First Lady Sadie

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Saturday June 16th was an extremely busy day in Tooting; there were school fairs, family barbecues, Ramadan celebrations, street parties, even a Furzedown Festival. But the place to be was on one of the area’s oldest, most historically-charged roads. North of St George’s Hospital, connecting Blackshaw Road and Garratt Lane, its the long artery between Streatham and Lambeth cemeteries. Anyone who was outside a little pale blue house on Fountain Road, opposite Anderson House that day will never forget the occasion. It was one of those unique once-in-a-lifetime moments that should be potted and preseved forever. This was the childhood home of Louisa Harriet Marshall, who grew up to become known as Sadie Crawford, a pioneering saxophonist who played alongside some of the greats, at the dawning of the age of jazz. A deeply moving ceremony in front of over 300 people saw the unveiling of a blue plaque organised by the Summerstown182 Community History project. She is the first woman to be commemorated with a historic plaque in Tooting and that coupled with her American connections, lead to the event being dubbed ‘First Lady Sadie’.

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As always, we had the plaque made up a good few weeks before the actual unveiling, allowing ourselves plenty of time to promote the event. This meant we could bring it along to Stephen Willis’ talks about his Great Great Aunt for Merton Heritage Discovery Day and in Tooting Library as part of the Wandsworth Heritage Festival. We also took it to Broadwater School and The Streatham Society. In the weeks prior to it being put up, Sheila and I did a ‘Tooting Walkabout’ – hundreds of people must have posed with it and places like The Ramble Inn and Costa’s Cafe, who made donations were able to see it. We even ‘bumped into’ Sadiq Khan and our local MP, Dr Rosena, outside Earlsfield Station. We used the photos as the cover for a special commemorative programme. It was a great way of creating awareness and involvement. The day before the plaque was actually fixed to the house, we attended the ‘Procession 2018’ in central London and joined thousands of women marching to celebrate the centenary of universal suffrage. It was a bit cheeky but the plaque generated such interest and comment, lots more photos, even the attentions of a film crew!

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It was an email four years ago from one of her great nephews, John Brown in Perth, Western Australia that kickstarted this project. John alerted me to the fact that Sadie had been recently featured in a BBC Radio 4 programme called ‘The Lost Women of British Jazz’ and I began telling her story as we passed the house where she had lived on my guided walks. Everyone was fascinated by her story. Sadly John never made it over for the unveiling but there were plenty of other family members there. At least half a dozen of them had memories of Sadie, including the five cousins who pulled off the green cloth to reveal the tribute to their ‘Great Aunt Lou’. From left to right these are; Iris, Margaret, Marian, Christine and Shirley.

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John’s sister, Christine Willis had celebrated her birthday the previous day. These two, along with Christine’s son Stephen have been the family driving force on this project and its been a joy working with them, our three-way emails whizzing across the globe, provoking all sorts of memories. Stephen has clearly inherited his Great Aunt’s musical genes and is Director of Music at the Abbey School in Reading. One of the many family photos they shared with us was a group in front of St Mary’s Church in August 1958. The occasion was the wedding of Christine’s cousin Shirley and ‘Great Aunt Lou’ stands proudly alongside the happy couple. It was just wonderful sixty years later to welcome Shirley and Ron back to St Mary’s Church. If they were half as happy on their wedding day as they were on Saturday, it must have been a great day.

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Perhaps the most memorable moment of an emotional unveiling day was an announcement by Dr Millan Sachania, Head of Streatham & Clapham High School that the school has initiated an annual ‘Sadie Crawford Music Scholarship’. The first recipient of the award, Year 7 student Adrianna Forbes-Dorant then took centre stage and with a skill and assuredness belying her age, proceeded to cooly and confidently play ‘Ray’s Blues’ by Dave Grusin and the classic ‘Take Five’ by Dave Brubeck. It was an extraordinary moment in time, a one hundred year connection between a gifted young musician today and someone who at a similar age was dreaming about an escape from her job as a domestic servant. The school’s gesture added so much to the occasion, a wonderful accolade for our initiative. No one in Fountain Road that day could be in any doubt that they were witnessing something uniquely special. Adrianna, the first ‘Sadie Crawford Scholar’ seemed to take it all in her stride and received a marvellous reception.

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Kicking off proceedings was 83 year old local resident, Winston Belgrave, performing ‘Steal Away’, a tribute to the Windrush Generation, just a week before the seventieth anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush. Winston himself came from Barbados eight years later to work for London Transport. This was followed by Stephen Willis’ beautiful clarinet rendition of ‘Way Down Yonder in New Orleans’, a tune originally recorded by his Great Great Aunt Sadie with Gordon Stretton’s ‘Orchestre Syncopated Six’ in Paris in 1923. The catchy little number which Stephen played for us as part of his talk in Tooting Library is hard to get out of the head. He had spent long evenings transcribing it from the recording, but it was well worth the effort. The day before we all went to the BBC Studios at Portland Place where Stephen and Millan duetted on BBC Radio London’s Jo Good Show – it was a day of frantic media coverage, a double-page spread in the South London Press and another interview on Radio Wandsworth. It all set us up nicely for what was to follow the next day.

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Back in Fountain Road, renowned jazz historian Howard Rye told everyone about Sadie’s extraordinary globe-trotting career and collaborations with some of the leading lights of the jazz age. We heard all about the significance of Pete Hampton and Laura Bowman. Howard’s research was used in the ‘The Lost Women of British Jazz’ and he was delighted to see Sadie further celebrated and had advised on the wording for the plaque. Her music took her to a mind-boggling array of countries, often in periods of great upheavel and turbulence. She was in Russian for the Revolution, not the Bolshevik one, but an earlier one in 1905. The extent of her travels in a pre-jet age is simply astounding with long journies to Australia and South America. Sadly it eventually took its toll on her first husband Adolph Crawford who died in Paris in 1929. For a more detailed account of Howard’s Talk click here.

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Local resident John Byrne recited ‘The Prettiest Star’ a poem about Sadie that he felt inspired to pen. He may not have known it, but in her 1960 family memoir, Sadie had noted that ‘When I was young I will say I was a good looking girl with long black braids to my waist, and in Germany they called me the ‘Strand Schönheit’ (the Strand Beauty)’. Whether her admirers were referring to a beach or the theatrical part of London, we may never know. We were delighted to have the presence of the Deputy Mayor of Wandsworth Jane Cooper as well as at least six other local councillors, recognising the significance of this wonderful new addition to the musical heritage of the borough. I met Mrs Cooper a few days later and clearly Sadie’s story and the event had left a deep impression.

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Before the plaque was actually unveiled Stephen filled us in on some of the family’s recollections of Sadie in later life, her numerous visits to London for weddings and other family occasions at Turtle Road where she invariably liked to crack open a bottle of Moet. With her white gloves and wafting of taboo, she might have been very well turned-out and always stayed at the Regent Palace Hotel, but she was a modest woman. Everyone knew that she had been ‘on the stage’ but never that she was the first British female jazz musician to be recorded or had played with some very important names. Its been wonderful to see the pride they have all taken in the story of their Great Aunt being presented to a wider audience.

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Sadie lived much of her later life in Washington DC where she is buried and her first husband Adolph Crawford was from Indianapolis. She later married again to Frank Mozee. It was lovely on Saturday then to have an American voice give her perspective. Reverend Mae Christie of All Saints Church is all the way from Louisiana, the birthplace of jazz. Having lived there for some time, a few weeks earlier Mae helped into making enquiries about Sadie’s final resting place in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington DC.

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After the unveiling we all trooped back to St Mary’s Church in Summerstown, associated for many years with the Marshall, Newbon and Brown families who lived just a little bit further down Garratt Lane on Turtle Road. One of the ‘Lost Streets of Earlsfield’ sadly washed away by the 1968 floods. Sadie’s jazz music reverberated round the great church as we tucked into a fantastic spread. We also looked at an exhibition on Sadie’s remarkable life. A wonderful occasion, a fifth historic plaque in this area in the last few years and a terrific addition to the local heritage of the Borough of Wandsworth. Also a magnificent legacy, the ‘Sadie Crawford Music Scholarship’ ensuring that the name and spirit of this inspirational and adventurous woman will long be remembered.

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Four of our Walks over the past few months have raised money to pay for this plaque and the unveiling event. Perhaps the most memorable was ‘Sadie’s Swinging Tooting’ in March when we stopped outside some of the key locations in her life. Maybe the most moving of these was 19 Gilbey Road where Louisa Marshall is indicated as a domestic servant in the 1901 census. She was working in the household of a tailor called James Anderson, probably looking after his six young children. Its hard to say how long she worked in service, but having left school at the age of eleven, its very likely that’s what she was doing when she was Adrianna’s age. Another walk in May focused on some of the places of entertainment in Tooting, the cinemas that started springing up in the area at the same time that Louisa Marshall was taking her first tentative steps onto the stage. Stephen provided two talks for us, one at Merton Heritage’s Discovery Day and another in Tooting Library. A massive thank you to all those who chipped in on the walks and contributed towards raising the funds. Also to Jimmy, Nabi and Tooting Rotary Club for supporting us so generously, as well as Terry Shead, Sadie’s godson. Once again, Sheila and John Hill were at the forefront of a Tooting plaque initiative, helping promote it, keeping things under control at the event. A big shout out also to the Tooting Town Centre Police who made sure we were all safe in Fountain Road. A huge thank you to Reverend James Fletcher for hosting the after event at St Mary’s Church and Viv, Linda and Rose who organised the teas. Jean-Marc put up the plaque, Windrush Print did our programmes and Iris and Sheila made sandwiches. Marion, Andrew, Josephine and Jeremy took photos, Annabel made the film. Signs of the Times made the plaque. And of course, the people without whose approval, none of this would have happened; Hannah and Mez, the lovely couple who now have the special privilege of living in a house where a jazz pioneer was born, now proudly bearing a blue plaque.

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