Kildare Nationalist – Lady jazz arrives at the moat
By Finian Coghlan
IMAGINE a young musician spotted by a talent scout and taken on a tour of Europe to perform with some of the world’s greatest musicians. You would think things turned out pretty rosy on such an opportunity.
However, if you are a saxophonist who enjoys playing jazz, and your route takes you to Nazi Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, before returning to Ireland at 44 where your musical genre is considered “degenerate” by church, it is no surprise that the second half of your life was a recluse in County Donegal.
This is the real and extraordinary story of Joséphine Alexandra Mitchell (1903-1995), whose story will be staged at the Moat Theater in Naas this Thursday (November 4, 8 p.m.) by the company of Naas Darn Skippy Productions, with their critically acclaimed production, Zandra – Queen of Jazz.
“For this caliber of musician, she never got the recognition she deserved, ”said show’s writer and performer Roseanne Lynch of the woman who has performed with artists like Django Reinhardt and Coleman Hawkins.
“No recordings are available, and although she continued to play music [as an occasional pianist in a Bundoran hotel], the recognition that her level warranted never materialized, ”said Roseanne.
“What struck me was that she was so resilient, but the personal cost must have been enormous, ”she said.
Zandra was born in Cabra, daughter of a conductor of the Royal Theater, and she learned to play many instruments.
While touring London playing sax for her brother Eddie’s band in the 1920s, she was spotted by an agent, who invited her on a tour of Switzerland.
Zandra accepted the invitation and went on tour, against the wishes of her parents, who threatened to deny her.
She has traveled for years with many bands, including her own “Baby Mitchell’s Queens of Jazz”, and has performed with some of the greats of the 20th century.
She eventually settled in Berlin and was one of the very few Irish citizens to live there during World War II.
She witnessed Hitler’s rise to power from an incredibly dangerous perspective, where jazz was seen as a “degenerate art” and a threat to Nazi control, so being a jazz musician there. and at that time was a huge risk.
It took her two years after the war to get out of Germany, and after giving a daughter up for adoption to a Russian couple, she returned to a very dark Ireland of 1947, where she relied on the generosity of a family friend who allowed him to stay. at a lodge in Rossnowlagh, County Donegal.
Roseanne’s husband, Richard Lennon, composed the music for this show, which she describes as “a celebration, as well as a recognition of her life.”
“Hers was such an adventurous life, she was so daring and the actor in me found her irresistible, ”said Roseanne.
She found out Zandra pregnant four years ago, after her husband learned that she was playing the saxophone at school. “He was outraged that I didn’t play anymore! ”
“So I Google searched for “Irish female sax” and found a [RTÉ] Doc on a about it written by Mark McMenamin, ”she said. Through this, she met Micheal Gallagher from Ballyshannnon who had befriended Zandra in her later years.
Poignantly, the company presented their show in Ballyshannon in early October. “Almost everyone in the audience had memories of her or had heard the stories,” Roseanne said.
“And Michael played a song on Sandra’s old saxophone that came from Berlin. He had seen certain things, ”she added,
Zandra – Queen of Jazz is at The Moat this Thursday, November 4 for just one night, and tells the story of Ireland’s forgotten superstar.
Tickets are available at www.moattheatre.com or at the box office on 045 883030.