Documentary Review: Put “Ronnie’s” on your jazz club bucket list

There aren’t a lot of music clubs that have made the journey from “THE place to be” to “an Institution” with more grace than Ronnie Scott’s, the Frith Street landmark in Soho, London.

Ronnie’s” is a gloriously musical celebration of the club where everyone from Dizzy to Sonny, Chet to Miles, Sarah and Ella to Carmen and Cleo held forth.

Oliver Murray’s documentary gives us the history of the club via the biography of its namesake and co-founder, British sax player, jazz mainstay longtime MC at the club, which as the film was shot, was passing through its 60th year.

What the Blue Note and the Village Vanguard are to New York, Ronnie Scott’s has been to London, which is exactly what Ronnie Scott himself had in mind when and his fellow musician and manager Pete King had in mind when they opened the place in a tiny basement space back in 1959.

Scott, already a star of British music at the time, conceived this “club designed for musicians,” an “ideal setting for jazz to be played in,” after helping break the union musician barrier that kept Brits from performing in clubs in America and Americans from making much musical noise in Britain.

He visited The Down Beat and the Three Deuces in New York and with the much more business minded fellow sax man King, set out to make it happen.

In archival interviews with Ronnie and Pete, and voice-over testimonials from everyone from Quincy Jones and Sonny Rollins to fan and popularizer Michael Parkinson, the British TV chat show host, we learn all about the partnership, the struggles and a dream that came true — being able to introduce (often with a little stand-up comedy) the greatest names of jazz’s Be Bop gilded age, and then hear them, sometimes sit in and at the very least catch every note played from the club’s stage from his backstage office.

And the music sampled here, from other films, TV programs and the like, is pristine, with every performer at something like her or his very best. Oscar Peterson works up a serious sweat, Chet Baker plays with Van Morrison (1985) as the Irishman sings “Send in the Clowns,” Ella Fitzgerald dazzles and Sonny Rollins, Ben Webster, Dizzy Gillespie and Roland Kirk blow the roof off the joint.

Murray fills the screen not just with their performances, but with reams of street life footage from the London and New York of the late ’50s into the ’70s.

Colorful tales about the mobster, “Italian” Albert Dimes, the “godfather” who enabled Scott and King to score their bigger, upgraded location, moving from a Gerrard St. basement to a swank Frith Street showroom, and Jimi Hendrix coming to jam with Eric Burdon and War in what would be his last performance pepper the picture.

Musicians talk about the improvisations one describes as “looking for transcendence,” about how difficult it is to achieve it, and how that drove Scott himself to fame, glory and eventually depression.

The club always booked with an ear for jazz as a “big tent,” encompassing much more than just “trad” and swing and big band and the like.

And the fact that, as the film points out, it continues today, outliving its founders and thriving as a music fan’s bucket list totem, turns the film from not just a history lesson and musical memoir. It’s a call to action.

See this film about the legendary London jazz club. Note exactly where it is. Make your travel plans accordingly.

Rating: unrated, a little profanity, smoking, drugs mentioned

Cast: Ronnie Scott, Barbara Jay, Cleo Lane, Roland Kirk, Mel Brooks, Nina Simone,
Oscar Peterson, John Dankforth, Sonny Rollins, Michael Parkinson and Quincy Jones.

Credits: Scripted and directed by Oliver Murray. A Greenwich release.

Running time: 1:43

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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