It was always been a thrill to go to Ronnie Scott’s, the famous basement jazz club on Frith Street, Soho. When I first moved to London in the late 90s it was looking a bit shabby but that didn’t matter – it was all about the music. Not just for the world-renowned headliners who took the stage, but for the audience it attracted who really wanted to listen. Other gigging musicians would drop in late at night after finishing a show in the West End, just to hang out. On a Saturday night the main show might finish around midnight, but the house band would play on until 3am. It was an institution.
But I never really knew much about its history let alone the man who gave it his name, which is why I found this dual documentary about the venue and the man so fascinating.
It turns out the two are inextricably linked, for the club was the centre of Scott’s life. This surprisingly rich and evocative film paints a sensitive and thoughtful portrait of Scott and business partner Pete King, drawing on archive and contemporary interviews with musicians, jazz fans and family members, and in doing so tells the story of this remarkable venue.
Mostly chronological, it starts with some background about Scott’s youth and early career as a swing-band saxophonist. But he was most excited about bebop and a trip to New York to visit the 52nd Street jazz clubs was a formative inspiration for the club he’d go on to open in 1959. As one of the voice-overs observes, bebop had no audience in the UK so he’d have to build his own.
This is a different London and a very different Soho from the gentrified echo it is today; back then it was a red light district and centre of organised crime, a bohemian hang-out. Scott and his hard-headed business partner Paul King gained the respect and support of the local gangsters – it’s noted that musicians were respected and were never the victims of any violence on the streets. The early days of setting up the venue and moving to its new location a few years later are evocatively captured as is its subsequent growing reputation and success.
The personalities of the two founders are central to this documentary and we’re left with a warm portrait from the archive footage and reminiscences. They shared a profound and deep love of the music and the musicians who played there.
Writer-director Oliver Murray has assembled his film using a vast amount of material, including footage of a long-gone London and montages of photos, posters, tickets, and newspaper clippings. There are dozens of insightful voice-over interviewees, notably from family members and Guardian jazz critic John Fordham. It must have been a formidable task to craft the raw material into an uncluttered narrative and the documentary maintains a light touch, never getting bogged down in these riches.
As you might expect the music is wonderful, and there’s some captivating footage from the likes of Buddy Rich taking a jaw-dropping drum solo, Ella Fitzgerald commanding the room in a light hearted duet with her bassist, Dizzy Gillespie, Van Morrison and Chet Baker performing Send in the Clowns together, Roland Kirk playing both sax and flute, Miles Davis with his Bitches Brew band. It’s a wealth of material, and even though we don’t get to see the full performances (that would make a wonderful future DVD extra!) it gives us a rich flavour of the range of musicians who played at Ronnie’s and what made it special.
Scott died in 1996 and King kept the club going for almost a decade more before selling it to theatre ‘restorer’ Sally Green. King’s widow said he had many offers to buy the club, and he felt reassured that Green would keep it going and remain true to its spirit. There’s a bittersweet acknowledgement that times have changed and so has Ronnie’s. After a plush 2013 refurbishment, the venue became more commercial (and the tickets got more expensive), but that’s also true of gentrified Soho. But importantly Ronnie’s continues to attract top performers who play to sell-out crowds.
In recent years the jazz scene in London has been reinvigorated by a generation of exciting new musicians. Jazz is cool again. Today Ronnie’s might not be so cutting edge and central in incubating that talent, but it still showcases it. These two men created something really special, and this inevitably nostalgic documentary celebrates its heyday.