Ronnie’s: Director Oliver Murray talks about his new documentary on Ronnie Scott’s jazz club

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Ronnie Scott’s jazz club, which first opened its doors back in 1959, is a much more than a long-running London music venue: it’s a world-renowned institution that has served up the best in live music for over 60 years. Though many of the greatest names in jazz history have appeared on its small Soho stage – everyone from Miles Davis and Oscar Peterson to Buddy Rich and Sarah Vaughan – the club, has also hosted performances by musicians from many other genres; including rock guitarist Jeff Beck, Cameroon saxophonist Manu Dibango, Afrobeat doyen Seun Kuti, blues maven Taj Mahal, and Chicago soul poet, Curtis Mayfield. Somewhat more infamously, acid-rock axe god Jimi Hendrix even appeared there the night before he died; joining Eric Burdon and War on stage for an impromptu jam exactly 50 years ago in September 1970. 

But behind the glamour of working with international stars from the music world, an awful lot of blood, sweat and tears were shed behind the scenes, as is revealed in Ronnie’s, an insightful new feature-length documentary written and directed by Oliver Murray. It’s the Oxford-born filmmaker’s second music documentary, following in the wake of 2019’s critically acclaimed, The Quiet One, a vivid film portrait of ex-Rolling Stone, Bill Wyman. Ronnie’s goes back further in time than The Quiet One, exploring how two British musicians, Ronnie Scott and Pete King, both saxophonists but with very different characters,  took a gamble by opening a jazz club in post-war London. Against the odds, the club proved to be a resounding success, though as Murray reveals via interviews gleaned from both Scott and King’s families as well as their friends and associates, there were trials and tribulations along the way. And, in Ronnie Scott’s case, mental health issues; something only previously known to his inner circle, though Murray handles the subject with care and sensitivity. 

The director has succeeded in crafting a film whose mosaic-like mingling of archival footage with concert performances, fascinating audio commentary and haunting incidental music, results in an immersive audio-visual experience that results in a superior kind of storytelling. Murray’s approach to his subject  – avoiding the quasi-academic angle of orthodox jazz documentaries – means that Ronnie’s should appeal to mainstream music fans rather than just a small coterie of jazz enthusiasts. 

Beginning on Friday 23rd October, Ronnie’s will be available to see at the Everyman chain of cinemas around the UK. Ahead of the film’s release, Oliver Murray (pictured below) talked to SJF’s Charles Waring about his movie…

Tell us about your new documentary, Ronnie’s.  

It’s the story about one of London’s greatest ever institutions, so it’s one of the last remaining vestiges of old, Bohemian Soho. The challenge was to find the people to help me tell the story and find the archives and the material to take people back in time and go through the history of the club and the history of Ronnie himself. One of the things I’m really pleased about is that there’s enough detail in there for the real enthusiasts but then it’s not so dense that someone who is more of a general music fan can’t get on board as well and go along for the ride without getting lost. That was always my intention. I felt like I was making a project where my own sense of discovery was going to echo a young music fans’ experience of the film, so I was able to put myself in the audience’s perspective really easily because I am the audience; rather than a sort of specialist who sometimes can’t see the wood for the trees because you’ve lived it for that long. 

The documentary is as much a portrait of Ronnie Scott as the jazz club, isn’t it?

I think all documentaries that really land with people in a universal sense have always got to have a strong character in the middle of it; someone that’s going to take you through. I think an academic approach on the history of the club would have probably been more suited for a coffee table book where you could go in-depth and get the chronology completely spot-on whereas I was interested in a more experiential and more immersive experience for an audience.

Your film reveals Ronnie Scott to be a complex man who wore a public mask, often to hide his private troubles. 

He’s just such a fascinating guy and I found quite a lot of people who thought they knew him, or knew the public face of Ronnie, and didn’t necessarily know that he had his struggles with depression. At times, it was a pretty sad film to make because Ronnie was a lifelong sufferer of depression and with it being very much a taboo subject amongst his generation, it was great that I was able to ask some contributors who could speak very eloquently about his troubles. And then for me, it came full circle to the present day when what Ronnie needed as medicine for his depression was music. I think that is why places like Ronnie’s and all sources of entertainment that are currently closed are incredibly important – and that as many of them as possible are able to reopen again because I really think live music is therapeutic. Although Ronnie’s has been around forever, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be in the future, so I’m pretty worried about this situation but I really hope that it will prevail. I think if any institution has a chance of doing it, it’s Ronnie’s, so fingers crossed.

Throughout the world, many famous jazz clubs have come and gone so what accounts for Ronnie Scott’s longevity?

I think there’s something in its DNA that comes out of Ronnie Scott’s generation; those guys and girls that survived the war and I guess specifically in London, survived the Blitz. I think it left them with a sense of freedom. They were unshackled by today’s concerns of running a business that instantly comes into play these days. I think that there’s something about the way they took a chance on something that they loved and they had no expectations of making money – and when something grows out of that ethos where they are rolling the dice over and over, I think there’s just a willingness for people to help. There was a lot of that. I think financially speaking, it’s not a sensible or safe way to run a club, because they did needed people and friends, to bail out fairly regularly but, on the other hand, I think it was that absolute dedication to creating the perfect listening room and evolving later on into a supper club and harnessing Ronnie’s ability to work a room as a compere. I think it was this organic cocktail of Ronnie’s charisma and an absolute dedication to the perfect listening conditions, and the proof was in the pudding because the world’s greatest musicians came through there time and time again.

How important do you think Ronnie Scott’s club was to the British jazz scene?

I think it was immeasurably important. It’s difficult to explain in the Internet age just how big an opportunity it was to listen to jazz legends in a 200-capacity venue. I think the ability for young musicians and music fans alike to go there and sit three feet away from either Nina Simone or Ben Webster made it a remarkable thing to go and see. It was the best possible way to see these acts and it also gave British musicians a huge platform as well. At Ronnie’s they took chances. As well as bringing in these A-listers, they took chances on all sorts of people. I think it’s interesting because yesterday it was 50 years ago that Jimi Hendrix played his last ever gig at Ronnie Scott’s. A lot of people mistakenly think of the rarefied world of jazz as quite a closed arena; it’s a place where either you might not be dressed right or you might not know how the night’s run. Some people would be wary of it but it’s the most accepting, forward-thinking genre; and I feel that’s reflected in clubs like Ronnie’s, where obviously they would let someone like Hendrix on the stage in a heartbeat because they recognise musicianship in all its forms. 

Given that Ronnie Scott was an enigma to many people, how far do you think you got to revealing the real person?

I would like to think that we got close because I got access to those in his inner circle. We got the first-ever interview from Stella King, Pete King’s wife, and an interview with Ronnie’s partner, his daughter, and also, Pete King’s son, Chris – and one of Ronnie’s other partners, Françoise. I think when you’re looking at someone who is that complex, it’s always right to show a fairly fractured personality because I think he could be different things to different people. 

Do you think making the film brought you closer to him?

Although I never met the man, I feel like know him because you have this very strange kind of bonding experience when you spend six months to a year looking at footage of him and you see every nuance on his face and you start to be able to read him in interviews; whether he’s comfortable or putting on a show or not. So I think rather than thinking that I was trying to get to the person behind the performance, I think the performance was part of him. When you watch the film, you do get a good, honest portrait of someone who’s clearly in love with music but who also has these demons. But music was the thing that held him together as well as Pete King in the practical sense. I was very pleased that we were able to bring Pete into the story as often as we did because he was a remarkably tolerant and driven man as well. But because his name isn’t hanging above the door, people don’t really know who he is and I hope this film addresses that somewhat, because Ronnie admits on camera many times that Pete King was the man, especially in the later years when Ronnie was out front playing and entertaining, who was holding the thing together as a business.

Ronnie Scott and Pete King’s partnership was an unlikely pairing. Although they were both musicians and great friends, in terms of their characters, they were very different, weren’t they?

I think so but their middle ground was the love of music, and the inability to entertain the idea that their club would ever close its doors. All the contributors said that if you crossed Ronnie or Pete (pictured left), for whatever reason, you had to watch yourself because they could be ruthless. You could knock maybe a musician or the way the club was run even if you were particularly bold, but for instance, if you ever had a bad word to say about Pete in front of Ronnie he would be across the room to tell you that you’d overstepped the mark.

They were very loyal to one another, then, weren’t they?

Yes. It was a very emotional day when I interviewed Stella King at length and the way that she summed up their relationship was incredibly touching. I think it really does justice to those two men of that era in a kind of macho environment. It was nice to have a woman’s perspective on that to really get into the middle of what it was that made those guys love each other so much. 

You also had Ronnie Scott’s daughter Rebecca and his former partners Mary and Françoise, whose stories had never been heard before. How did you persuade them to take part and did they need a lot of convincing?

When you’re emailing or calling people out of the blue, you can’t expect them to just sign up to the project straight away. So in the case of Mary Scott, who lives now, in the US, I was at a film festival in New York for my previous film and that’s where I met her. I also met Rebecca, Ronnie’s daughter, who lives in LA and works out in the music industry there. So she came to New York where I met both of them.  The first thing I did after being officially offered the film was to check with them that I had their blessing to go ahead and do what would be the definitive film on Ronnie’s life. They were very happy and excited. And then Françoise lived in France so I went off and spent a day talking with her there. That’s the way I like to work. We have to have these people on side but also they knew that he was a complex character and it wasn’t all going to be sweetness and light. So it was a hard film to make in that respect because the emotions are running high and you’re going from one person to the next. As a director, you have to have a skin like a crocodile to a point because if you let the emotions get to you too much then it can really pull you down. I think that’s the same with the balance of how we made the film – I wanted to take people to sad places because that was the right way to explore Ronnie’s life but, when you’re doing that, you need to make sure that you bring people back up again. No viewer wants to wallow in sadness unless there’s a payoff at the end. The story of Ronnie Scott’s has its ups and downs and twists and turns, but ultimately, with Ronnie’s navigating through the modern era and still being open and being a bastion for brilliant live music the club, I think it’s a story of success.

What surprising discoveries did you make by making the movie?

His having depression was news to me completely but I really love our ability to use the story at the club to talk about Bohemian Soho; the way that the film chronicles this incredible journey through the late ’50s and early ’60s, watching London and its music scene as it changes was fascinating for me. I hope it’s a visual portrait of London coming of age again after the war. I like to try and take an audience back in time and then tell the story in the present tense; rather than constantly harking back and using a talking head, which I think jolts the audience back into the present day. The aim was to go back and start in the Jewish East End of London which Ronnie grew up in and give you a glimpse of his experiences and what he saw and heard. That for me is always the real pleasure of making films; once you’ve read the books and are academically able to tell the story, you go the writing phase, and then it’s amazing when you bring in these reels of film or cassette tapes. They are always 100 times more powerful than you even hoped it would be.  That’s why I love working in an audio-visual medium because I think there’s nothing quite like it, especially on a big screen in the cinema. There’s nothing quite like letting that stuff wash over you.

Tell us a little about the process of making the film.

We started in October 2018, and the idea originally was to tie it in with the club’s 60th anniversary last year. We must have edited for 18 weeks but that also meant the same amount of writing time. I created a library of footage and radio interviews as well as my own audio interviews. I have it all down on paper and do work in progress edits before the editing actually comes near it. These days, with editing getting easier and cheaper, it also means that you have to create these “proof of concept” films more often than not now, which I think is a great thing because it means everyone’s on the same page before you’ve even started. You’re able to show,  right to the end, what the film is going to do. By doing that you’re able to show the financiers and commissioners what they’re going to get. 

You use a lot of footage of famous performers in the film – was it a challenge getting clearances to show them in the documentary?

We were very careful that before we really started the edit that we could get clearance on all the performers that we have in the film because they echo the emotional ride of the story; people like Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie (pictured right), Roland Kirk, Sonny Rollins, and Ella Fitzgerald. It was an ambitious line-up of artists but when their estates all said yes, that momentum took us into the edit. Sometimes in documentaries, you hit copyright problems and things like that but I had a great team and I had a great editor, Paul Truearthur, who did a fantastic job.

You debuted with the film The Quiet One, a film about former Rolling Stone Bill Wyman. What did you learn from that that helped you with Ronnie’s?

That’s a great question. I think taking your time and understanding that what you are asking of the contributors is a kind of trust. That until you really see the full picture of what you’re creating and what happens with it out in the world, you are really asking them – even famous musicians, who have managers and PR and all that sort of stuff – to give over something that is very precious to them. Or you are asking the estates of all the families of deceased people to trust you in a way that is really quite extraordinary and humbling. 

Does that increase the pressure on you to come up trumps? 

You feel a huge amount of pressure but hopefully, in an odd sense, I’ll continue to feel that pressure because it means you’re doing it right. You have to go to raw places; you have to turn up and have the balls to ask tough questions but then also have the sensitivity to understand that the way to go is different for different kinds of people; with someone like Bill Wyman, who is obsessed with the diarising of his career, you only get the truth, so that was interesting. So I think what I learnt was, each project is different and you usually try to take as much as you can into the next one but ultimately, it’s all instinct: instinct and sensitivity and being able to make sure that when you’re finished, you’ve done justice to the story.  You’re responsible to the people that put up a lot of money to make the film – films are expensive – but you’re also responsible to the contributors who are trusting you to make the film right.

And tell their story accurately, I suppose?

Exactly. And often, those responsibilities, to the producers and the financiers, and to the contributors and are musicians, don’t always align. That was the big lesson for me. There’s always tension and friction but rather than running away from it, that is the job. The job is to remain a neutral storyteller and then on top of that, you have to make decisions and therefore you have to have your own voice in there. It’s a complicated job, really. You wear a lot of different hats. 

What was Scott and King families’ response to your documentary?

They were fairly stunned I think. To begin with, I don’t think they really knew what the scale of the thing was going to be because it’s just me and a backpack when I turn up and start talking to them and say we’re going to speak to so-and-so. They don’t see the machine crank into gear and a lot of the time, if you are privy to that stuff, it happens in different rooms at different times. Most people connected to the project see it bubble up incrementally as you build it, but God knows what it was like for Mary, for instance, to see it and watch it by herself. We would have loved to have shown it in a cinema for them and make a bit of a thing out of it but because they were in New York, we just had to send them a link. 

Did that situation make it harder for you to gauge their reactions?

All I wanted to do at that point was just dig a hole and bury myself and wait until they’d actually seen it. I think that they were just amazed at what we found. There was a sense from them, and from the club, that we may not find much, which is always interesting. I’m lucky because I’ve got some very good, professional, researchers that have been doing it forever, so we always find stuff and it just takes time and energy. But the families were totally blown away.

What was the highlight for you of making Ronnie’s

It’s been an amazing gift to be able to talk to some of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century. It’s what the job is all about for me, meeting people like Sonny Rollins, Quincy Jones, and, as an interview of sorts, meeting Michael Parkinson, which was mind-blowing.

Finally, what comes after Ronnie’s? Your last two projects have been music documentaries so is your next one going to be on a similar theme?

Yes, it is. I love music but it was never my intention to exclusively work on music docs but after Ronnie’s comes out on 23rd October in Everyman cinemas across the country, which is fantastic, I’ll have a bit of a break and then work on a series about the Montreux Jazz Festival. That will be the story of Claude Nobs and how his amazing music festival started in Switzerland of all places. I think that will finalise my trilogy of music projects and then I’m going to leave music be for a little while to stretch my legs and go in another direction.

Ronnie’s Is Released on Friday October 23rd And Can Be Seen At Everyman Cinemas Around The UK