(Documentary film directed by Oliver Murray for Goldfinch. 106 minutes. Review by Louise Jury)
Watching the new feature-length documentary, Ronnie’s, about the man and the legendary Soho jazz club he founded, has a particular poignancy. Although the venue is open at the time of writing, the gentle buzz of pre-performance conversation in the opening sequence will be the closest many will have come to that excitement of watching music in the company of like-minded strangers for months.
Those nervous about venturing back will find much to savour here until they do. Director Oliver Murray admits to knowing little about Ronnie Scott himself before embarking on a careful process of research. His previous documentary, The Quiet One, was on the life and career of Rolling Stone Bill Wyman.
But the picture he has pieced together, including previously unseen and unheard performances and interviews with figures including Quincy Jones, Michael Parkinson, Kyle Eastwood and Mel Brooks as well as the critic and Ronnie Scott biographer John Fordham, is a respectful tribute to an art form as well as the musician and MC who created a home for British and international jazz stars alike.
Terrific archive footage conjures the social context of Ronnie Scott’s Jewish childhood in the East End where his dad left at the age of four, leaving the youngster knowing only he was the son of a saxophonist. Scott’s early years are told against the setting of the Second World War, a period of bottle parties and sleazy clubs. Pictures of black American GIs are a reminder of some of the social changes wrought by war and also some of the influences reaching London from across the Atlantic. From joining the Ted Heath band at 18, Scott followed the path of many jazz-loving musicians who secured posts with bands on the ocean liners to New York for the chance of a few days’ leave amid the jazz clubs of 52nd Street. His return and the opening of his first venue, with Pete King, in Gerrard Street, is an opportunity for yet more evocative footage of a lost bohemian Soho of ladies of the night and gangsters.
The film lays out the ambition of Scott’s plans. Benny Green tells how “revolutionary” it was for a musician, not a crook, to open a club. There are, as you might expect, some great stories. Realising they needed the big American names to draw the crowds and balance the books, Scott and King negotiated a deal with the unions that enabled an international exchange of musicians. We welcomed Sonny Rollins, the States got the Sex Pistols. Other tales involve Albert Dimes, the Soho gangster and Ronnie Scott’s protector, and the famous bottle of champagne that grew dusty waiting to be opened whenever the venue’s debts were paid off.
Some of the most interesting detail lies in the challenges Scott faced – including those of his personal demons. The film includes interviews with two partners – without details of circumstance or chronology – and his daughter as well as the family of Pete King and archive footage of both men themselves. Scott’s habit of gambling the house takings, his struggle with depression and latter years ill health cannot overshadow his achievement in founding and building Ronnie Scott’s as a venue whose name is recognised worldwide.
For real fans, there may be few revelations in this informed and affectionate account not only of the man and his club but of the history of British jazz in the 20th century and its debts to America. Yet there are performances to enjoy from Buddy Rich and Nina Simone, Sonny Rollins, Cleo Laine, a witty Ella Fitzgerald and Van Morrison who delivers an unexpected rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns. The story of how Jimi Hendrix came to perform, unannounced, with Eric Burdon the night the guitar wizard died is also told complete with a bootleg recording.
The initial rumblings of discontent that surrounded Sally Greene’s purchase of the club in 2005 are addressed and she has her own moment to explain why she felt the club needed a brush-up. Stella King, Pete’s widow, describes Greene as a “life-saver”. Michael Watt, Greene’s co-owner, is blunt about what would have happened to the club without them. “It was finished,” he says.
With such a colourful history, it is, perhaps, inevitable that there are many interesting club performers as well as audience members who fail to warrant a mention. But there is more than enough material to explain John Dankworth’s description of Ronnie Scott’s as “a place of learning” and to confirm the verdict of Scott and King themselves that, while they never secured Duke Ellington or John Coltrane, there were, indeed, “many marvellous nights”.