“It’s a little nest of happiness. All the recent wounds are all healed here … because there’s always somebody blowing something beautiful and blowing a kind of unconscious poetry that only good music can speak to you.” Well, if that’s how Mel Brooks describes your club, surely you must be doing things right! The iconic comedian and filmmaker speaks these words in an archival interview midway through Ronnie’s, a new documentary about the London jazz club Ronnie Scott’s written and directed by Oliver Murray. Perhaps best known for his controversial 2019 film about Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman, Murray weaves together interviews with British broadcasters, writers, photographers, and jazz musicians, as well as great American players like Sonny Rollins, alongside gorgeous footage of performances from the club over 60 years to demonstrate its importance in the history of jazz, especially in the United Kingdom.
Except Murray cannot simply tell the story of this physical space without also focusing on the life and work of the man who lent his name to it: Ronnie Scott, the great British tenor saxophonist turned club proprietor. When Scott was at the peak of his life as a touring performer, the “jazz clubs” of Soho tended to be more seedy bars run by businessmen; Scott and partner Peter King sought to do the then-unheard-of in London and create a jazz room truly catering to musicians and fans.
Focusing on Scott’s life and his relationship to the club injects a lot of humanity into the film, which underscores why Ronnie Scott’s has the gravitas it does in the jazz world. Murray takes care to pull audio that expounds on how welcoming Scott made the space for everyone involved, from first-time attendees to stars. Singer George Melly, for example, remarks that the club “just won’t offer total mediocrity or cocktail jazz. And I think that impresses people.”
“I loved my time in London when I played there,” Rollins remarks in an interview for the film. “The club was a very special place: The music gets into the room, the atmosphere. It’s magical.”
That magic is demonstrated over 142 minutes through a series of performances captured at Ronnie Scott’s from 1965 to 2019, which are the real delight. Scott plays “Caravan” alongside Ben Webster in ’65; Nina Simone croons softly in ’85; Buddy Rich bangs out a dynamic solo in ’69; Rollins himself dominates the stage in ’75; and Jimi Hendrix gives his last known public performance (audio only) in 1970.
It’s nuggets like the tape of Hendrix that help establish the significance of Scott’s in history, and not just for bits of trivia. During footage of Miles Davis performing at the club in 1969, the film establishes that Davis found bassist Dave Holland by attending one of his gigs at Scott’s; Scott negotiated with U.S. and British musicians’ unions to open up a clear path for Americans to play U.K. venues regularly; photographer John Fordham notes that having so many British musicians play alongside the likes of Rollins, Webster, and countless others “raised the standard for British jazz.”
Ronnie’s is not a maudlin letter to a time or place long gone, nor simply a victory lap for a well-established name brand, but a celebration of a vital place in music history and a testimony to why it still earns its place in the pantheon.