RONNIE’S: a documentary about the life of Ronnie Scott and his world famous jazz club

Directed by Oliver Murray, the documentary will air on BBC 4 this Sunday.

Anyone walking through Frith Street in London must have, at least once, glanced at the Ronnie Scott’s neon sign glowing in the night. The legendary jazz club and Soho institution is at the core of Ronnie’s, a new documentary from director Oliver Murray, recounting the history of the venue and of the man behind it.

If several people know about Ronnie Scott’s the club, few know about Ronnie Scott, the man. Scott was born in East London in 1927; he inherited his love for music from his father, who was a saxophone player. As the documentary shows, Scott began his career as a tenor saxophone in the East End, graduating to the West End not too long after. “It was a great scene,” says Ronnie “everything was new and exciting, there was a great deal of camaraderie around. It was great fun”. Between 1954 and 1955 Ronnie formed his first band, of which one of the members was Peter King, later co-founder of the Ronnie Scott’s jazz club. The band, though, was unemployable as the kind of jazz they played wasn’t in sync with the commercial music of the time, Swing.

America provided the change they were all waiting for. Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillepsie created a new language: the music they played was one you had to listen to and not dance to, like Swing. It was a Bebop revolution.  

Soon, Ronnie and Pete felt the urge to see the Jazz scene in New York and enrolled in the navy. Once in Manhattan, they visited all the famous venues on 52nd Street: “It was like being transported to a dreamland” remembers Ronnie “like being in the movies”. Amazed by the New York scene, Scott returned to London with the idea of founding his own jazz club.  Soho, then the centre of British Bohemia, seemed the ideal place for it. Jazz fitted perfectly in its eccentric atmosphere.

Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club opened its doors in Gerrard Street in 1959. At that time, for a musician to have his own club was revolutionary; producers controlled all aspects of the business and didn’t want musicians to mix with it. But Ronnie, along with Peter, went his own way; King was the rock around which the club was built; Scott was the stardust.

Hosting only British performers at the club wasn’t enough; soon, thanks to a deal with the American Federation of Musicians, jazz legends from the States began to take the stage at Ronnie Scott’s. As the audience grew, Ronnie and Pete decided to move to the larger premises of N 47 Frith Street, where the club still stands today.

Oliver Murray narrates the life of Ronnie Scott through evocative images of London and the memories of the people who personally knew him. While the film is mainly an affectionate celebration, it also depicts the darker side of the story: the desperate times when, due to financial problems, the club was almost forced to shut its doors, and Scott’s consuming mental illness.“In 1965, we saw the first signs of his depression. When he was not at the club, he was falling apart” explains Ronnie’s partner, Mary Scott.

Even if Ronnie loved his club, he wanted to be remembered as a musician. But the crowd saw him more as a club owner than a performer; this caused great pain to Ronnie, who had always doubted his musical talent. When Scott was 69, he underwent a dental operation that altered his playing forever. After a while, he couldn’t play anymore and felt useless. Ronnie had lost his mean to express his feelings. He died in 1996, leaving the Jazz Club in the hands of Pete King.

Despite its bitter epilogue, what transpires through the film is Ronnie Scott’s great love for music and musicians. The list of performers who appeared at the venue is incredible; Murray inserts some iconic performances by Roland Kirk, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillepsie, Van Morrison & Chet Baker, and Ella Fitzgerald. The club was also the stage of Jimi Hendrix’s last appearance.

Ronnie Scott’s is a venue infused with music where, as director Mel Brooks puts it in the film, “wounds are healed”. Now, thanks to this fascinating documentary, the man who created this magical place will be justly remembered.