Jazz at Cafe society is a “swinging show about the legendary 1940’s nightclub” written and directed by Alex Webb. It is on at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn and runs from 16th-21st July.
Alex Webb writes:
Offered a chance to create a words-and-music show for last year’s London Jazz Festival, I chose to explore the extraordinary story of one New York jazz club, Cafe Society.
The show went so well, we’re doing it again. It’s opening on Monday July 16 at Kilburn’s Tricycle Theatre, a place with a great reputation for audacious and cross-cultural productions.
A lot of jazz fans have vaguely heard of Cafe Society – it’s where Billie Holiday sang. What I didn’t know, until I looked deeper, was what a story was lurking behind the music.
Entrepreneur and ex-shoe salesman Barney Josephson opened Cafe Society in 1938 as a deliberate response to an environment where a jazz giant like Duke Ellington could not enter the Cotton Club, where he headlined, by the front door. Josephson said: “I wanted a club where blacks and whites worked together behind the footlights and sat together out front.”
It’s easy to forget what a radical statement this was in 1938. The other striking thing about that time is how available the jazz greats were. Big Joe Turner, Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, Billie Holiday … and that was just opening night.
So how do you bring a flavor of this to audiences, more than 70 years later? And how do you make it feel fresh, and immediate? I was able to pull in some special talents – first of all, radio presenter and DJ Max Reinhardt, who after a bit of persuading agreed to play club boss Barney Josephson in character. This instantly creates atmosphere, and as he tells the story, not a little humour.
I was also able to call on some great young singers – Gwyneth Herbert is pretty well known in the UK, but Paris-based China Moses (daughter of Dee Dee Bridgewater) less so; our male voice Alexander Stewart has a growing reputation. The key thing is that none of their performances is an imitation – in fact they all have too strong personalities for that. So the evocation of these historic performances is a starting point for individual expression. And of course the repertoire is wonderful.
Giving her blessings from across the Atlantic is the widow of Barney Josephson, Terry Trilling-Josephson (no, she won’t tell me how old she is), whose book on the period, Cafe Society: The Wrong Place For The Right People has been my key source.
And egging me on from here is a formidable lady called Blanche Marvin, a London theatre reviewer who lived in New York in the 1940s, regularly went to Cafe Society and even sang there once with blues artist Josh White. “Why would you want to re-create a nightclub in a theatre?” she asked me, before answering her own question: “Because it was so special, I guess. Everybody went there to meet – black, white, it didn’t matter. That wasn’t how most of the clubs were back then.”
Barney Josephson died in 1988, but he deserves to be remembered not just as a great music promoter but as a pioneer of desegregation, a good decade ahead of the famous Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s. I hope we can do justice to his memory.
Jazz at Cafe Society has been made possible with the kind support of Eva Schloss.
Director: Alex Webb
Narrator: Max Reinhardt
Vocalists: Gwyneth Herbert, China Moses, Alexander Stewart,
The Cafe Society All Stars:
Nathaniel Facey (alto sax)
Sue Richardson (trumpet)
Frank Griffith (tenor sax)
Wiinston Rollins (trombone)
Miles Danso (bass)
Rod Youngs (drums)
Jo Caleb (guitar)
Alex Webb (piano)