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The Cy Laurie Club
One of the earliest jazz clubs in the UK was run by the clarinetist Cy Laurie. Born in London in 1926, Cy was an admirer of New Orleans clarinet player Johnny Dodds and would claim to be the reincarnation of Dodds, even though Dodds was alive while Cy was a teenager.
Here's Cy Laurie's band playing Sol Blues in 1955 with Alan Elsdon (trumpet), Graham Stewart (trombone), Cy Laurie (clarinet), Pat Hawes (piano), Brian Munday (banjo), Stan Leader (bass), and Peter Mawford (drums) :
Cy had previously run a small weekly club at the Seven Stars in Bow, but in the early 1950s he started up the club for which he would become so well known. Cy Laurie's Jazz Club became a focal point for live traditional jazz for most of the decade and was renowned particularly for its all-night raves.
The club was in the basement of 41 Great Windmill Street opposite the Windmill Theatre in London's West End. During the day, the space was used as Mac’s Rehearsal Rooms. Many jazz musicians used the rehearsal rooms at that time - if you were living in a flat or a bed-sit, you needed somewhere to practise or rehearse to avoid disturbing the neighbours. There was a nightclub on the ground floor and a boxing gymnasium on the first floor. An obituary for Cy Laurie in the Daily Telegraph newspaper (click here) describes the setting as: ‘Dark and intimate, with a dance floor surrounded by dilapidated sofas, these premises held an irresistible bohemian appeal for the young people from the suburbs who flocked to the club’s “all-nite raves"’.
Above: 41 - 44 Great Windmill Street in 2011 opposite The Windmill. Ham Yard is a little further up on the left, and Archer Street opposite Ham Yard on the right.
There is an excellent description of the club on the website Classic Cafés (click here). The page is primarily about the Harmony Cafe in Archer Street but says of Cy's Club: 'Situated in scruffy Ham Yard, at the junction of Great Windmill and Archer Street, it was entered by going through a set of doors it shared with a strip-club and a boxing gym. (Ham Yard was used by the street traders of Rupert Street to store their barrows.) A dingy staircase descended into a vast basement that was used as a dance rehearsal room during the day. There was little in the way of décor, just hardwood floors and a few dilapidated sofas, alongside minimal lighting and a PA system that worked only intermittently.'
Steve Fletcher has sent us this programme for the Cy Laurie Jazz Club in 1956. You can see from the programme that in 1956 jazz was on the menu every day of the week from 7.15 pm to 10.45 pm and if you were a member you could get in for 3/- (was that 30p?). Steve says: 'I have lots of memories of the Cy Laurie club. I spent so many evenings there that eventually the manager gave me a job on the door. It was simply the best 'trad’ club in London from 1953 – 58. Why? Not because it had the best music - we teenagers at the time could not really make reasoned judgements about whether Cy’s band was that much better than Ken Colyer’s or Humph’s. In all of the clubs you just went in to jive - and to try to pull a chick – and Cy’s had the best chicks, mainly from St Martin’s Art School. Cy’s, certainly at weekends, was packed to capacity, and personally I never left without a different bird on my arm. Humph’s was for tourists and Colyer's for purists but Cy’s was for jiving and raving.'
'The place itself was a dump, a grubby basement rehearsal room with no decent furniture, clapped-out P.A., filthy toilets and a lousy little tea bar – but the arty bohemian mob loved it like they loved the French coffee bar in Old Compton Street. Ironically Cy, himself was a very straight guy – aesthetic vegetarian, non smoker or drinker, and a total disciple of Johnny Dodds who would not compromise to cash in on the 'trad’ boom. I was never really a 'trad’ fan - at home I was listening to Mulligan and Kenton - but I would never miss a Friday, Saturday or Sunday night at Cy’s – for half-a-crown’s worth of unbridled noise, smoke, sweat-laden jiving and - what all young men are looking for...'
This photograph of an all-night session at the Cy Laurie Club in March 1956 is by Magnum photographer, David Hurn. It was used widely to advertise an exhibition at the Photographers' Gallery in London in 2008 - Soho Archives 1950s and 1960s. You are able to see this and other images of Soho by clicking here.
There are two recollections of the Club on the History Is Made At Night web blog that help in describing Cy's Club and the scene at that time (click here). The blog quotes the source of the recollections as being www.jazzhouse.org/com, but that website no longer seems to have the information.
‘The Windmill Street club was the Saturday Night magnet in my late teens; it was the music and the atmosphere, but also the place to find out the address of that week's rave; there were five of us, and between us we could muster three cars - unusual in those days - which ensured that we always gathered passengers who knew the ropes. On one then celebrated occasion, four of us went to Manchester, at the drop of a hat in an Austin A35, by the time we got there it was all over, so we returned to London with an extra passenger, who had been given a trumpet which he taught himself to play on the journey' (so years before the late 1980s London orbital parties, the convoy of rave pilgrims was established).’
Great Windmill Street with Ham Yard to the right in 2010
'All nighters at Cy's were a buzz. I was one of the - all dressed in black and often barefoot - dancers who was first AND last on the floor.... Cy's place was a culture thing, and included the early morning rush to Waterloo station to get the Milk Train to Hastings, for "FUN" in the Hastings caves'. Others would stumble into the Harmony Inn cafe in Archer Street. By the end of the 1950s, Laurie had moved on to India to study with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, beating the Beatles to it, while revivalist jazz had been superseded by the trad jazz boom and a new crowd of ravers.'
Archer Street was just round the corner from Great Windmill Street and it was there that musicians would meet in the street outside the Musicians Union office making contacts for gigs.
In 1958 a film was made to advertise the Ford Thames Van range. Called Band Wagon, it is a valuable piece of film in that features some rare footage of the Cy Laurie Jazz Band. Here is the video.
Steve Fletcher has identified some of the musicians: Cy Laurie -clarinet, Colin Smith - trumpet, Terry Pitts - trombone, Stan Leader - bass ... but who are the drummer and banjo player? (Chris Mitchell tells us that the drummer is Ernie O'Malley and the banjo player is Tim Streeton).
By the way - did you know that you can buy a Cy Laurie mug for £8.99? (click the picture)
From Norman Simpson
Norman comments on the video of the Cy Laurie band:
'I suspect that the banjoist is Tim Stretton and the drummer Ernie O'Malley. The band had a pianist at the time, Ron Weatherburn, but he obviously couldn't fit in the van - so it wasn't all that great a bandwagon!'
A Short History Of Ham Yard
In Ham Yard, Great Windmill Street, Soho, right opposite the Windmill Theatre, there’s a hotel on the site of one of the most significant nightclub buildings in Britain. But long before that stood a notorious cabaret club opened in 1922 called the Hambone, just to the right as you entered Ham Yard, up on the first floor.
The Hambone was one of the Soho clubs of the 1920s where flouting convention was the convention. Novelist and regular Ethel Mannin called the Hambone “chronically Bohemian”. And though 1920s flapper fashions didn’t percolate through the whole nation, if there was one place you’d find a knee frock, the bob, the Eton crop, it was the Hambone. According to writer Trevor Allen’s memoir, We Loved In Bohemia, Ye Olde Ham Bone Club, to give it its full name, was the first place in the world where a woman dared to wear an icon of The Roaring Twenties, the tight-fitting cloche hat! He goes on to remember that a notice hanging in the cloakroom advised “Boiled Shirts Not Recommended” and another proclaimed “No Tiaras”!
Allen further describes the place thus: ‘We met in Ye Olde Ham Bone, that club of artists and writers, sibyls and scallywags, hidden away in a corner of Ham Yard, Soho, where milord and his lady once parked their carriage and pair while they trivolled at Astley’s, Carlisle House, Almack’s or Willis’s Rooms. It was over a stable – rumour said, the Iron Duke’s a century ago – and still retained an atmosphere of hay and horses. Old oak beams abounded. The dining and dance floors incorporated the original harness-room and hayloft, with half-door opening onto the mews.’
As Dave Haslam writes in his book Life After Dark: “A History of British Nightclubs and Music Venues”, ‘There was no standing on ceremony at the Hambone. Women at the bar casually ordered their own whiskies – at that time, there can’t have been many establishments in the country where you’d see such a thing. The venue was a microcosm of the inter-War years – the reckless twenties, the headlong rush into hedonism in the jazz age, amorous encounters sound-tracked by saxophones.'
Novelist Radclyffe Hall was another regular. Among the women, it was dancers and actresses who predominated, while the men included shady types, like gun-runner Jack Ball and artists including sculptor Jacob Epstein. The stock market crash of 1929 didn’t dampen demand for nights out, but nevertheless, the Hambone eventually fell out of favour. Competition from other clubs around Ham Yard was strong, including from the Blue Lantern, which opened more-or-less next door to the Hambone in 1929. In a newsletter to members, a eulogy to the Hambone and its clientele – and perhaps to all great clubs and their clientele – was published: “Oh! We are the great Progressives, we are the Passionate Few, we pay ninepence for fourpence lagers, and dream of the things we’ll do!”’
Then, years later in the early 1950s, Cy Laurie opened his club in Mac’s Rehearsal Rooms in the basement below Ham Yard with the entrance on Great Windmill Street. There were two rooms, the larger rear one with the bandstand and a few scruffily soft sofas, and an extra room at the front where we once held a birthday party for my flatmate Judith (who, many years later years, went on to marry Al Fairweather).
June (left) and Judy.
Photograph © June Bastable
Many were the nights we spent there jiving away to the likes of Alan Elsdon, Colin Smith, Graham Stewart, Al Fairweather, Acker Bilk, Diz Disley, Mick Mulligan and George Melly. The very first time I clapped eyes on George Melly was during an all-nighter in 1957. He was perched on a dustbin by the stage sporting tight, black and white, vertically striped jeans, viewing the talent! Later on he got up onstage and shouted a few numbers including Take Me For A Buggy Ride with a few casually lewd gestures.
As the crush of bodies jived and heaved during these all-nighters, the atmosphere heated up, walls ran with condensation and our heads got wet as it dripped from the ceiling like rain! Some people even brought umbrellas! One night I took my vest off in the filthy, dilapidated ladies’ toilet and left it there while I concentrated on the jiving. When I went back to retrieve said vest, it had gone!
Nowadays, Ham Yard houses the 5* Ham Yard Hotel where you pay at least £565 per night for a room. But you can go into the hotel and sit in its fabulously appointed book-lined lounge for free or take tea in the dining room at £19 per head. It has its own theatre, bowling alley, spa, gym, shops, etc etc. Ham Yard Hotel has a village atmosphere and if you can afford to stay there, you don’t have to set foot outside the premises from dawn to dusk or later.
Photograph © June Bastable
It was a very strange feeling to be there last week after all my youthful activities of nearly 60 years ago on that very spot!
Ham Yard Village (click on the picture for a larger image)
June Bastable is the wife of the late jazz musician, Johnny Bastable. She is a writer and author of two books Some People and These People available from Amazon, Waterstones, etc
From Roger Todd
'During my teens in the 1950s, it was the proud boast of one of my friends that she used to make love under the Cy Laurie Club bandstand. Did the earth move for her? Was there even room? I don't know as I never went there, but it shows how advanced some of us were - the rest of us just envied.'
From Eric Jackson
'Referring to Steve Fletcher's memories of the club in the 50s there were also sessions on Sunday afternoons often led by Colin Smith but without Cy and not averse to sitters in. I also remember meetings in a small room at the foot of the stairs of the Bunk Johnson appreciation society where records were played and reverentialy discussed with references to Slow Drag, Big Jim and the real stuff (not the benzadrine helping to fuel the all nighters). I didn't know Steve, but the guy on the door who could have been his predecessor was Bill Palmer from Potters Bar who had a few hairy moment at the all-nighters with would-be crashers. Not all the post all night trips were to Hastings some were to Brighton. On an anorakish note the Hastings Jazz Caveners are still gigging in the area under the leadership of Roy Martin.'
'There was another club in the area doing all nighters and that was the Creole in Gerrard Street where the bands most likely to be heard were those of Mike Peters,Trevor Williams and Bill Brunskill. I remember seeing Albert Nicholas with the latter on a party night instigated by John Jack of Cadillac records and happily still with us.'
From Bill Bayliss
'I remember going to the club in c1956 and listening to a young American folk singer. One of his songs was Talking Atomic Blues (also known as Old Man Atom). The chorus is ‘Hiroshima Nagasaki, atoms to atoms and dust to dust, Peace in the World or the World goes bust’.
'The young singer was Guy Carawan who went on to help run the Highlander Centre in Tennessee. This Centre was where Guy Carawan and Pete Seeger re-wrote the words of an old spiritual and called it We Shall Overcome. This is the Centre where the year before her famous refusal to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks attended a training course for Civil Rights workers. A couple of years ago I emailed him and reminded him of the gig. He replied telling me that he still sings the song at some of his gigs.'
Although we are in the realms of folk music here, rather than jazz, readers might still like to hear Guy Carawan. Here's a video made in of Guy playing and singing with Mark Gunther in 1982.
From Mick Welstead
Mick Welstead from Preston Cross and Old Barn Hall Jazz Clubs adds to the memories for our page on Cy Laurie’s Club (click here). Mick has been running Preston Cross and Old Barn Hall ‘ … for a few years now with a small team of helpers. The big crowds of 10 years ago are now a distant memory but I feel we are doing our bit to keep Jazz live,’ he says. His memories of Cy Laurie’s Club start when Mick was doing his National Service:
I was stationed at Tangmere in the fifties and looked forward to the coach journey to Victoria Coach Station where I always broke my journey to visit Cy's club before finishing up at my parents’ home in Orpington. Just every visitor that ever entered will remember the beaten up Settees which would have had no value after the many All-Nighters.
It seemed from day one that the imposing figure of Bill Palmer at the entrance was ever present to greet one and all. "Duffy" as she was affectionately known was always on the dance floor and I was lucky enough to have many dances with her. "Duffy" was to become Mrs Palmer. Her very good friend Shirley who was at the club at the time, now runs Southend Jazz Club I understand. Shirley tells me it was a very sad day when Duffy passed away a few years back. If my memory serves me correctly, Bill appeared at the door with a black eye on one occasion, he had been set upon by some hooligans on his way home (they were about in those days as well) - I'm sure they came off a lot worse than Bill.
There were some great dancers at the club. Judy Rosenstein from Hackney, was a great dancer as most of the girls in those days were. One night we were in Colyer's 51 Club and she was invited to sing with the Guv’nor and she was very good. "I Wish I Could Shimmy" was the song, I think.
John from Wembley (as I knew him), loved his dancing and loved the girls. John had a Ronnie Barker type stammer and was always referring to the girls as ‘Faa-naa-ticaa-l virgins’, (he probably got rejected a few times).
There was Charlie the pointer from Stratford, so called as he used to point in all directions in rhythm as he was dancing. It would be nice to know if these and many other characters from those days are still about.
There is a long and varied list of musicians I remember playing at Cy’s: Alan Elsdon, Graham Stewart, Laurie Chescoe to name but three of the stalwarts. (Laurie C tells me he met his lovely wife there). I knew Bill Brunskill quite well. I followed him out into the street after one All-Nighter and Bill made the comment: ‘They are all a load of nutters - but I'll be back.'
From John Whitaker
Don’t you remember the Alsatian?? Granted it was a long time ago – about 1956 - when I was working shifts at the Automobile Association in Leicester Square and needed regular spiritual refreshment!
From Peter Dunn
We used to frequent Cy Laurie's jazz club on Sunday afternoons around 1956
or so wearing the appropriate apparel sandals and tight black pants
travelling up to town on the tube from the suburbs . My friend (Jerry
Hegarty) introduced us to the club and he was a student at St Martins Art
school around that time. We loved the music (still do) and the memories are
From Colin Clark
I am a 75-year old ex Londoner, now in Isle of Man. I chanced upon the article about the Cy Laurie Jazz Club. Just one addition, to the contribution of Eric Jackson, who said that there were Sunday afternoon sessions often led by Colin Smith but without Cy Laurie. I remember going to a Sunday afternoon session at the club which was hosted by the Charles McDevitt skiffle group and Nancy Whisky, some time soon after their hit with “Freight Train”. I don’t remember much about the music policy, except that the group I was in “The Henry King Swing Band” did a set, and we were a mix of jazz, pop and early rock’n’roll. This was about 1956, when we won Carroll Levis’ Discoveries at Golders Green Empire, and got to the televised finals in Birmingham.
I imagine that the rationale was that the Laurie band had probably played a Saturday all-nighter, and were asleep, so it made sense to sub-contract a session on Sunday afternoon to contribute to the lease payment. I also have a recollection of seeing Sandy Brown’s band, featuring John R T Davies on trombone and alto sax (and wearing a fez, I believe) at 100 Oxford Street somewhere around this time. Great band! Another memory came to mind recently - this one of the 100 club during the 50’s. As well as one of the British bands (Humph?) Big Bill Broonzy was performing. Josh White was in the audience, never having heard Broonzy before, and after a while went up and duetted with him. That was something!
From Ken Robinson (Oregon, U.S.A.)
I was stationed at RAF Northolt from 1958-1960. I was a regular at Cy’s club at least 4 or 5 times a week. I knew Stan Leader, bass player, through a friend in Brighton, and through him got to know the rest of the band. The greatest jazz band of its time. The girls were very picky about who they danced with! If you weren’t a good dancer, knowing at least 2-3 of the 'in' jive methods in vogue, you would be a spectator. I was ('in') and would dance the night away. It was there that I met Anna Massey from Harrow; we got engaged for a while until I was Posted to Germany. I had another good friend known as Fritz! Lost touch with him when he moved to Spain. Great times and a wonderful place to have a misspent youth! I am in the USA in Oregon these days, a long way from Piccadilly Circus. Best wishes to all who remember and were a part of that era.
From Steve Castle
I have just been some programmes by my father that relate to evenings at the London Jazz Club (Mac's Rehearsal Rooms) in the late '40s (1948/49) where Humph seems to be an ever-present performer. I am wondering if this was the same venue as the Cy Laurie Jazz Club? I have a host of programmes along with tickets and some other memorabilia including a newsletter for the Humph Lyttelton Club in 1953 citing Sidney Bechet as president. I have inherited my parents' love of jazz and wondered if these items relate to the same place you write of?
We have replied that our page on the Cy Laurie Club says that the Club was used by Mac's Rehearsal Rooms, but that possibly not every London Jazz Club broadcast came from there. Does anyone know?
Ray Root writes: I like your site 'Sandy Brown Jazz' In particular I enjoyed reading the anecdotes about the Cy Laurie club as I too frequented this dubious establishment many times back in the fifties.
The jazz was great, the atmosphere was often electric with frenzied dancers and fans and of course the sleazy location, the decor and so called furnishings added to the fun! As a Croydon engineering apprentice, I offered to take our works manager's secretary up to Soho and Cy Laurie's one Friday evening. That lunchtime, I had bought a 500cc girder front forked, ex WD Triumph motorbike from a works colleague and told him I was taking our works secretary up to Soho on it - he said I was mad! I had never ever driven a motorbike in my life but that evening I drove up to Soho with my very posh and smartly dressed secretary on the pillion, crashing the gears and struggling to keep the thing upright.
Unfortunately, on the way, outside Brixton police station to be precise, I dropped the bike on her at a set of traffic lights. I let go and just hopped off but she stayed on the pillion and hit the ground very hard! Nevertheless I managed to persuade her to jump back on the bike and proceed to Cy's. We had a great evening until the journey back! Again in Brixton I smelt burning! She was using the exhaust as a footrest and had burned one of her brand new high heel shoes.
I never married the girl, but amazingly after 59 years she is still a good family friend and still reminds me that I owe her a pair of new shoes! Happy memories of the Cy Laurie club!
For more about Cy Laurie click here:
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