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Alex Webb on retelling the story of Cafe SocietyChina Moses

Alex Webb on retelling the story of Cafe Society

Posted by
Amy C at 5:50pm, Tuesday 01 November 2011

This year's Festival looks back to jazz history in a number of different ways.  

Jazz at Cafe Society - a new project curated by Alex Webb - tells the story of the 1940s New York night club Café Society. When it opened in 1938, the venue was the first in America to welcome customers of all races. Billie Holiday sang in the opening show – and it was there that she was given Strange Fruit, the song with which she became synonymous. Among others who performed in Café Society, or its sister venue Café Society Uptown, were Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Count Basie.

Alex Webb has taken the time to write a few words about the project.

"Just came off the phone to New York to a very senior lady – the widow of jazz club owner Barney Josephson, who set up and ran Café Society from 1938 to 1949. I had an inkling this would be a good theme for a jazz show, but when I first explored it I didn’t realise what a story it was – intertwining music, comedy, race, politics and paranoia.

Josephson, with his 1930s left-wing idealism, wanted a place where the races could mix freely, on the stand and off. Which wasn’t run by the Mob. Which offered some of the hippest music and cabaret New York could offer – and in 1938, New York could offer a lot. And if you want to know where all that idealism ended up, you’ll have to come and see the show.

Trying to create the right atmosphere for a show like this is difficult – I’m not in the nostalgia business, and anyway the realities of 1930s America don’t invite nostalgia. What I am trying to do is remind people of the extraordinary wealth of popular culture that Barney Josephson could call on in those days – not just jazz stars Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie et al, but folk singers like Josh White, comedians Zero Mostel and Imogene Coca, and Gospel group the Golden Gate Quartet.

We’ve got some great talent on the show too – not only a crack band but vocalists Gwyneth Herbert, Alexander Stewart and – taking a break from her nightly TV programme on France’s Canal Plus – Paris-based China Moses. We also have radio presenter, DJ and political agitator Max Reinhardt to MC. Max understood the significance of Barney Josephson’s philosophy right away.

The bad news is that Terry Trilling-Josephson, Barney’s widow, had a fall recently and won’t be able to make it over for the show. But we have her blessing – let’s hope we can live up to it."

Jazz at Café Society is on at the Purcell Room, South Bank Centre on Thursday 17 November at 7.45pm.


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Sponsors: EFG International, Decca, British Council, JazzwiseMagazine.com, Southbank Centre, Barbican, Arts Council England