Saturday, November 14, 2020

DOC NYC ’20: Ronnie’s

Howard Rumsey's old Lighthouse Café is still sort of around, but it is no longer a full-time jazz venue. It has had a good run, but most musician-owned and operated clubs are fondly remembered, because they were short-lived (like Shelly’s Manne-Hole). Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club is the towering exception. They have regularly presented some of the biggest and most exciting jazz artists, from their 1959 founding to their recent post-Covid re-opening (they plan to reopen again 12/2, after the 2nd UK lockdown). Oliver Murray chronicles the history of the man and his club through the words of those who knew them best in Ronnie’s, which screens as part of the 2020 online edition of DOC NYC.

The late, great Ronnie Scott came up playing in British swing bands, but he really wanted to play bop-style jazz in his own small groups, which usually included his future partner, Pete King. Together they launched Ronnie Scott’s, with Scott serving as the public face and master-of-ceremonies, while King assumed most of the back-office responsibilities. Somehow, the tenor player was able to charm London gangster Albert Dimes and AFM union boss James Petrillo, who agreed to the terms demanded by his British counterparts, allowing the club to book the top American talent they needed to draw patrons. (The film makes the important point British musicians were hurt the most by their union’s protectionism, because it denied them the opportunity to hear and learn from the Americans who were revolutionizing jazz.)

The honor roll of musicians who played Ronnie Scott’s is long and impressive. Just in Murray’s film alone, we see Miles Davis (with Wayne Shorter), Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Oscar Peterson, Nina Simone, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Ben Webster, and Buddy Rich. Logically, we also hear quite a bit from Johnny Dankworth and Cleo Laine, the first couple of British jazz. Occasionally, the club broke format, but when they did, they still kept things pretty bluesy, as we can hear from the bootleg tapes of Jimi Hendrix jamming with Eric Burdon and War at the club, the night before his death.

Aside from assembled interview clips with the man himself, there are no talking heads in
Ronnie’s, just recorded voices accompanying archival footage documenting the club and the wider jazz scene. As a result, we come to understand Scott and his demons in intimate terms, while still getting a wide sampling of the music he made and presented. Probably, the longest musical excerpt we hear is Van Morrison’s rendition of “Send in the Clowns,” with a skeletal Chet Baker on trumpet, which aptly suits the discussion of Scott’s struggles with depression.

Ronnie’s, Murray really ups his game from the highly watchable but conventional Bill Wyman doc, The Quiet One. His profile of Ronnie Scott (and his club) is surprisingly poignant, but also thoroughly evocative of his era and milieu. Perhaps most saliently, the doc makes viewers want to visit the jazz club (continuously operated, but now under the ownership of Sally Greene and Michael Watt). Very highly recommended, Ronnie’s screens online, as part of this year’s DOC NYC, through 11/19.