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All that was written on the label of the 16 mm film can was “jazz trumpet player, Ronnie Scott’s.” Fortunately, Oliver Murray, writer and director of the recent documentary Ronnie’s — which takes a deep dive into the venerable London jazz club and the complex personality of its namesake — decided to spend the time and money to discover the identity of the anonymous trumpeter. Murray and his skeleton crew had been poring over videotape from the archives of another venerable London institution, the BBC, and other sources, when they came across the poorly catalogued celluloid. This was one of the times they rolled the dice, paying for digitization of material when they were unsure of its content.
“I had a little sort of ‘hail Mary budget,’ which was for a ‘what if’ moment,” says Murray, speaking by Zoom from his home in London in March. “And I think that’s the biggest ‘what if’ moment in my career so far, just to see who that trumpeter was and find out it’s Miles Davis.”
Specifically, it was Miles Davis in 1969, performing at Ronnie Scott’s with Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette, a snippet of which is featured in the documentary. If there’s a through current to the footage unspooled during the hour and 40-plus-minute film, it’s the intimacy and immediacy of performances by jazz giants such as Sonny Rollins, Oscar Peterson, Buddy Rich, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Roland Kirk, to name a few. That and sweat, which pours in rivulets down Peterson’s genial face during the explosive opening credits, drips from the crags of Miles’ furrowed brow and slickens DeJohnette’s grip on his drum sticks. Although Ronnie’s had moved from an even smaller original venue — a basement gathering spot for cabbies when Scott and co-founder, Pete King, took over the space in 1959 — the club wasn’t exactly the Palladium.
“Ronnie’s is a terrible place to try to film anybody, because it’s so small,” Murray explains. “The ceiling is super low, so you can’t hang lights in an area where if you got within four feet of the light you would literally cook.” Nonetheless, the BBC sent film crews to the Soho jazz club, particularly when American jazz superstars came to play month-long engagements in the 1960s and ’70s.
Scott, a popular London-based jazz saxophonist, was transfixed and transformed during his first trip to New York City, paying his passage across the pond by playing in a dance band on a cruise ship. On the voyage back, he reflected on the glories he had witnessed along 52nd Street and determined to bring a serious, bebop-oriented club to London. He and King, a close friend and fellow musician, opened the Soho spot on Gerrard Street, but soon realized it was too small to accommodate their ambitions; in 1965, they moved around the corner to Frith Street, where the club does turn-away business to this day.
The more business-savvy of the two, King engineered a deal to bring jazz artists from the U.S. to England and vice-versa, a kind of visa-exchange program. This buoyed Ronnie’s flagging fortunes, as the club wasn’t making money while presenting solely British jazz artists. “The UK and much of Europe was a very drab place after [WWII],” Murray says. “It took years for it to get anywhere close to that kind of American prosperity. So I think everyone was looking to America, not just for their music, but for that sort of Americana in general.”
Ronnie’s became the premiere spot for American jazz greats to launch European tours, and Scott seemed to be in the cat bird’s seat. However, the amiable host, who emceed shows and told corny jokes to appreciative audiences, was beset with crushing bouts of depression and a ruinous gambling addiction. “I think if Ronnie could’ve gambled the club away, he would’ve done,” says Stella King, Pete’s wife, in the documentary. It was King, in fact, who kept Scott in check, for the most part, although as the film points out, the club was moments away from chaining its doors on several occasions.
Scott’s other great passion, playing saxophone, acted as a release valve for his emotional problems. When an extensive dental procedure went awry, he had to put away his horn, and the effects were devastating; he died in 1997, after taking what a coroner’s inquest referred to as an “incautious dose of sedatives.”
Murray’s documentary presents heartfelt testimony from Scott’s family members and associates, as well as musical intimates such as Rollins, Quincy Jones and Georgie Fame, all of whom attest to the importance, as well as the enigma, of the man. “I will remember him as an absolutely crucial catalyst to the British jazz scene,” says journalist John Fordham, “and [he] never ever thought he was.”
“I’d walk past Ronnie Scott’s because of work almost every day,” says Murray, too young to have experienced the club in its swinging heyday and explaining that Soho is also a hub of London’s film industry. “And I’d never stopped to think about the guy. I knew he was a saxophone player. But I didn’t know the half of what we found.
“So every step of that was a real discovery for me, which I think is the best way to make documentaries,” he continues. “You need just enough evidence to know that you’re gonna get over the line at the end, but not so much that the whole story is there, ready to go. I think if you reveal it as you go, that sort of inquisitive energy gets infused in the way you make it and sort of the atmosphere everyone works in. And that’s how we got where we got, I think.” — Bob Weinberg