Ace of clubs

Jazz - Richard Cook meets the man who's kept Ronnie Scott's going for four decades

We are lunching at one of the old Italian restaurants that still dot the Soho neighbourhood, and across the table is one of the local legends. He has been here for 40 years, first at the "Old Place" in Gerrard Street, then in the nocturnal den halfway down Frith Street, with its awning and steps up and unchanging neon sign. Out front, the names are different every week, but Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club sees them all come and go. And the man who has kept it working these past four decades doesn't even have his name anywhere.

"Some of the antipasto, that'll be nice," says Pete King, and they go to make up a plate for him. King left home at 9.30 this morning and he'll get back at about 2.30 tomorrow morning. The Count Basie Band is in this week - it's what they call a "ghost band", and the gloomy might think it an appropriate booking for a club with so many distinguished spectres in its walls. Jazz has had some wretched ups and downs in London, but Ronnie's - as every habitue calls it - has survived almost serenely into an age that is quite remote from the one in which it started.

Pete King is the one who's looked after it and kept it alive. When his long-time partner Scott died in 1996, he had some dark days; but what else was there to do? King used to race cars and he still likes a bit of golf. Otherwise, there's the club. It is 40 years ago this month that the two jazzmen - King used to play some useful tenor - opened in Gerrard Street. After visiting America in the 1940s and 1950s, they'd never stopped talking about the clubs on 52nd Street, and why couldn't there be one in London, too ? Then they came across an old cab drivers' retreat in Gerrard Street. After borrowing a thousand quid from Scott's stepfather, they opened.

"In those days, it was younger people, and they were still dancing to jazz music then - bopping, they used to call it. Used to give it a lot more atmosphere than the way it sometimes is now. But we only had room for 90 people. There wasn't much room for dancing."

There was a problem with the Musicians' Union in the early days, since there had to be a reciprocation agreement - every time an American played here, there had to be a British act getting an American gig. They swapped Tubby Hayes for Zoot Sims to start with. But then it got a lot easier when the Beatles invaded America, and suddenly they all wanted British acts - a rare instance of pop assisting jazz.

"Soho was like a small village then, and a naughty village. There were a few gangsters who'd squabble among themselves. One of them was a man called Albert Dines, and he said to us, 'Lads, if there's ever any problem with anyone, just tell them to come round and see me tomorrow'. Once we had a couple of hoods who came in and wanted to be partners with us and we said, 'Well, come in tomorrow when our other partner, Albert Dines, is here'. They were gone."

In 1967 they moved to Frith Street. Scott always fronted the shows, with his fail-safe string of jokes, and he would play there himself, though less and less as time went on. But King was the one who did the business and kept the club working. He has had anniversaries on his mind a lot lately: 43 years with his wife Stella, his own 70th birthday a few weeks ago. "I can't see myself stopping. I've been to a lot of other jazz clubs around the world, and they're good, but there's something about this place. I think the music's just soaked into the plaster over the years."

Outside, he taps me on the chest - "Success!" - and turns and disappears back into his beloved Soho, an old London lag who ended up in charge of the world's most famous jazz club.