In 1983 Everything But The Girl – a student indie duo who were flirting with bossa nova – played a gig at Ronnie Scott’s. This was the brief moment of the New Jazz Scene. The Times came to review us and wrote, “the avant-garde rock kids have had a novel idea: let’s turn Ronnie Scott’s into a jazz club”. It was cheeky of us youngsters, acting like we’d invented cool.
Ronnie was still alive then, but I don’t remember whether he was at the club that night to see what we were doing. A large part of what we were doing was, of course, paying our respects.
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For how could you not respect, and love, Ronnie Scott’s? I was reminded of all this while I watched the new documentary Ronnie’s, written and directed by Oliver Murray. It stands head and shoulders above most modern music docs, with their rent-a-quote talking heads and tired anecdotes. This is a film made with love and expertise, skilfully constructed and beautiful to look at.
Split-screen images, with close-ups on faces, remind you of Blue Note album covers, and there is great footage of Soho: jazzers larking around in Archer Street, shadowy side streets and shady doorways, lamplit tables and martinis, the kind of places where it’s always round about midnight. If any of that is your bag then you will love this.
It’s the story of a man as much as a club, and from the start there are hints that Ronnie was complicated. He was “not easy to know”, was “an interesting bunch of guys”. The sense of a hinterland, a dark undertow, pervades the film, which is also a vivid record of a time and place. A time when an East End Jewish kid could fall in love with be-bop, and recreate a New York club in the heart of Soho; a time when all the guys spoke in that unique London drawl, where jazz is always “jaaazz”, and a band is a “baaand”.
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The filmed performances are a joy – from Miles Davis and Sarah Vaughan to the Stars of Faith, from Oscar Peterson to Buddy Rich. (Rich’s drum solo reminds me of the story of my mother-in-law at a jazz gig with her musician husband, Tom. When Buddy Rich dropped a drumstick several minutes into a long solo, she turned to Tom and asked, “Oh God, does this mean he has to start again?”)
Hendrix guested at Ronnie’s in 1970, the night before he died, and Van Morrison played in the mid-Eighties, with Chet Baker beside him, cheeks hollowed like he was trying to suck all the air out of the room. For Ronnie, “the club was home”, and he spent most evenings sitting in the back office, listening to the music he loved, the players he revered. The perfect life. But halfway through the film I said to Ben, “Why does he always seem so unhappy?” Because it was there in every interview, in every sardonic joke, in every line of his never quite smiling face – an endless, weary sadness.
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Only towards the end of the film was it spelled out – his years of profound depression, the refusal or inability to talk about it, the time in the Priory, the suicide attempts. The film cuts to Nina Simone at the club in 1985, and it’s the climactic moment. “People say to me, you need company,” she sings, looking as troubled as Ronnie was, her performance tormented and raw, impassioned and uplifting.
It’s why he started the club in the first place, and what he understood so deeply – that for some people music is the only outlet. When in his sixties he lost his teeth and could no longer play the sax, the game was up for him. In 1996 he died in his Chelsea flat, “from an incautious dose of sedatives” as the inquest gently phrased it. His funeral cortege drove down Frith Street with a saxophone of flowers atop the hearse; the footage is soundtracked by Ben Webster playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”.
I thought of the quote from Sonny Rollins earlier in the film, about how jazz is “playing your feelings”. “That’s what we do,” he said, “we play life.” Sometimes a sad life, sometimes a lush life, in some small dive. But if you miss being in a place like that – from 8.30pm to 3am as it says on the sign outside – then this film will take you right back there.
This article appears in the 11 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, America after Trump