Pete King, who died on December 20 aged 80, was the co-founder of Ronnie Scott's jazz club and in charge of its day-to-day running from the opening night.
Published: 6:31PM GMT 21 Dec 2009
Photo: DAVID SINCLAIR
King was renowned as much for his formidable presence – newcomers to the club sometimes mistook him for the bouncer – as for his business acumen. For eight years after Scott's death he was the club's sole proprietor.
Peter Stephen George King was born in Bow, east London, on August 23 1929. He took up the clarinet and saxophone as a teenager, taught by Vera Lynn's father-in law, Harry Lewis. Though he began his working life as an apprentice coachbuilder with London Transport, he quickly decided to become a professional musician.
It was around this time that, while playing for a dance at Stoke Newington town hall, he first met Ronnie Scott. The two men instantly hit it off and kept in touch. King subsequently passed through the ranks of many leading bands of the postwar period, including those of Leslie "Jiver" Hutchinson, Teddy Foster, Ambrose, and Oscar Rabin.
In 1952 King took over Scott's chair in the successful big band led by Jack Parnell. He had been there only a few months when Parnell hired a new singer, who made it a condition of taking the job that her husband, a saxophonist, should also join the band. Parnell reluctantly agreed and handed King his cards. Outraged by this, five of Parnell's leading players resigned in sympathy.
Ronnie Scott gathered the newly unemployed musicians together and proposed that, with the addition of a few more kindred spirits, they form a band of their own. The profits, if any, would be shared equally among them, an arrangement which the baritone saxophonist Benny Green dubbed "syncopated Marxism". As the band's most level-headed member, King was nominated its manager and financial controller, a job he combined with playing second tenor saxophone.
Scott's band proved a great success with dedicated lovers of modern jazz, but this audience was too small to sustain it for long and it folded after less than three years. This was the point at which King decided to give up playing and concentrate on the business side of music. When Scott teamed up with another leading saxophonist, Tubby Hayes, to form the Jazz Couriers in 1957, King became their manager.
Scott and King had often talked about opening their own club, patterned on the small jazz venues Scott had enjoyed during visits to New York. When, in 1959, the Jazz Couriers called it a day, they decided that the moment had come.
With the help of a loan from Scott's stepfather, they took a lease on the basement of 39 Gerrard Street, Soho, furnished it with an assemblage of second-hand tables and chairs, painted the walls, hired a piano and opened for business. Annual membership was 10 shillings (50p), admission one shilling and sixpence.
To open a club in Soho in those days inevitably attracted the attention of shady characters, keen to prey on newcomers, but King and Scott never had any trouble. Shortly after opening they received a visit from Albert Dimes, a much-feared underworld figure.
Dimes was an old friend of Scott's father and had known Ronnie as a boy. He arrived bearing a bottle of champagne to wish them well and told them: "If anyone comes around making trouble, just ask them politely to come back tomorrow and discuss the matter with your fellow director, Mr Albert Dimes."
Ronnie Scott's club struggled on with modest success for two years, but the proprietors realised that the only way to ensure its survival was by presenting American jazz stars. Unfortunately, appearances by American musicians in Britain were hampered by a long-standing disagreement between the two countries' musicians' unions. The only way the matter could be arranged was through one-for-one exchanges. King flew to New York to negotiate a deal.
"I found myself in a room full of cigar smoke," he recalled. "I was introduced to a lot of men with Italian names, and they all seemed to be wearing trilby hats. They didn't say much, but I must have said the right things, because I came away with an exchange agreement for the club."
Fortunately, this deal was soon followed by the arrival of the Beatles and the British pop explosion: "Suddenly, there was a demand for British music in America. We sent them Freddie and the Dreamers and the Small Faces; they sent us Sonny Rollins, Wes Montgomery, Bill Evans and Stan Getz. I'd call that a pretty good bargain."
In December 1965 the club left the cramped Gerrard Street basement for more spacious premises in Frith Street. Its fortunes fluctuated with the popularity of jazz itself. There were financial crises throughout the 1970s, culminating in a period of receivership from which Scott and King extricated themselves with the help of friends and supporters.
During the course of these tribulations, someone remarked: "If you'd been shrewd businessmen you'd have seen this coming" – to which King replied: "If we were shrewd businessmen we wouldn't be here in the first place."
The club's fortunes improved from the mid-1980s, thanks partly to jazz's growing popularity with a younger audience and partly to an imaginative booking policy. Scott's, for instance, was the first European jazz club to feature the vigorous new wave of Cuban musicians. By the time it celebrated its 35th birthday, in 1994, Ronnie Scott's was established as one of the world's foremost jazz venues.
Ronnie Scott died in 1996. His business partnership with Pete King, never formalised, had lasted longer than most marriages. Five years later, King was heard to remark: "I keep thinking that he's away on tour and any minute now he'll walk into the back office."
In 2004 King sold the club to Sally Green, owner of the Old Vic. After a year-long handover period the premises underwent a major refurbishment, reopening in June 2006. King then retired.
He died following a long illness, and is survived by his wife and one son; another son predeceased him