Alex Webb writes:
Be careful what you wish for, the old saying goes, it might come true. Later this week Cafe Society Swing, originally conceived as a kind of lecture with music for the 2011 London Jazz Festival, finally reaches the West End as a fully-fledged musical revue, with a dramatic narrative, sets, lighting plan, costumes and a director.
When Barney Josephson opened Cafe Society, 75 years ago this month, it was the first desegregated night club in New York. ''I wanted a club where blacks and whites worked together behind the footlights and sat together out front,'' he said. ''There wasn't, so far as I know, a place like it in New York - or in the whole country.''
The talent Josephson could call on in 1938 was quite extraordinary - on opening night alone he presented Big Joe Turner, pianists Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis, and Billie Holiday. Cafe Society went on to present an extraordinary list of jazz and blues names – Lena Horne, Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Nellie Lutcher, Big Bill Broonzy and Josh White, among many others. But no good deed goes unpunished, and Josephson’s radical politics and links with the Left came back to haunt him after the end of WWII. When the House of Un-American Activities Committee took action against his communist brother Leon, Josephson found himself persecuted by powerful press columnists as a ‘fifth columnist’ running a club where, supposedly, Soviet spies would meet.
Josephson was eventually forced to close, in 1949. Intrigued by this story, I set about finding out more – and made contact with Josephson’s widow, still alive in New York. Her book, The Wrong Place for the Right People was an invaluable source for the story of the club. But I also had to find a group of musicians versatile enough to represent all the many styles of jazz played there. I called on Paris-based China Moses (daughter of Dee Dee Bridgewater) and Gwyneth Herbert, both of whom signed up straight away. For male vocals I brought in my partner in crime Alexander Stewart; and the band included strong soloists like Frank Griffith (tenor, clarinet, Nat Facey (alto) and Sue Richardson (trumpet). Several generations of the script and twenty-odd music arrangements later, we just about had a show. Now, finally, we’ll be in the West End.
But being a theatre producer ain’t easy. It’s a whole lot tougher than putting on a gig, and there’s a lot more financial risk involved. And just when the cast has finally got it all down, you find you have to replace someone – Gwyneth Herbert is working in Kenya this Christmas, so I’ve brought in a great young vocal talent, Cherise Adams-Burnett – definitely a name to watch. And while I’m looking after all this I’m also occupying the piano stool …
So if you like jazz and want to hear a revealing story about mid-century America, do come along to the Leicester Square Theatre this weekend. And don’t shoot the piano player, he’s doing his best.
Copasetic Productions Present:
CAFÉ SOCIETY SWING – A TRUE STORY by Alex Webb
Directed by Simon Green
Cast: China Moses, Harold Sanditen, Alexander Stewart and Cherise Adams-Burnett.
Dates: Saturday 21 December and Sunday 22 December 2013
Venue: The Leicester Square Theatre, 6 Leicester Place, London WC2H 7BX
Tickets: Advance tickets £18.50; £20.50 at the door (group discounts available)
Box Office: 08448 733 433