In the early 1980s, jazz club Ronnie Scott’s was facing financial ruin. “If you’d been better businessmen, this wouldn’t have happened to you,” co-founders and managers Ronnie Scott and Pete King were told. “If we’d been better businessmen we wouldn’t have opened a jazz club in the first place,” replied King.
This gentle and quietly authoritative documentary is a love letter to Scott, to the club named after him in a basement in London’s Soho in 1959, and to the music he adored. (King, apparently, was the business brains, while Scott provided the “stardust”.) Performance clips threaded throughout celebrate some of jazz’s greatest – from the opening, furiously sweat-soaked notes of Oscar Peterson at the piano, to the breathtaking skill and poise of the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Chet Baker, Nina Simone, Cleo Laine and Buddy Rich. All graced the legendary stage.
“It was the place you went to worship,” says Michael Parkinson. Guardian critic John Fordham, King’s wife Stella (King, who managed the club until 2004, died in 2009), Scott’s daughter Rebecca, and his partners Mary Scott and Francoise Venet, along with musicians including Quincy Jones and Sonny Rollins are among those telling the story of the Soho institution.
Much of the film’s pleasure lies in the glimpses of Soho over the decades: a wealth of photographs, sound clips and archive footage bring the club and the neighbourhood to life. Free of obtrusive talking heads, contributors feature as voices only, and none overstays their welcome. Indeed several details are a little too sketchy: the exact role played by gangster “Italian Albert” whose protection helped ensure the club’s early survival, not the least; likewise saxophonist Scott’s own musical career.
But there’s also a darkness here that reveals itself slowly. “He was not an easy guy to know,” says Parkinson. Beset by spells of mental illness, those closest to Scott talk about drugs, gambling, alcoholism and manic depression; music was how he felt OK, how he expressed himself. So when botched dentistry left his mouth permanently damaged and rendered him unable to play the saxophone, it was a blow from which he was unable to recover.
The poignancy of telling such a story during a period when so many musicians have been silenced is one the film-makers cannot have dreamed of, nor perhaps quite anticipated how much visceral enjoyment there is to be had from the atmospheric footage of the venue, packed, low-lit, the clink of bottles and the hum of expectant chatter. Ronnie’s puts you right there.
Ronnie’s is released on 23 October in cinemas.