|ICafe Confessional: Harmony Inn and the Archer Street connection|
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The late 50s was the height of the English traditional jazz boom and Soho was a Mecca for trad' fans who headed for the clubs of Ken Colyer and Humphrey Lyttleton. But by far the most successful venue was the Cy Laurie Club.
Unlike some of his fellow New Orleans jazz revivalists, Cy never made the charts but his club was by far the most popular. 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.
Refreshments - limited to soft drinks and crisps - were dispensed from a crude bar next to some equally crude toilets.
Despite the dismal surroundings Cy's band drew an enormous following from, initially, art school students with a distinctly bohemian bent.
Drainpipe trousers and Jesus-sandals were de rigeur for guys, along with Bardot hairstyles for females and compulsory duffel coats for both sexes.
The club's fame soon spread and at the weekends hundreds of fans from the suburbs packed into the smoke-filled basement, all jiving wildly as Cy waved his clarinet in front of his six piece stomping group.
The craziest scenes were at
the occasional all-niters that drew much unfavourable reporting
from the popular press. (Although drugs were used by jazz musicians
they were very rarely seen amongst their audiences.)
Everything about The Harmony was unsavoury. Grubby Formica tables and chairs were ranged around a dismal counter in a totally bland room; the only colour was the red and white shirts on the table football teams. The most exotic fare was a cheese sandwich, tea and foul Camp coffee.
The clientele were even more dubious. The late-night trad' fans who drifted in had little in common with the Harmony Inn's regulars. The customers that it attracted after midnight were drawn from the spivs, petty and major criminals that gave Soho a bad name: Billy Hill, Tony Muller, Ronnie Chambers, Mick the Hammer, and the Capone figure of Jack Spot.
The caff was presided over by Dixie France who was allegedly a police informer who gave evidence at the Hanratty murder trial (and mysteriously committed suicide shortly after Hanratty was hanged in 1962.)
Those in the know said that there was an arsenal of weapons under the counter ready for any emergencies, mostly the punch-ups that arose over the football machine that occupied one corner of the room.
There was also a downstairs room used as a private club. Details of what occurred there are sketchy but are said to involve a pair of West Indian girls whose dancing skills were much 'admired'.
Alongside the heavies and trad-merchants, The Harmony was also the hang-out for a group of modern jazz musicians that had formed around tenor-sax man Ronnie Scott. (Jazz Modernists would have no truck with trad' which they considered an anachronism. Their heroes were the New York bop musicians like Charley Parker, Dizzy Gillespe and Thelonius Monk.)
The audience for modern jazz was relatively small and there was no central venue for it in the West End, but the Harmony Inn played a crucial role in its development.
Ronnie Scott's Club house-magazine editor Jim Godbolt recalls: "We (including Ronnie Scott, Peter King, Benny Green, Derek Humble, Tony Crombie and Jimmy Deuchar) were all sitting in the Harmony Inn in Archer Street, near Piccadilly, one day in January 1953 when we conceived the idea of forming a nine piece co-operative band and it turned out to be one of the better ideas we had that year."
The Harmony cafe crew would go on to set the foundations for modern jazz in England.
© Steve Fletcher
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