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Alex Webb from Harrow has written and produced a musical about the golden age of jazz, writes Rosy Moorhead
New York’s legendary 1940s jazz club Cafe Society was where Billie Holiday first sang the chilling Strange Fruit, where the careers of Sarah Vaughan and Big Joe Turner were launched, and where black and white musicians and music-lovers could mix freely and equally for the first time. And now the music and spirit of the club has been brought to life for modern audiences by West Harrow’s Alex Webb, writer and producer of the musical Jazz at Cafe Society.
“I was a fan of Billie Holiday’s and knew she used to sing there,” says Alex, 51, “so I decided to read a bit more about it. It was started by a guy called Barney Josephson, a shoe salesman who was a bit of a leftie. It was unique because it was the first place where black and white could mix, but also because he didn’t want it to be linked to the mafia, which most places were in those days.
“All these amazing names in jazz played there – Count Basie, Lena Horne – and stars who were Left-inclined used to hang out there, like Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles. He billed it as the ‘wrong place for the right people'.”
Josephson also used to hold political fund-raisers and events at the venue, which worked against him after World War Two, with the rise of McCarthyism. Josephson was forced out of business in 1947 – after just nine years.
To tell the story of these jazz greats, Alex has enlisted the help of the cream of the next generation of jazz musicians, including vocalists Gwyneth Herbert, Alexander Stewart and China Moses, daughter of legendary jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater. Also taking part is award-winning double bass player Gary Crosby OBE, who lives in Wealdstone, and US tenor saxophonist Frank Griffith, who now lives in Northwood. Alex himself will be playing piano.
The show premiered at the 2011 London Jazz Festival to rave reviews, thanks in large part to the songs from the era as well as the research help Alex received from Josephson’s widow, Terry Trilling-Josephson.
“I’m inviting producers and theatre people along and my dream is that a guy in a camel hair coat will come along and say ‘I’ll take it!’” laughs Alex. “If this goes well, Theatreland here I come!”
Jazz at Cafe Society is at The Tricycle, Kilburn High Road, Kilburn from Monday, July 16 to Saturday, July 21 at 8pm, with a 3pm matinee on Saturday, July 21. Details: 020 7328 1000, www.tricycle.co.uk
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