Jazz, dancing and the dangers of coffee making! An insight into the jazz scene in Paris in the late 1950’s and a Parisian’s New Years eve spent in Soho. Reproduced from the blog Recollections Of A Vagabonde with the very kind permission of the author.
Christmas 1959 - New Year 1960. I went to London for the Christmas vacations when I was 13 ½ years old in 1953, and had a great time. Every year after that I always went to London to spend the holiday season (was a lot more fun than in Paris.) The English family where I stayed was like my family and I had many friends from having gone to school there in 1957-58. My girl friends in Paris went to the winter resorts in Austria or Italy, but that never tempted me – Christmas and New Year for me was to be in the only town for that merry time, and that was London.
Caveau de la Huchette in 1957 at the bottom.
For two years in a row my little French group also went to London at Christmas time. I ‘d stay with my English family for Christmas then would join my French friends for several days around New Year in a bed and breakfast close to theirs. (I scanned the photo at the top of this post – don’t remember where it is in London, but I stayed in a bed and breakfast in that area.)
We went several times to listen to jazz at the Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. It was in a basement in Soho – I think it opened in late 1959 in Gerrard Street.
I liked to be with my group of friends to go to Soho as it was a bit seedy then (and a bit naughty too.) I did not want to meet some rough “Teddy Boys” if alone on the street.
There were many jazz/coffee clubs in Soho at the time, some with even French names and French owned like La Poubelle, La Bastille, etc. One place was called Les Enfants Terribles, another Heaven and Hell and another Le Macabre – the tables were shaped like coffins and the gothic décor included bones, cobwebs and skeletons – they also recited beat poetry there. We would go to little Italian upstairs restaurants for a cheap meal.
I found a clip, from around that time that shows the type of music played in the London basement clubs.
Now that I have given the background atmosphere, let me get back to that particular New Year‘s party. For this holiday time, as usual, I had taken the train, then ferry in Dieppe to Newhaven, then train ride to London. I’d much rather take the ferry than fly. It took 3 hours and the English Channel was rough in December, which I liked. I’d stay on top deck and loved to watch and feel the high waves and the boat rolling back and forth. It was a rough ferry boat, not a cruise liner.
Close to New Year I joined my French friends in London. We had planned to go to a French-English basement club in Soho. The entrance fee included a couple of soda drinks and breakfast after the New Year celebrations. I knew many people at the club and danced a lot – to records – this was a small club - no band there. My favorite band at the time was Chris Barber’s Jazz Band. I still feel like dancing when I hear his music now. Here is “Wild Cat Blues” below (I have it in a 33 rpm record.)
Other favorites were Humphrey Lyttelton Jazz, Ken Colyer Jazzmen and Lonnie Donegan and his Skiffle Group. Everyone I knew loved UK Skiffle music. This lasted until 1960 when rock and roll started to take hold. Skiffle was a rough mixture of folk, gospel, blues and jazz. Below is Lonnie singing “I’m Alabammy Bound.”
You could not call this dancing relaxing – it was more like exercise. I was pretty slim then. I don’t have a picture of me in London but found one taken in Paris around that time. I am on the left wearing the light hat.
That evening, after a round of exhausting dancing, I came back to the bar to get a cool soda. The barman or owner, I am not sure who he was, asked me if I could help with making coffee. The girl who was at the machine needed a break, or was sick I can’t recall. I said “sure I’ll do it” without really knowing how to use the expresso machine. I made a couple of cups of coffee but then somehow I did not push the handle properly…. - you can see the large handles in a similar expresso machine below -
The handle sprung back quickly, into my right eye – or so I thought. It hurt and blood came rushing. Actually it just missed my eye and had lodged between my eye and eyebrow. My friends did not know where the closest emergency clinic was in Soho but someone took me to one. It was already 11:30 pm. There was no one in the admitting room. A nurse came, looked at me eye, cleaned it a bit and said I would have to wait because the staff was in the back ready to celebrate New Year 1960 but someone would come after that. I did not like this and told her so – that I might be losing my eye while doctors were having a drink – that this was an outrage and so forth…. She went to the party looking for a doctor then came back followed by a young looking guy with a Champagne flute in his hands. He was handsome, in a British sort of way – in the actor Hugh Grant style (my other eye could still see clearly…)
The young doctor laughed and asked if I wanted to share a drink. I asked him if he could help my eye but also if his hand was steady. He said that it would only take 4 or 5 stitches – “no worries.” By then it was 11:45 pm. He went ahead and stitched below my eyebrow. Then after that he poured half his drink into a glass and gave it to me – and said “Happy New Year and Bonne Année Mademoiselle.” It was midnight. I smiled and drank the Champagne. Then he left with the nurse to the noisy party I could hear in the back. They never charged me for this and several years later the scar was gone.
After I left the clinic I went back to the basement club. When I arrived the barman/owner asked me “I say, can you keep making coffee now that you are patched up?” I replied “It is 1960 now and I shan’t make any more coffee on this machine.” I did help with the frying of the eggs for breakfast for a while.
I went to many New Year’s parties since, but I can’t recall one that was more fun or scary.
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