Zandra (Josephine Alexandra) Mitchell was the first professional female saxophonist in Ireland. Born in 1903 in Phibsborough, into a very musical family, she was surrounded by music from birth. From a very young age, Zandra learned to play a wide range of instruments, including the violin, the cello and later the saxophone. She became an excellent sight-reader, playing in bands accompanying the films at the Rotunda Cinema.
When Zandra went to London with her brother, Eddie, to play sax with his band, she was spotted by an agent, who invited her on a tour of Switzerland with a jazz band. Zandra accepted the invitation and went on tour - against the wishes of her parents, who threatened to disown her. She traveled for years with many different jazz bands - including her own ‘Baby Mitchell’s Queens of Jazz’ - and during her career played with some of the greatest jazz musicians of the twentieth century, including Django Reinhardt and Coleman Hawkins.
Zandra eventually settled in Berlin and was one of only very few Irish citizens living there during World War II. She witnessed Hitler’s rise to power from an incredibly dangerous perspective. Jazz was seen as ‘degenerate art’ and a threat to the Nazis’ control, so to be a jazz musician in that place and time was a huge risk. According to friends who knew her in later life, Zandra witnessed Kristallnacht on her way home from a gig, arrived at her jazz club to find it had been bombed, stowed away aboard a Nazi troop train... so many stories!
When she finally came back to Ireland in the late 1940’s, she continued to play music but it seems she struggled to adjust to life after Berlin. People often did not believe her when she told them stories of her past. She spent the later years of her life living in her family’s holiday home in Rossnowlagh, County Donegal. Her brother, Eddie, visited often and the two remained close. Zandra also had a very dear friend called Michael in Rossnowlagh, who helped her as she grew older and shared her love of music and dogs. Zandra died in 1995 and is buried in Glasnevin Cemetary.
A radio documentary, ‘A Sentimental Journey’ was made about Zandra’s life in 2015, directed by Marc McMenamin for Lyric FM.
In November 2019, a play based on her story, ‘Zandra, Queen of Jazz’ by Roseanne Lynch and Darn Skippy Productions, premieres at Smock Alley Boys’ School Theatre. For tickets and more info see: https://smockalley.com/zandra-queen-of-jazz/
Thanks to Roseanne Lynch for this bibliography.