SCOTT, Ronnie (1927-1996)
Plaque erected in 2019 by English Heritage at 39 Gerrard Street, Soho, London, W1D 5QD, City of Westminster
Musician and raconteur
Music and Dance
RONNIE SCOTT 1927-1996 Jazz musician and raconteur ran his club in the basement 1959-1965
Ronnie Scott was one of the UK’s best jazz musicians and the founder of the country’s first modern jazz club. He is commemorated with a blue plaque at the former premises of his jazz club, Ronnie Scott’s, on 39 Gerrard Street in Soho. The club opened there in 1959 and moved to its current premises on Frith Street in 1965.
EARLY JAZZ LIFE
Ronnie Scott was born Ronald Schatt to a Jewish family in London’s East End. His mother and stepfather gave him a new tenor saxophone while he was still at school, and the instrument soon became the love of his life. He joined Felix Mendelssohn’s Hawaiian Serenaders when he was just 15 and frequented the wartime clubs of the West End and makeshift dance halls of the East End, every night that he could. By 19 he was touring with some of the biggest post-war ‘big bands’, but the sound was too traditional for him, and he would often incorporate Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker style improvisations into his solos.
Inspired by the new jazz music coming out of America, Scott travelled to New York to experience the bebop jazz phenomenon of 52nd Street for himself. Not content with his first two-month trip, he made the Atlantic crossing to New York multiple times. The evenings spent at jazz clubs such as the Three Deuces left an indelible impression on Scott and inspired him to open his own modern jazz club in a similar small and intimate venue in London.
In December 1948 Scott co-founded Club Eleven – the UK’s first modern jazz club. Located in Soho just around the corner from the gig venues of Archer Street, it soon became the place for musicians to hang out. Unfortunately Club Eleven folded in 1950, but Scott pursued his own musical career throughout the 1950s – leading his own successful nine-piece group, the Ronnie Scott Orchestra, from 1953 until 1956, and forming the Jazz Couriers with Edward Brian ‘Tubby’ Hayes in 1957.
But in October 1959 he opened his eponymous Soho jazz club in the basement of 39 Gerrard Street with fellow saxophonist Pete King. It had been a taxi drivers’ and musicians’ hang-out, with just a couple of billiard tables, a few chairs, and a counter where you could buy tea and sandwiches. With the help of a loan of £1,000 from Scott’s stepfather, they painted the room, built a small bandstand, and bought some second-hand furniture and a baby grand piano.
In 1961 Ronnie Scott’s became the first club in the UK to feature American Modern Jazz artists, and its clientele included Harold Pinter, the Beatles, Peter O’Toole and Spike Milligan. From the beginning the unique atmosphere and appeal of the club owed much to Scott’s skills as a host. He was renowned for his dry humour, with jokes often targeted at his own club’s décor, food and clientele: ‘I love this club, it’s just like home. Filthy and full of strangers.’
Now operating out of its Frith Street premises, Ronnie Scott’s is considered to be ‘the spiritual home of British jazz’, with an international reputation as one of the premier jazz clubs in the world.
Ronnie Scott continued to work as a musician through the 1960s and 70s, running his own octet and working as an occasional session musician. He suffered from ill health, depression and heavy drinking in his later years, and died on 23 December 1996. His funeral was held at Golders Green Crematorium, and his memorial stone reads ‘Ronnie Scott OBE. Jazz musician, club proprietor, raconteur and wit. He was the leader of our generation.’