The Club and I
The Club and I
Jazz...it's never been healthier
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1979
Well, Ronnie, how’s it feel to be twenty?
Five years’ time I get out, with good behaviour! Yes, it’s been a nice experience; I’ve enjoyed it all—well, most of it. The occasional hassles, but most of it’s been great. And the beautiful thing about it, as far is I’m concerned, is that at the same time I’ve got my partner, Pete ‘King, who looks after the business side of things, and so I’m free to play. I’m doing as much work with the group now as I’ve ever done—having a good time.
How much actual organising of the club do you partake in?
Oh, well, any major decisions, of course, we collaborate on, Pete and I—who we’re going to book, how much we can afford, whether we can change the decor in any way. Things like that we get together on, but the day—to—day running of the club Pete takes care of. Which is fantastic—he does a marvellous job.
Then there’s your own company, Ronnie Scott Directions . . .
All the managerial side is Pete’s baby; the Directions thing handles some artists, and we’ve got the recording outlet going with Pye—which is a bit of a battle. It’s difficult to find people we want to record who are free to record, that kind of thing, but it’s going okay. Everybody’s okay; it’s just that the overheads of the place are getting gigantic. So it’s sometimes difficult to make ends meet—but it’s certainly easier now than it was eight to ten years ago.
Really, the story of the club is almost the story of your life, isn’t it?
Well—I was only thirteen when the club opened! Certainly it’s the last twenty years of my life. I’m fifty–two—so when we started I was thirty–two, and I’d been a professional, travelling musician for sixteen years before that. The fact is, I’ve always been on the road; I’m here maybe fifty per cent of the time, either working at the club with a group, introducing the artists or whatever. The rest of the time I’m out on the road with the group.
As a young musician, was it in your mind at all that it would be good to have your own club?
I never really thought about it much. I think maybe the seeds were sown when I first went to America round about ‘48 or ‘49. 52nd Street was happening in those days, and I remember Tony Crombie and I had gone to New York on holiday; we arrived in the evening, dumped our bags in the hotel, and immediately got a taxi to 52nd Street. The first club we went to was called The Three Deuces. A marvellous place; I’d never seen anything like it. I’d heard about it, read about it, but never seen it; so when we went in there it just hit me, and it was a fantastic feeling. I’ve tried.
I think, ever since then, to get that kind of feeling in a place. The doorman at The Three Deuces in those days was a guy named Pinkus—a little Jewish guy, looked about fifty–five, sixty years old, with a peaked commissionaire’s cap, a long overcoat and a cigar; whenever we walked by, he always had the same routine: “Step inside, folks—you’re just in time for the complete performance”—whatever time it was. And the amazing thing is that I was in New York as recently as last year, and there is this guy, thirty years later—he’s the doorman now at Jimmy Ryan’s and he dresses !n exactly the same way, looks exactly the same, I think it’s the same cigar, and he’s got the same routine. That knocked me out. Fantastic.
What was it about the environment of those kind of clubs that got to you?
I was just the fact there was this place where no one was dancing. I mean, previously, any kind of jazz clubs that I’d worked in over here were really dance places. That’s okay—I quite like people dancing when we’re playing; it’s nice to see people move to the music, But the fact was that the vast majority of the people who came to those clubs were really interested in dancing and chatting the girls up, or the girls in chatting up the boys, and so forth. Only a very small percentage sat and listened to the music. And there was this small place, where people just listened at tables. had drinks. and there was this terrific ambience about the place; it was small and smoky and the music was just marvellous. I think the first band I heard there was Bill Harris and Charlie Ventura, with a sextet. The whole combination of all those things was just great. There was nowhere like it that I knew of in Europe—certainly not in England.
Anyway, you carried on playing; you had various bands. You had a big band, in fact, at one time.
Oh, yes, I did—we don’t talk about that! It proved impossible to run. I’d had this nine–piece band, which was very successful; all the guys were really the best players around, as far as I was concerned—people like Jimmy Deuchar, Derek Humble, Victor Feldman, Tony Crombie, Ken Wray. When that kind of folded, I thought it’d be a good idea to get a big band together, also with all the best players. For instance, we had people like Dougie Robinson and Joe Harriott in the saxophone section—two marvellous players, but it just didn’t happen socially or musically, really. It was just a mistake. I thought that all the best guys in the country must produce the best bandit didn’t work out that way. Too many different temperaments. It had its moments; it was quite funny sometimes.
What were the first moves towards the arrival of the club possibility?
Well, it started with that small band. What we’d done occasionally was: instead of working for a promoter, we would hire premises somewhere in the West End and run a night with the band. And this seemed to work; we made more money that way, we could do what we liked, nobody told us when to go on and what to play.
Earlier, though, you’d been involved with the Club Eleven, hadn’t you?
Yes, I suppose that was really the first venture like that. There had been jazz clubs before that, of course: the Feldman Club was the original one, but that only opened Sundays, or maybe Saturdays and Sundays. Then the Club Eleven started in much that way; there were ten of us—two quintets—and we hired a room, charged half–a–crown or whatever it was, and worked. That opened, eventually, six or seven nights a week, until it collapsed. So you’re right—that was the first step.
How did the ‘59 opening in Gerrard Street actually come about?
I’d been working with Tubby, with the Jazz Couriers; that broke up, and I was just goofing around, playing with whoever happened along, but there didn’t seem to be much direction at that time. There were very few places to play, really; there was the Flamingo and a couple of others. You were lucky if you worked a couple of nights a week; a lot of good players were around, yet they weren’t doing anything much. We started looking around for premises, and this guy I knew who had this place in Gerrard Street, which was a taxi drivers’ all–night hangout, wasn’t doing too well with it; he was the landlord, and he asked us if we’d like to take it over—he knew that we had run occasional jazz things in the vicinity, and he’d heard we were looking for a place. So he moved out, and we took over this bare cellar. Well. it wasn’t completely bare—it had a little coffee bar, with a gas stove or something, at one end, and a counter that they used to serve coffee at, and that was it.
For about two years, it ran with strictly British talent, didn’t it?
That was the whole idea; we had no ambition at all, as far as the place was concerned. It was just a place to play, for British guys, it cost half–a–crown, or five bob on Saturday, to come in, and there was the coffee bar, rows of chairs—I don’t think there were any tables. That was all we wanted to do with the place. But it was such a battle, and we were lucky to pay the rent every week. So then we decided: why not try and make it a little more . . . adult, if you like, try to get a liquor licence, and see if we could get it somewhere like the 52nd Street places used to be. We had great difficulty getting the liquor licence, because to do that you had to have an emergency exit—and there just wasn’t one. You came in, and if there was a fire you burnt to death! That was it.
It’s amazing, really—we rigged up a kind of a Heath Robinson emergency exit thing. We were a basement, and this was some way that got you upstairs or something, on to the first floor and out through some firm that was on the ground floor. And amazingly enough, the licensing people okayed it. We got the licence; we could only serve members, of course, and there was a committee. Pete, myself. Benny Green and somebody else were on what we laughingly called the committee; we had meetings, took minutes and the whole bit—hilarious, really. That helped, certainly—people began to come down the place rather than go to a pub, because they knew they could get a drink and hear music as well. But even that really didn’t mean much; we were still kind of battling. Finally, we said: “Why don’t we try and get some kind of name musician over from America?”
And that led to you having Zoot Sims to play there.
Zoot was the first, yes, but, as you know, in those days the British and the American unions had a kind of a feud going, whereby the British wouldn’t allow any Americans to work in clubs, and the Americans took the same attitude as far as the British were concerned. All that had happened previously were very occasional concerts with American musicians. And so Pete negotiated something: he spoke to the union over here, and he went to America and spoke to the guy over there, the result being that he fixed up an agreement. If we had an American musician in the club, then a British musician had to go to America and work in a club over there. That’s the way it started. Zoot, Dexter Gordon, Lucky Thompson and others came over here; I went to America for somebody, then Tubby went, and I went with Jimmy Deuchar and Ronnie Ross, I remember, one time. That very first engagement of Zoot Sims was fantastic; he’s always been one of my all–time favourite musicians, and to have him there for a month was just marvellous.
It was a tremendous novelty then, and presumably you felt a greater sense of excitement about it than you have done in latter years.
Of course—those were the early days, and each guy who came over was a fantastic thing. I mean, it still is, but everybody gets a bit blasé about it now. At that time, to hear those guys night after night in a club setting was something that just hadn’t happened over here. And I think it was good for everybody. The guys who came over, for the most part, seemed to enjoy it; the guys who played with them enjoyed it; the people certainly enjoyed it—I know I did. Now it’s kind of taken for granted—well, I suppose that’s the natural course of events.
During the initial couple of years of the exchange set-up, you had only single artists over. For the most part, they were soloists and they worked with a British rhythm section, yes, and that went on for quite a while. The first group as such that came over was the Bill Evans Trio—which was another kind of kick, to hear an American group working in the club. Later on, Horace Silver came over; Roland Kirk worked at the old place, and . . .
But Roland worked only with Stan Tracey’s trio at the old place, didn’t he?
Did he? Yes, you’re right. He came over later with his group; in the first instance he came over alone—that’s true.
What other groups were there?
You know, I can’t remember, apart from Bill Evans’ Trio and Horace Silver’s Quintet.
Well, you didn’t have many visiting groups as such at the old place, did you? Mostly, it was people like Stan Getz, Sonny Stitt, Freddie Hubbard, Donald Byrd and Wes Montgomery working with the house rhythm section.
Well, anything else just wasn’t possible. The place held a hundred people, packed; so it just wasn’t economically feasible to do anything very ambitious. We just brought soloists in—and even that was great. I mean, there was never a thing like: “We going to build this up into some kind of international joint.” It just kind of happened, really, without any of our doing.Copyright © 1979 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.