I managed to catch some of the two programmes featuring the great saxophonist Sonny Rollins on Friday night; both shown as part of BBC Four’s jazz weekend. The second programme looked particularly interesting, with Sonny on fine form at Ronnie’s back in 1974. I didn’t get as far as the jazz bagpipes (not played by Sonny); that “treat” awaits me when I watch the programme in full!
What I did get to see, in its entirety, was the documentary called Ronnie Scott and All That Jazz made back in 1989 at the time of the 30th anniversary of Scott’s famous jazz club. It’s a programme I remember seeing when first transmitted and which made a big impression on me at the time. It is a warm and evocative (though necessarily partial) portrait of modern jazz in Britain, which manages to capture some of the magic of the music, as well as the dedication and idealism of its practitioners.
As well as enjoying the (sadly) short musical snippets from the likes of Ronnie himself, Zoot Sims, Stan Getz, Sonny Stitt, Dizzy Gillespie, Bill Evans, Nigel Hitchcock, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Buddy Rich, Stan Tracey, etc, there were also lots of fascinating observations from the interviewees.
It was interesting to hear just how radical bebop was when it emerged in the ’40s, and how it ostracised its followers from the establishment. Saxophonist John Rogers says:-
Don’t forget when bebop came out, the Melody Maker’s chief critic said Charlie Parker can’t play his instrument, this isn’t modern harmony it’s wrong notes.
This sound incredible now.
For the musicians who had fallen in love with this new musical language, Ronnie Scott’s club – when it opened in 1959 – became (as Scott’s club partner Pete King says) “somewhere to try and develop our music”. It was a place where the music came first; and what great music it was. As the club began to book the American star players, people could see their heroes – the true masters of the art form – live and up close.
Stan Tracey, house pianist for many years at Ronnie’s, played with most of the visiting superstars. Asked who he was happiest accompanying he says:-
The one who stands out above all the others for me was Sonny Rollins – for his inventiveness, night after night. Tremendous.
Talking of Stan Tracey, I was disappointed that this jazz weekend did not include a repeat of the excellent documentary about Tracey, “The Godfather of British Jazz“. However, at least he is part of this film, which includes the classic moment when he breaks the piano string mid-solo!
One of the most interesting observations, which goes to the heart of this documentary, is by Benny Green:-
If you’re in the jazz business, you’re not going to be a rich man – that’s not the point of the exercise. They used to say that if the musicians had spent the same amount of energy and time and application studying accountancy they’d all be millionaires, which I think is probably true. There is no more dedicated or hard working person really, though they’ll often deny it. They’re the only idealists I’ve ever come across, as it happens. I know all kinds of writers, actors, politicians; I only ever met idealists in the jazz world, no where else.
It’s the kind of idealism which drove Ronnie and Pete to set up the club in the first place, and it’s the kind of idealism which you see in many jazz musicians today (though they’ll probably deny it!).