Afrocentric Theatre, Music, Culture and Business

Cafe Society Swing (Interview) Cafe Society Swing (Interview)
Cafe Society Swing (Interview)

Café Society Swing tells the story of the first racially-desegregated jazz club in New York – Cafe Society, which opened in Greenwich Village 80 years ago, in December 1938. From 1938 to 1949 Cafe Society played host to some of the finest musical talent of the 20th century, including Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan and Count Basie. Billie Holiday was one of the first headliners at the club and it was at Cafe Society that club owner Barney Josephson presented her with the classic protest lyric Strange Fruit – which became her signature song.


Full of swinging jazz, blues, gospel and bebop, Cafe Society Swing stars vocalists China Moses, Vimala Rowe and Ciyo Brown and making her London stage debut Judi Jackson, with an eight-piece band directed by the show’s author, pianist Alex Webb.


Ebonyonline.net caught up with singer Judi Jackson, whose hits include  the massively popular Worth It to talk jazz, political oppression and the wonders of Harlem.


EOL: Hi Judi and welcome. Is this your first time of singing or headlining in the UK?

JJ: Thanks! No it is not! I have been performing in the UK for the past 2 years, headlining venues such as Jazz Café, XOYO, Birthday’s and intimate Jazz venues such as Kansas Smitty’s.


EOL: Is the show a play or musical? How would you describe it?

JJ: This show is definitely a musical. I would describe it as a musical revue, seeing as it has a variety of everything, music, dance, sketches, etc.


EOL: What attracted you to it and your role?

JJ: I have been drawn to Jazz like the seagull is to water (cue Chekov) since I was a child. The role of Lena Horne couldn’t have been a more perfect fit for me, and Alex Webb has done a fantastic job of casting this show, everyone’s role suits them so well. I love and believe that I embody the class, grace, and fierce strength of Lena.


EOL: Can you give us a flavour of the songs you’ll be covering and are you singing Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit?

JJ: I sing some of the classic Jazz Standards such as “Stormy Weather”, “Where or When”, and “I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart.” I approach these songs with dynamic sensitivity, yet strength and build them towards their climax. I do not sing “Strange Fruit” but the inimitable Vimala Rowe does, and she does so perfectly every night. Another flavour thrown into the mix of tunes I get to perform is “Lord Randall,” a classic folk number. I have really grown to love this song and always look forward to singing it at the end of Act 2.


EOL: Critics have described the show as ‘a brilliantly conceived theatrical cabaret’, what is it about the production that audiences love so much?

This show is so special because of its authenticity. Often when you hear the word “cabaret,” cringing ensues (myself included), but in this case, we are presenting a historical moment in time, whilst telling all parts, of a necessary yet sometimes upsetting story regarding race, politics, love, and of course music. Not only are we presenting this story with the upmost quality and commitment/seriousness, but there is also an aspect of humour as well, so to tie all of these themes together so seamlessly is what makes “Café Society” such a brilliant experience.


EOL: As an American jazz artist, give us a sense of what it would it would have been like for Black musicians prior to Café Society in terms of the racism and segregation?

JJ: Blacks and whites were not allowed to perform together, let alone WATCH shows together, and LEAVE together. Often at certain venues, black musicians would have to enter through the back door, and were not paid and or treated with the same amount of RESPECT as their white counterparts. What a necessary act of bravery club owner Barney Josephson took when opening “Café Society.” He crossed all of these lines, and broke every single one of the listed rules above, and we should be forever thankful to him for this.


EOL: What kind of clubs and venues would Black musicians have had to play as an outlet for their musical creativity?

JJ: Harlem in itself was a haven for black talent and black musicians during this appalling time in history. Many of these clubs would have had built a community where black artists felt safe and appreciated.


EOL: How far Black musicians come since those days have and what more is there still left for the music industry to do to achieve full equality?

JJ: We have certainly come a long way….but we do have so far to go as well. Present day, I believe that along with the political oppression placed upon us, we created our own division within the black community, and allow others to divide us as well, which cannot be the case if we want to remain strong and free. We must continue to work HARD, just as these pioneers did, and not be fooled by glitter and gold, being led astray by what seems to be an easier path.


EOL: You’re playing along some great acts like China Moses, Ciyo Brown and Vimala Rowe. Rehearsals must have been a blast. What was it like playing with these guys?

JJ: China, Ciyo, and Vimala are absolutely awe-inspiring musicians and human beings. I am beyond blessed to have met them and to be working with them. They inspire me greatly. I share a dressing room with China and I absolutely adore her…. She is always smiling and in high spirits, and is such a strong and fantastic vocalist. We must not forget the band as well- those cats can really PLAY man! X


EOL: Finally why should our readers, come out and catch this amazing show?

JJ: “Café Society” is a must see because it reminds audiences of a brutally honest upsetting time in history that brought out some of the best, brightest, and strongest talents of all time. This strength and resilience is still alive and well today amongst the black entertainment industry in both the UK and America, but these reminders will keep us moving forward. That is the goal- to reflect, but to always be moving, forward. Xx


Cafe Society Swing runs from 5-16 June at Theatre Royal Stratford East – For ticket information and more details visit http://www.stratfordeast.com/whats-on/all-shows/cafe-society-swing


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