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Cy Laurie: 1926-2002
Cy Laurie
Clarinet, bandleader, club owner

Born: April 26, 1926 in London, England
Died: April 18, 2002 in Stapleford Abbotts, Essex

Clarinettist Was Leading Figure in British Revival Scene

Copyright © 2002 

The Scotsman


Cy Laurie was one of the leading figures in the revivalist jazz movement which dominated much of the British jazz scene in the 1950s, and eventually led to the so-called Trad Boom. By the time that artists like Acker Bilk and Kenny Ball were enjoying lucrative pop hits in the early 1960s, however, Laurie had taken himself off to India to study with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, half a decade before the Beatles followed suit, with rather more publicity.

Laurie’s great hero was the New Orleans clarinettist Johnny Dodds, and if his own playing style was an unashamed attempt to emulate his model (he used to claim to be the reincarnation of Dodds, although the latter was alive until Laurie was 14). He lacked Dodds grace and subtlety, but compensated with a powerful, very physical delivery.

The great Scottish clarinettist, Sandy Brown, never short of a cutting judgement, described his style as "inept but desperately sincere", and went on to describe the physical danger of playing alongside him: "As he played his travesty of Dodds's sweeping phrases he described them graphically on his clarinet, and if you played trumpet or trombone on either side of him you stood to get badly cut about unless nimble."

He was born in London, the son of immigrants from Latvia, and trained as a draughtsman before moving into jazz. His first instrument was a battered soprano saxophone acquired from his father’s pawn shop, but he quickly switched to clarinet. He worked in several of the new revivalist bands of the late 1940s before forming the first of his own groups, the Cy Laurie Four.

He ran a own small weekly club at the Seven Stars in Bow, but is best remembered for the club he set up in Soho, at Mac's Rehearsal Rooms in Great Windmill Street. Cy Laurie’s Jazz Club became one of the key focal points in the growing popularity of what was now being called Trad Jazz, and his infamous all-night raves drew in eager crowds of teenagers (also regarded as a new phenomenon at the time).

Laurie himself was not noted as a raver. He was a quite, rather reserved character amid the frenetic jazz world, a vegetarian and non-smoker who rarely drank. Nonetheless, his club prospered, as did his own following in the notoriously schismatic world of British jazz.

Laurie was very much a New Orleans fundamentalist, and ranked alongside Ken Colyer in his single-minded devotion to the cause, in contrast with the more broad-minded approach of Humphrey Lyttelton and Chris Barber.

The musicians who played in his band over the decade included Scottish trumpeter Al Fairweather, guitarist Diz Disley, and singers George Melly (who made his debut with the band) and Beryl Bryden.

His interest in mysticism and philosophy led him to disappear suddenly from the scene in 1960, in pursuit of enlightenment in India. He did not return to playing until the late 1960s, but took up the New Orleans banner again on his return to Britain, playing with The Black Bottom Stompers, and forming his own band with saxophonist Derek (known as Eggy) Ley.

He toured nationally in the 1980s with very successful concert shows billed as New Orleans Mardi Gras and later High Society, in which his band shared the bill with those led by trombonist Max Collie and trumpeter Ken Colyer, who refused to speak to him, still angered by his "defection" in 1960 (Colyer was not a forgiving man).

He toured a show entitled That Rhythm Man in the late 1980s, which he had put together with his wife of over 30 years, Veronica (always known as Ronnie).

He celebrated his 70th birthday with a reunion concert at the 100 Club in London in 1996, but was forced by ill health to give up playing in 1999.
He is survived by his wife.

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