Things to do: Watch Ronnie’s about Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club
“Only a real idiot would really get into the jazz club business. Let’s face it.-Ronnie Scott
For more than six decades, jazz fans have flocked to London’s Soho district with one destination in mind: through the indefinable back door of Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. Since its opening in 1959, most of the big names in the genre have graced its stage. And although the pandemic has (as with all live music clubs) negatively affected the 200-seat venue, it is still in operation today.
But less is known, especially outside of London, about the man whose name adorns the canopy and who, along with his partner Pete King, founded, managed and ran the venue.
English writer/director Oliver Murray (who also directed The is silent about Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman) brilliantly merges the story of man and place with documentary Ronnie’s (Greenwich Entertainment). It will be available to stream and air in select US theaters from February 11.
“Working in the film industry in Soho, I used to walk past this place every day. And when Eric Woollard-White, the producer, asked me if I would be interested in making a movie,” Murray explains via Zoom from the England. “And I thought I would be the audience for it. I’m not a jazz buff, but it was the perfect opportunity to find out about the man behind that name.
Born in 1927, Ronnie Scott was a tenor jazz saxophonist of some renown in Britain, having played in clubs since his teenage years. And like so many contemporaries, fell under the spell of bebop and in particular saxophonist Charlie Parker.
English musicians would often get a gig playing on the Queen Mary in the ship’s orchestra on voyages to and from New York. It paid for their passage but, more importantly, gave eager acolytes access to all those jazz clubs based around New York’s famous 52nd Street. There, awestruck gamers could sit just feet away from icons that previously only looked at them from album covers.
In the 1950s, Ronnie Scott performed and conducted his own ensembles and orchestras. But he longed to recreate something like the experience he had had in New York. So, with teammate-turned-entrepreneur Pete King, they opened Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club with no prior experience. And hey, they served food.
“He had a very clear vision of what he wanted. He was creating a bit of New York in London where people could play whatever music they wanted to play. There was no financial component to his thinking,” says Murray. “And he wanted to create a meeting place for him and his friends. Music came before business. Even when business was bad. It’s actually amazing that it’s been around for so long, because by law it should not to be.”
Ronnie’s features dozens of voice-over interviews with Scott’s business associates, friends, family and musicians like Sonny Rollins and Quincy Jones, all of whom speak enthusiastically. There’s also plenty of video footage of Scott himself in various interview and talk show appearances.
But for the jazz fan, the documentary’s gems lie in the seldom-seen performance clips recorded on the club stage, mostly in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Live Again features a pantheon of jazz greats. jazz including Dizzy Gillespie, Roland Kirk, Miles Davis, Buddy Rich, Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Van Morrison with Chet Baker, Zoot Sims and Sonny Rollins.
At the time, the musicians’ unions in the United States and England had a kind of exchange program (“one of ours goes there, one of theirs comes here”). And Scott vigorously sought to pass the crème de la crème of Americans. They sometimes played residencies that could last a month to delight audiences who really knew and appreciated the material and the men and women who performed it.
Murray had access to the BBC’s extensive archives, but finding the live concert footage was sometimes a challenge.
“I was kind of standing on the shoulders of [the original videographers] and we did a huge restoration on the music. Some of it was close to being unlistenable,” Murray says. “The archives were huge and old. Occasionally, [the tape boxes] would simply be labeled something like “Jazz Man at Ronnie’s”. And they hadn’t been taken off the shelf for a long time, long time.”
There’s also restored sound for part of the show when Jimi Hendrix took the stage to jam with Eric Burdon and WAR in 1970, as recorded on cheap tape by fan Bill Baker. It was the last public performance of Hendrix, who would die two days later.
Ronnie’s also details the darker and more troubled aspects of Ronnie Scott’s life. Subject to severe mental breakdown for decades, he also had problems with gambling, alcohol and pills.
A raw clip shows Scott, stuck offstage waiting to show up and act, but unaware he’s being filmed, struggling with something infuriating and horrible inside his head. This black cloud disappeared as soon as he went on stage to animate jokes and often well-worn stories.
“Ronnie was what he was meant to be to the different people in his life. But he’s an old school jazzman. I kept coming back to the expression that music was the cure for his problems. He literally had them. need for his own mental health,” says Murray.
“At that time, in this tough, masculine world of jazz and late-night Soho clubs, people were like, ‘Oh, Ronnie is going through a dark time. Someone offers him a drink! So where he should be was probably where he shouldn’t be hanging out. He loved it, but he was losing a lot of himself at the same time. It’s a tricky story. And it’s a mental health issue.
When a botched dental procedure made him very painful or unable to play any longer, Scott got even more depressed despite concern from his wife and daughter (and another questioning romantic “partner”).
He was prescribed barbiturate painkillers while recovering from dental implant surgery and died of an overdose in 1996 at the age of 69. The documentary leaves it open to interpretation whether this was intentional or not.
Many thought Scott’s death would mark the end of the club, but the infusion of new hired owners and managers, a physical renovation and a booking schedule that embraced a wider scope of what is considered ‘jazz’ the brought back.
“To lead Ronnie Scott’s you need to understand the heritage,” says current Managing Director Simon Cooke. “Why was this launched, what was the philosophy of the founder of the club. It is a national institution; it is a responsibility. That said, is it also a business, and the current management prevents it from being a “museum”. Which is the cause of some criticism from connoisseurs of English jazz.
Given the pandemic and how it’s wreaked havoc on the live music industry in the areas of touring and nightclubs, Murray says he’s thought more deeply about the role of venues like Ronnie Scott. What they have meant to the public in the past and what it means for the future.
“Everyone has a Ronnie Scott somewhere in their life. A club to listen to music that is close to their hearts, ”he summarizes. “I think Ronnie’s will be around forever, even if the industry shrinks around it. From the ashes of not being able to leave our homes with people locked away to learn how to play instruments, will come a whole generation of incredibly talented creatives.
To learn more about Ronnie’s and Murray, visit OllieMurray.com