Jazz at Cafe Society – Saturday 26th September, Scarborough Jazz Festival
“It’s December 1938, we’re in New York, Greenwich Village and it’s opening night at Café Society” announces MD and pianist Alex Webb. The scene is set for the next hour and 15 minutes, as this nine piece, all-star band take us on a musical history tour of this legendary New York Jazz nightclub.
The venue was opened during the Depression era, by Barney Josephson, to showcase African and American talent. Tonight, through stirring performances by the band and its soloists and singers, I feel somewhat closer to this famous and sometimes notorious venue. “Remember a time when there were no mobile phones or televisions, this club was your entertainment”, continues Webb; this sounds like bliss. I glance somewhat guiltily for a second at the TV screen to the left of the stage, as the screen flickers, showing the band in black and white. I really feel like I’m back in time and inside the club as Vimala Rowe sings 'All Of Me'. Once sung at Café Society by Billie Holiday, Rowe’s delivery is passionate and soulful.
The Spa Grand Hall has become Café Society, wine flows and the familiar red tea lights flicker on tables in the packed hall. The crowd are enthralled by this charming singer, who has no need to turn her back on them. Although Holliday loved performing at Café Society, we also learn that she once turned her back on an inattentive crowd, lifted up her dress and showed her behind in disapproval! A lady in the audience wafts her programme in time to the swing, as Rowe aptly sings another classic standard and Billie Holliday favourite, 'It’s Too Hot For Words'.
Café Society’s show is so interesting because we also learn of the club’s forgotten figures. Charlie Chaplin and Orson Wells made the club their second home; one wonders if they had the pleasure of hearing singer Mildred Bailey, often regarded as 'The Queen of Swing'. Her legacy is remembered tonight as Rowe sings “I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart”, featuring some wonderful playing from trombonist Winston Rollins.
Alongside Rollins, a trumpet, two saxophonists and a swinging rhythm section help to capture that fuller big band sound of Duke Ellington and Count Basie, who performed at a second, larger branch of the club when it was opened in 1940 on 58th Street (the original club became known as Café Society Downtown). Tonight’s other vocalist and guitarist, Ciyo Brown, gives us a stunning version of the standard 'Lush Life', which no doubt once radiated as warmly in the larger venue (which, unsurprisingly, became known as Café Society Uptown).
At times, in-between numbers, Webb’s spoken word account of the club’s history feels slightly rushed and formulaic, but this is perhaps understandable with the time limits on the orchestra’s set. A rich and informative set none the less, the final song sung by Rowe was Billie Holiday’s haunting 'Strange Fruit'. This sombre statement was set up so perfectly by trumpeter Sue Richardson.
Moments later, nearly every other person at the CD stall was asking if Café Society had a CD out. They don’t yet and maybe this is for the best. The best way to experience Café Society is in the beautiful setting we had tonight. Café Society will no doubt soon be playing in similar large halls soon.