by opening a club he himself acutely described as "one of the few joints in the country which can be called a jazz club", and affording exposure to established and lesser known British 'modernists'. He has also been responsible for importing top American talent, giving audiences a chance to hear these artists extend themselves without the limitations imposed by the ever-imminent dropping curtain, and allowing local jazzmen to catch the influential performers between their own sets. Ronnie's own tenor playing has continued to mature until he has reached the point of being one of the most authoratative horns on the British jazz scene. He agrees there is no doubt that presenting Americans in the club has helped his own worh to improve and says:
"Listening to good American musicians in the flesh is worth hours of listening to them on record. to me jazz is such an 'in-person' thing that you must hear it live to to obtain the full benefit of a performance. There are concerts, of course, and although they are to be preferred to recorded work, there is nothing quite like hearing a guy 'stretch out' in a club. I think a lot of musicians here are in a funny position. There's a certain sort of inferiority thing that goes on regarding the American musicians and I think the appearance of US guys at the club has done a lot to dispel this. Guys who have sat in with Zoot, and Al, Dexter, Lucky and Griffin have had a ball and there has not been any startling differences in ability. I think hearing these Americans has done a lot to help all musicians here".
Tony Brown said some time ago that "the trouble with British musicians is that they try too hard. They're always tring to prove something", but Ronnie takes exception to this:
"You're always trying" he said "Any serious musician will be very deeply concerned with the result any time he plays. But, in any case the art form is such that that it lends itself very badly to criticism. It's not an easy art to criticise because it's so much a matter of personal taste and involvement. There are certain pre-requisites before one can criticise a jazz performance even in the broadest terms, and by criticise I mean in the fashion of our so called 'professional' critics. One is a lot of experience in either playing or listening and another is some knowledge of musical theory. You can't listen to a jazz performance completely unless you have some sort of musical knowledge because there'll always be some things you miss. This is not to say you can't enjoy it unless you have musical knowledge, but you certainly get a fuller appreciation if you do".
The need to know jazzmen to understand what they are doing has always been one of my ideals and Ronnie agreed:
"But the main objection to criticism seems to me to lie in the fact that a jazz musician is expressing himself and surely only he can judge how well he is succeeding. When a jazz musician plays he is expressing facets of his personality which are communicable only through the medium of his music and the extent to which he feels he has succeeded is the only important consideration. Pleasing or displeasing his audience and/or the 'critics' must be completely incidental, therefore it would seem to me that criticism can only be applied to the broadcast generalities i.e. in tune or out, drunk or sober etc".
Ronnie Scott has been playing professionally for the past twenty years, since the age of sixteen. "Though of course in the early days there wasn't really a living to be made playing jazz, but most of the bands with which I worked had a jazz slant".
His father was a saxophonist but was no real influence on Ronnie who started listening to records in his early 'teens:
"The Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller things - and they still sound good. my first instrument was a cornet I bought for five shillings in a junk shop I passed on the way to school. That didn't seem to work out very well so I bought a soprano saxophone. It took me three months to find out some of the pads were missing and then I bought a tenor. I used to play in a boy's club in the East End with people like Tony Crombie and Flash Winstone. We'd occasionally play for the local kids' hops. I'd give a lot to hear a record of that band. I listened to Byas, Hawkins, Webster, Charlie Ventura and Lester Young, but at that time I don't think I was proficient enough to accept any particular influence".
Ronnie's first professional job was with a pianist named Clarry Weers at a rather dubious West End club called 'La Bouillabaisse' and afterwards he would go on to the 'Jamboree Club' where Carlo Krahmer had the band:
"Carlo was in between tenor players - as you might say. I think Lennie Wood had left to join Teddy Foster's band and Jimmy Skidmore was replacing him, but for some reason or other couldn't start for a couple of weeks. I'd only been playing about nine months at this time, but Carlo assured me that it didn't matter whether I played or not - I was there primarily to make up the complement of musicians that Carlo was contracted to have on the stand. The 'Jamboree' was the musicians' after-hours club of the day, and I heard some great music there whilst I played the role of the silent tenor player.
Then I went with Cab Kaye who was playing drums and doing vocals at the 'Orchard Club' in Wigmore Street with Dick Katz on piano and Charles Scott on bass. It was a free-and-easy sort of place and trumpet player Johnny Claes often used to come down and sit in. I left the 'Orchard Club' to join Johnny's band replacing Tommy Whittle I think. This was my first experience of touring and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Johnny was an excellent jazz musician and the band was one of the best of the period - a little rough but with great spirit and enthusiasm. I think perhaps the nine piece band that I led a few years back owed a lot to Johnny Claes' group".
After six months with Claes, Ronnie left to join Ted Heath. The year was 1945, and Ronnie confesses to being knocked out by it all. It was the best paid job around and the one with the most prestige:
"I was very young and it was all very glamorous. After all I was only eighteen and Ted's band was tremendously popular. However I got the sack after about nine months which was probably all for the best - I might still have been there..."
( Although Ronnie was sacked for bad time keeping he was becoming very popular with the female followers of the Heath Orchestra. With Jack Parnell he played in a quartet, a 'band within a band', playing bop numbers. It is possible that Heath thought he was becoming bigger than the band... )
On leaving Heath, Ronnie joined Tito Burns who as well as doing one-night stands had a regular stint on BBC's 'Accordian Club' on Friday afternoons. From there he worked in a few night clubs, places like 'Churchill's' where Jack Jackson and pianist Hamish Menzies were co-leaders of the band:|
"It was fantastic. One of them used to call a tune and the other decided he wanted to play something else. The results were often very interesting".
Several trips on the boats followed taking Ronnie to New York where he heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie among others, and then he joined Ambrose at the 'Nightingale'. Kenny Baker, Harry Hayes and Kenny Graham were also in the band which just preceded the famous 'Club Eleven' days:
"Before then I used to go to Feldman's to listen to and occasionally play with guys like Carl Barriteau, Aubrey Frank, Jimmy Skidmore and Bertie King, but 'Club Eleven' was the first jazz club open more than one night a week and featuring modern jazz entirely.
There were two bands, a quintet and a sextet. The trumpets were Leon Calvert and Henry Shaw, Johnny Rogers and Johnny Dankworth were the altos, Bernie Fenton and Tommy Pollard the pianos, Lennie Bush and I think Jo Muddel or Bruce Wayne were the bassists, and Tony Crombie and Laurie Morgan the drummers. Dennis Rose was a big influence. He was the sort of theorist who used to listen to Dizzy and Charlie Parker and work out what they did harmonically.
The 'Club eleven' lasted for a couple of years but eventually got out of hand, none of us being businessmen. It developed into a sort of organised chaos".
After this, Ronnie joined Jack Parnell for a while before forming his own nine-piece band which lasted for about three years and which he considers one of the best things of its kind ever to happen in this country. It included people like Derek Humble, Ken Wray and Jimmy Deuchar and preceded a succession of quartets, quintets and solo appearances. An abortive attempt at forming an all-star big band followed. This lasted about three months - Ronnie is still trying to forget about it. For a short time after this he and Tony Crombie amalgamated their groups to form a band, with Annie Ross as the featured vocalist. Then it was back to the clubs and the 'Jazz Couriers' of 1957-59, a two tenor and rhythm group which Ronnie co-led with Tubby Hayes. At the end of two lively years, Tubby went on to lead his own quartet, and Ronnie opened the club at 39 Gerrard Street. He regards the club as fulfillment of a long ambition and an extremely satisfying venture:
"To me the only way to run a thing like the club with any integrity is to run it to your tastes; to present the music and the musicians that you think are good. And as far as possible this is what we try and do although we have to consider the box-office to a certain extent. The club has to pay it's way, otherwise we'd be forced to close. I consider we are one of the few jazz clubs in this country with any real consistency of policy.With the others, it's modern jazz one night, 'traddy-pop' the next,then Rhythm 'n' Blues or 'poppy cock' or even 'cock and bull' the next. I'd like a bigger place, however and we're looking for one right now. I don't think there is room for another 'jazz dance hall' like the Flamingo or the Marquee, but there is certainly room for something more adult".
In his capacity as a club proprietor, Ronnie is in a better position than most to be a champion of British jazz. Although up to know Shearing and Reinhardt have been the only real individualists this side of the Atlantic, Ronnie feel that his fellow musicians have plenty to offer:
"The reason for the lack of European 'pace-setters' is basically because jazz is an American art-form and it will take time for any other country to catch up, but as jazz becomes more universal and as there are so manytop-rate US musicians now working regularly in Europe, I'm sure the time will come when there will be as many good jazz musicians outside America as in. Incidentally, I do not think that there is more and better jazz in England than anywhere else in Europe".
Ronnie Scott is interested in music as a whole but he is unable to understand why so many musicians in this country aspire to produce re-incarnations of the traditional style:
"Other than the obvious financial aspect, if you are trying to play in the idiom of thirty or forty years ago you are in a tight little circle and all you can do is double back on yourself.Any deviations from the ancient formula and you are no longer a true jazz musician. If you are going to ape the music of the American Negro, why not follow the example of the present day Negro who is no longer the second class citizen he was forced to be in the old days and is now realising and revelling in the knowledge of the awakening of his race. Surely the music of such men is much more in keeping with life today?
I think I'm the sort of player with whom jazz is a bit of a hit and miss affair. I mean I can go for weeks feeling that the last thing in the world I should be is a saxophone player and I imagine that a lot of musicians experience the same feeling. Then there might come a time, maybe just one night or a run of a few nights when things seem to come much easier and I feel in my element. I think that technical achievements aren't the be-all and end-all of being a jazz musician. Being able to fly through all the changes and have everything under your fingertips doesn't necessarily make for good jazz music. I'd much rather hear a guy who perhaps will play nothing very much and then suddenly play something that really moves you. It doesn't have to be a technical thing, it can be two notes or one note - one phrase - one night - one number, that to me is worth all the technique in the world."...