▶︎ Ronnie’s: Ronnie Scott & his World Famous Jazz Club is available on BBC iPlayer in the UK.
London’s glorious bohemian Soho, as it was in its 1950s-80s heyday, has all but vanished – undermined (literally) by Crossrail’s construction and otherwise by high street chains moving in and blanding it out – yet it remains as potent a symbol of creative ferment as 19th-century Montmartre. In Ronnie’s, a moving history of Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, director Oliver Murray evokes that morally complex alcoholic Eden of clubs, cafes, theatres, sex shops and singular food emporia as a wraparound for an elegiac story told mostly in voiceover commentary from Ronnie’s’ habitués.
Cockney saxophonists Ronnie Scott and Pete King, the club’s founders, were so in love with Bebop they joined ‘Geraldo’s Navy’, an Atlantic cruise liner dance band, so they could experience the music first hand in New York at small clubs like the Three Deuces. In imitation of such dives, Scott (the “bringer of stardust”) and King (the “businessman”) set up Ronnie Scott’s in 1959 in Gerrard Street and moved it to its current Frith Street location in 1966, partly because Ronnie wanted to be able to book bigger bands.
One indication of how Soho worked in those days is their ‘friendly’ relationship with gangster ‘Italian Albert’ Dines, who brought them a Magnum of champagne to be opened when their debts were cleared – the bottle still sits there, unopened. Such vivid anecdotal remembrance comes not only from Scott, a compère of few words but mordant wit, and the straightforward King, captured on archive footage, but also richly from Quincy Jones; Sonny Rollins; Barbara Jay and Georgie Fame; chat show host Michael Parkinson; DJ Gilles Peterson; jazz critic John Fordham; photographer Val Wilmer; and not least Scott’s two partners, Mary Scott and Françoise Venet; his daughter Rebecca; and King’s wife Stella.
Mercifully we don’t have to see these memoirists. Through poetic use of split screen effects and jazz album cover framing, Murray immerses their tales in the mood of the club, its performers and its environs. Best of all are the fabulous live archive performances from Nina Simone, Miles Davis, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy Rich, Ben Webster, Van Morrison, Chet Baker and Ella Fitzgerald, presented unsullied by voiceover. With a slightly appalled sense of wonder, we hear Jimi Hendrix performing with Eric Burdon’s War on the last night of his life.
Structure is the film’s one weakness. Ronnie Scott, most agree, was difficult to know. He suffered from bipolar disorder, had addiction problems and, it’s implied, may have assisted his own demise after a failed dental reconstruction meant he could no longer play sax. Murray holds back much of Scott’s troubles to use as a prelude to his death in 1996, putting all the weight of an upbeat ending on Sarah Green’s subsequent refurbishing of the club. Heartening as that revival story is, it lacks the emotional power to drag us out of the mood of despond and melancholy in which Scott’s demise places us – although I suspect to the man himself that lack may have brought a dark chuckle.
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