David Redfern / Redferns – The maestro in action.
Ronnie Scott on his favorite instrument.
Only an idiot would go into the jazz club business, let’s face it,” are the words of Ronnie Scott, co-founder of one of the world’s most renowned jazz clubs. It is easier to name the legends who haven’t played Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club than to name those who have. Ella Fitzgerald, Buddy Rich, Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, The Stars of Faith, Van Morrison, Chet Baker, Nina Simone, Jeff Beck, Ben Webster, Prince – take your pick.
University of Westminster/Heritage Images/Getty Images – Ella Fitzgerald at Ronnie Scott’s, Feb. 1994. Ella Fitzgerald at Ronnie Scott’s, Feb. 1994.
The ‘Ronnie’s’ documentary features some amazing footage from one of her gigs at the London venue.
Writer and director Oliver Murray, best known for his Bill Wyman documentary, “The Quiet One,” created an entire film about the iconic venue. Titled “Ronnie’s” (select theaters, streaming on Roku and Prime Video), it is as much a journey into the building’s rich history as it is a portrait of the two men who founded the place: Ronnie Scott and Pete King, who were not just business partners, but also best friends.
The inspiration to open their own club came on a trip to jazz dreamland, New York City. In the 1940s and 1950s, the best clubs were to be found on 52nd Street, and after a night of drinking beer and listening to music at the Three Deuces, Downbeat, or Hickory House, the seed had been planted. Scott spent the entire boat journey back across the Atlantic planning out a venue.
Ronnie Scott’s opened in 1959, first inside the basement of what was an all-night cafe for taxi drivers on Gerrard Street in Soho. Some 70 secondhand chairs, none matching, a piano and a PA; that was it. Scott was the face of the business, the master of ceremony on show nights, the natural leader everybody followed, and maybe most importantly: a great saxophonist, who would take the stage at his own club often over the years. King, a sax player himself, handled the business.
Jazz was a proper youth movement at the time, led by the likes of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. It was music you listened rather than danced to and was therefore not considered commercially viable. After all, people bought tickets to go out and dance, not to sit in a dingy basement, get stoned and listen to mind-bogglingly complex harmonies all night. Ronnie Scott’s changed that, beautifully captured by Murray in the documentary.
Harold Clements / Express / Getty Images – A King and a Scott.
The two founders of one of London’s most iconic venues.
“Sometimes the music might be kind of crazy or a little bit harmonically tricky, but the thing I really wanted to get across was that [Ronnie Scott’s is] the perfect place for a performer and an audience to come together and create the best atmosphere to play and listen to music,” he explains. “The not-so-secret ingredient of Ronnie’s, or any good venue, is: if the audience is having a great time, then the performer sits in that feedback loop where they want to give their best, the audience is willing them to do their best, and it just creates this alchemy, which is an extraordinary thing to witness. It does seem to have got into the walls of that place, the history, it drives the audiences and performers to be their best.”
The club’s founders realized that running the place on nothing but local talent wasn’t going to cut it. They needed somebody of international renown, starting with Zoot Sims in 1961, “The first American jazz star to play a residency in a British jazz club,” as one newspaper headlined at the time. It was a big deal. Back then, the musicians’ unions of both countries tried to prevent foreigners from taking away work from local artists. Scott traveled to New York once again to negotiate with the American Federation of Musicians. His efforts opened the door for American artists to perform in the UK in general, a huge contribution to British music.
Word of mouth about Ronnie Scott’s spread fast. By the mid-1960s the premises on Gerrard Street became too small. In the summer of 1965, the ideal space became available on Frith Street, a three-minute walk from the old location. As Ronnie Scott’s lawyer Wally Houser reveals in the film, many people were after the property, so they got Albert “Italian Al” Dimesinvolved, London’s Godfather, who made sure the building ended up in the right hands. In 1968, Scott and King acquired the building next door, which allowed them to add a downstairs bar as well as an upstairs room to showcase new acts outside jazz. The new enlarged club opened in October 1968 with the Buddy Rich Band and the same seated capacity of 250 it holds today.
Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images/Bauer Media – Future Legends
To this day, Ronnie Scott’s presents the best in modern jazz. Here’s Yazz Ahmed during the Jazz FM Awards 2020, where she won Album of the Year and Jazz Act of the Year.
Rich, showing off his incredible mastery of drums, is one of several legends that feature on “Ronnie’s.” Rule No. 1 when selecting the footage, according to Murray, “was to treat the performances in the same way the club treats the musicians’ sets. We’ve all watched music documentaries where the performances are more like clips to illustrate a point. I wanted them to be immersive, I wanted everyone to really be there in the room for a minute or so with each of these people. I knew that it was going to be performance heavy, because that’s what Ronnie and Pete would have wanted if they were around curating it.”
He continues, “I was worried that every time we talked about Ronnie, we’d lose the thread of the music, and that when we went and listened to these performances, the audience would lose the emotional thread of him. There was some luck involved, and also just good curation, so that the flow of the music was designed to match the story. It did mean that there were some fantastic performances that never made it.”
They include a Jeff Beck cover of “A Day in the Life” by The Beatles, which had first been used to underscore the narrative around Scott’s depression. According to Murray, the song caused the scenes to carry too much negative energy, which is why it got replaced by Van Morrison’s rendition of “Send In The Clowns,” accompanied by Chet Baker on the trumpet. “He could literally be singing about Ronnie in that moment,” says Murray.
– Oliver Murray.
Writer and director of ‘Ronnie’s’.
Scott had been in and out of depression his whole life, but he always had music as an outlet for feelings that couldn’t be expressed with words, especially in those years, when, rather than saying, “Do you want to talk about it?” people would say, “Someone buy Ronnie a drink.” But when Scott lost his embouchure after badly conducted dental surgery, that outlet was gone. At 69, that was too much. He fought a fierce battle against depression for several years, but on December 23, 1996, one of the brightest lights in British jazz went out forever.
“To see what happens to Ronnie when music’s taken away was very profound for me, because I kind of feel the same when it comes to making films,” says Murray, “The idea of having that taken away really came into sharp focus in a year of not being able [to work]. A documentary maker who’s not allowed to leave the house, it’s tricky. Music was Ronnie’s medicine, and in a lot of ways, music’s my medicine too. I was surprised how much I learned about myself through learning about him. If that starts to happen, you know you’re in a good place. That’s why we watch stuff, right? To learn about other people and thereby educate us on ourselves as well. It was a very enlightening process to go through.”
After the death of Ronnie Scott, Pete King ran the club successfully for another nine years, seeing the club reach its 45th anniversary. However, it was never the same for King without his partner and best friend, and in June 2005, King sold the club to theatre impresario Sally Greene.
King passed away in 2009. So, when Murray made Ronnie’s, its two main protagonists weren’t around anymore. He had to reach out to the families and close friends of the co-founders. “You know that when you’re traveling to speak to Ronnie’s daughter, or to Pete’s wife, that these wounds are still there, they never really heal. You know that you’re basically going to go and ruin their weekend by asking them to go to these places,” he explains, adding, “it’s a responsibility I take really, really seriously. If you’re going to ask them to do that, you need to make sure that you’re making a film that is going to deliver.”
It does. The film was “well received,” by the people who run Ronnie Scott’s today, Music Programmer Sarah Weller tells VenuesNow, before offering her personal thoughts: “I loved it. To me it felt like a wonderful dedication to Ronnie and Pete, their relationship, what they achieved and Ronnie’s enduring appeal. It was touching and perfectly captured from what I have learned and understood happened through the decades. It never detracted from the two of them.”
Hollie Adams/Getty Images – Ronnie Scott’s has maintained its intimate feel over all these years.
Today’s modern design is juxtaposed with historic pictures. The atmosphere inside the venue needs to be experienced, it can hardly be described in words.
We wanted to know, whether Scott’s statement quoted right at the beginning of this piece still held any water today. Weller, who has worked at Ronnie Scott’s for 13 years, says, “I don’t know of the struggles they endured, only from what I have read and heard. Today we have two private owners Sally Greene and Mike Watt, who continue to be very supportive of the small team we have at Ronnie’s. There are struggles, we have just experienced probably the biggest struggle a jazz club will ever face, but we got through and had the support of the jazz community and the members and we continue to do what we do. We have a strong U.K. jazz scene, so we can line-up U.K. jazz as main acts alongside U.S. stars now, and there seems to be more opportunity for home-grown talent abroad than ever before, which is a great thing to witness.”