Memories of Ronnie
When a dear friend or colleague of Ronnie Scott passed away he said that he had gone to join that big band in the sky. Over the years he had to say it, alas, of far too many fellow jazzmen. Now he has gone to join them, and no doubt he'll be opening a club up there.
What a club that will be! Saying that he wanted a place where he could play jazz whenever he felt like it Ronnie opened his first club in Gerard Street in 1959. He modelled the place on some of the clubs he had visited on a trip to New York in the 1940s. To open it he went into partnership with another tenor saxophone player Pete King.
The premises soon proved to be too small for his purposes, and they moved six years later to the club's present location in Frith Street, in the middle of Soho. This is the very heart of London's gangsterland; with its strip joints and night clubs a kind of scaled down version of Hamburg's Reeperbahn. Soon after opening there Ronnie told me that one of the leading gangsters had been in to see him, bringing a magnum of champagne as a welcome gift. 'Open it when the club is a success,' said the man. I don't know whether he ever did. At any rate: realising that the club would bring even more tourists into the area the local heavies ensured that it enjoyed a trouble free existence.
Pete King, solid, down-to-earth, was the organiser. He booked the visiting jazz stars, arranged the business side of the club and looked after the running of the place. Ronnie, the dreamer, decided who should come, and handled the musicians themselves when they arrived. This was no easy task. Many of the visiting American jazzmen were highly temperamental, and needed handling with kid gloves, but he somehow managed it.
He began by asking over some of the most famous of tenor saxophonists, reckoning that he could at least deal with guys who played his own instrument. Usually they were the most difficult ones, but things slowly clicked into place and the place began to do good business.
Royalty patronised the club, and, apart from the many lovers of good jazz music, it gradually became the place to be seen for visiting show business celebrities. It is now quite possibly the longest running jazz club in the world, and the name Ronnie Scott has become a household word.
That Ronnie himself was a tenor saxophonist of the highest quality had long been established. Starting with the Johnny Claes band early on he was quickly discovered by Ted Heath, and joined that fabulous band in 1946. The members of the Heath band were generally viewed by other musicians as demigods. I remember Ronnie later on coming along to a Parnell band rehearsal in Windmill Street to speak to Jack. When he walked in Kenny Graham whispered to me, 'Look at that! Ronnie Scott coming in to our rehearsal!' The guys in the band were awe-struck. I was perhaps less so because I'd already worked with Ronnie in the Vic Lewis band.
We had visited Geneva with the Lewis band, and had a pretty miserable time of it because it rained all the time. We spent most of the days in the hotel playing the table football machine. I was Ronnie's goalkeeper, he was the forward line. Both of us were pretty bad at it. He kept us otherwise cheered up by an unending stream of jokes, puns, limericks and mutilated nursery rhymes, all delivered dead pan, in a graveyard voice.
In the band was the trumpeter Dave Usden. Dave loved Ronnie, so much so that he dogged his every footstep. We nicknamed Dave The Shadow because he was always behind, and slightly to the right of Ronnie. When one of Ron's stories tickled his fancy he'd go around for days repeating the punch line.
A good example of this was the one where a man goes into a restaurant:
'Waiter, bring me a steak and kiddley pie.'
Dave went on saying 'I said kiddley, diddle I' until we begged Ronnie not to tell him any more jokes.
If Ronnie went out and bought something, an article of clothing, a pair of shoes, or whatever, Dave would buy the same. Ronnie was aware of all this devotion and he would often stop dead in the middle of a room, stick a cigarette in his mouth, and, staring at the floor, click his fingers impatiently until Dave ran up with a light.
At the end of this tour we played in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam opposite the Dutch Skymasters big band. The final number had both bands on stage playing a feature for two tenors. The man from the Skymasters went first. After he had played two or three choruses Ronnie went up to take over. The Dutch guy played on, so Ron stepped back. He tried it again after the next chorus, lifting up the tenor, taking a big breath and getting ready to play, with the same result, whereby he walked behind the soloist and went through his whole bag of tricks, including the one where he hanged himself with his saxophone sling.
The place was in an uproar. Still the Dutchman carried on. Finally Ronnie grabbed the microphone, took it over to the side of the stage and began playing with his back to the other guy.
He and Dave left shortly after that tour and were replaced by Kathy Stobart and Bert Courtley. Not long after that he started his own group, and later on tried his hand at forming a big band. I first knew about this when he phoned me one day.
The conversation went something like this. 'Here, you don't want to
come up to Glasgow, do you.' It wasn't phrased as a question.
I had just started my summer holiday so I went up to Green's Playhouse. He had five brass, with Jimmy Deuchar, Les Condon, Ken Wray and I believe Mac Minshul. Derek Humble, Pete and Kenny Graham were in the saxes. Vic Feldman and Tony Crombie were there and I think Lennie Bush was on bass. This was over forty years ago, so I'm relying purely on memory.
The band was great, and the people of Glasgow were ecstatic. As a feature number Ronnie and Pete used to sing and play a duet. I can't remember the title but it was all about being buddies. At the end, locked in a fond embrace, they sang the last note and finally kissed one another. Then they both stomped around all over the bandstand going yuck, yuck, spitting and wiping their mouths in disgust.
Ronnie joined Tubby Hayes in 1957 to form the Jazz Couriers. A couple of years later Ronnie and Pete started the club. I remember well when Ronnie joined the Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland band around 1967-68. I was living in Berlin at the time, and Francy and Ake Persson were coming back home after the Cologne sessions raving about Ronnie and Derek Humble. Francy used to write some really stunning things for the saxes, and when he discovered that Derek was going to come late to a rehearsal Ronnie got the saxes together early to practice a particularly tricky new number. The guys got it off perfectly and sat back awaiting Derek's arrival. When he came in he sat down and played it through at once at breakneck speed absolutely perfectly. I know the story has been told before but it bears repeating.
Ronnie was in the Clarke/Boland band when it made the epic "Live at Ronnie's" recording in his club in 1969. This was probably the last big band he played with. I used to visit the club when I was in London. After I'd paid at the door Ron used to come up and give me my money back. I guess he was still thinking of his cheap Glasgow gig.
The last time I saw Ron was when I played the club with Peter Herbolzheimer in 1974. Art Farmer, Jiggs Whigham and Ake were in that band, with Kenny Clare on drums. Pete and Ronnie were the perfect hosts. Kenny Wheeler came in as a dep for Ack van Rooyen for the final night when we did the recording for "Scenes". The name of the LP came from a title Peter had written in serial form. Ronnie used to announce it, dead-pan as usual: you can hear it on the record: 'And now, Peter Herbolzheimer and the Rhythm Combination and Brass are going to play a number written on the twelve tone scale - whatever that is.'
Ronnie was one of the world's really great tenor saxophone players, but he didn't seem to be aware of it. When the first Stan Getz records came out: they were the things Getz did with Woody Herman, Ronnie never ceased to wonder at Stan's playing. After listening for a while I said that he shouldn't go on like that, because as far as I was concerned he was a better player than Getz. He looked at me for a moment in amazement. I don't think he believed me, but I was echoing the thoughts of everyone around.
Now he is gone, but his club lives on, as a monument to a quick, intelligent man, with a lively sense of humour, and a truly great musician. Ron Simmonds
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