Writer and Director: Oliver Murray
Live music has been hit badly by the pandemic, and watching Ronnie’s, a sparking documentary about Ronnie Scott’s, London’s most famous jazz club, is almost painful as it reminds us too vividly of what we are missing. Featuring clips – some of them rare or unseen – of the most famous jazz stars playing at the hallowed venue, Oliver Murray’s film also examines the troubled life of Scott. This journey back in time makes for an exhilarating and nostalgic ride.
Born in 1927 in the East End, Scott didn’t really know his father, but was aware that he played the saxophone. After trying out with a cornet that he bought for 5 bob, and a soprano saxophone, Scott decided to follow in his father’s footsteps. Even before he was 20, Scott was playing in Ted Heath’s dance band.
But by the 1950s, Scott wanted to explore the less commercial side of jazz and was inspired by the sound of bebop he heard in the clubs like The Three Deuces in New York, and so set up his own jazz club in Gerrard Street in the heart of London’s Chinatown. Formerly a cafe for taxi drivers, the first Ronnie Scott’s was pulled together quickly and cheaply. Other jazz club owners were surprised that a jazz musician wanted to run his own club; you were either a club owner or a musician, not both.
However, while Scott did manage his own club and bring over American household names to his stage, most of the business side of things was done by his partner and friend Pete King. With the help of a Soho gangster, Scott and King soon managed to move into bigger premises up the road in Frith Street, where Ronnie Scott’s still is today.
Scott and King weren’t natural businessmen and we hear from people who remember the free drinks and the free meals that they both doled out to their friends and regulars. Many times in the club’s history, the two men thought that they may have to close down, and Scott remembers the times when bailiffs were in the club pricing the furnishings.
But rather than making money, Scott wanted to play and hear jazz, and in this he succeeded spectacularly. Archive footage of the musicians he invited to his club is inserted seamlessly into Oliver’s film and every night down Ronnie Scott’s appears legendary. Blind musician Roland Kirk played at the old club, a selection of instruments around his neck, before be brings out a flute improvising crazily with the keys and his own breath. Cleo Laine looks and sounds stunning with her rendition of Tain’t What You Do, while Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald bring the house down with their performances.
Best of all is Nina Simone on the piano, and it’s a real shame that we don’t get to hear more of her mournful, heart-breaking voice. One of the oddest and most moving performances is that of Van Morrison and Chet Baker doing a version of Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns. But the names keep on coming, and every clip shows the incredible talent of all these people.
As much as a story about Scott, it is also a story of Soho, and the images and films that Murray finds are perfect in conjuring up the old red-light district with its theatres and its neon-lit shops. Murray has also fond the best archive interviews with Scott from TV shows where he chats openly about his life, and the club, always it seems with a cigarette in his hand. Also helping Murray tell his story are Scott’s family and friends, along with music journalist John Fordman and TV host Michael Parkinson, and by the end it seems that Murray has captured the man completely, or a version of him at least. As the film draws towards Scott’s death there is a real sense of loss, created by Murray’s careful and generous writing.
Until venues can reopen fully, this might be the closest we get to live music this year. And while the club is open at the moment, lets hope there are always long queue outside Ronnie Scott’s. The legendary nightclub still has more legends to make.
Released on 23 October 2020