The press obituaries for Peter Boizot, who has died aged 89 after a lengthy illness, have largely concentrated on his role as founder of the Pizza Express restaurant chain. He had enjoyed pizza while working in Europe and brought the first specialist oven to the UK, opened his initial Pizza Express outlet in Wardour Street in 1965 and the rest is history, as they say.
More pertinently for Jazzwise readers he began to feature jazz performances in the basement of his Dean Street restaurant in Soho. Initially, these involved pianists like the late Lennie Felix, but gradually under the auspices of successive bookers Dave Bennett and KC Sulkin, Dean Street became a seven-nights-a-week haven for every visiting American musician and a whole school of mainstreamers like Warren Vache, Ruby Braff and, particularly, tenorist Scott Hamilton, who continues to appear there often. Peter later took on Kettner’s, a venerable Soho landmark and employed a series of pianists, Jazzwise’s own Brian Priestley included, to play there for the lunch-time diners. Gradually other Pizza Express outlets also began to offer jazz, including the Maidstone restaurant and Pizza on the Park, eventually London’s principal cabaret venue until it was sold off and converted into a boutique hotel.
Boizot, who had already started an employee’s newsletter, later initiated Jazz Express, a monthly magazine which employed writers like Peter Clayton and Max Jones (as well as me) and covered the wider jazz scene. There were also occasional releases on his Pizza record label and he supported two resident bands, the Kettner’s Modern Jazz Sextet, which gave musicians like Alan Barnes and Gerard Presencer early prominence, and the more mainstream Pizza Express All Stars, led successively by Dave Shepherd and Tommy Whittle. He also sponsored the Soho Jazz Festival and underwrote the all-star Pizza Express Jazz Festivals.
Very much a man of eclectic tastes and interests other than jazz, Boizot held contributor’s lunches at Kettner’s where one might rub shoulders with the likes of Spike Milligan or the artist Eduardo Paolozzi whose work he collected. A keen hockey player into his early sixties, Peter liked to host his hockey friends and his Liberal Party associates at Dean Street. He had twice stood unsuccessfully as a Liberal candidate.
He became substantially wealthy when the Pizza Express chain went public in 1993 and later returned to his home town of Peterborough, investing heavily in the town’s cultural and sporting life. Boizot owned Peterborough FC for 10 years, bought the town’s Great Northern Hotel which hosted Peterborough Jazz Club and ploughed extensive funds into a new cultural centre.
Boizot later sold the hotel and returned only occasionally to his old Soho haunts. He had been one of London’s primary jazz impresarios and we, musicians and punters alike, owe him a great deal. Peter was mercurial, generous, impulsive, always dynamic and sometimes exasperating, but a wonderful companion and ambassador for jazz.
– Peter Vacher