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Cafe Society: The Wrong Place For The Right People

Cafe Society was New York City's first integrated nightclub and a cultural flashpoint for artists, jazz musicians, intellectuals, and activists of the 1940s.

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  • Cafe Society book

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    Photo: Book cover

    Terry Trilling-Josephson's book tells the story of Cafe Society, New York City's first integrated nightclub and a cultural flashpoint for artists, intellectuals, and activists during the 1940s.

  • Billie Holiday

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    Billie Holiday debuted her performance of the anti-lynching anthem "Strange Fruit" at Cafe Society. Sixty years later, Time Magazine would honor it as "the Song of the Century."

At the end of 1938, Barney Josephson, a former shoe salesman, opened what would become one of the most legendary nightspots in jazz history. New York City’s first integrated nightclub, Cafe Society quickly became a gathering place for artists, intellectuals, left-wing political figures, jazz lovers, and, perhaps inevitably, the very Manhattan sophisticates it meant to mock with its satirical murals and ill-dressed doormen.

The Café’s History

New York City, 1939. It was the year of the World’s Fair, when the city looked to the future with wonder; it was also a time when citizens looked with growing anxiety at the spectre of war in Europe. The Depression still lingered. Hollywood was having one of its greatest-ever seasons, with the release of such films as Gone with the Wind, Ninotchka and The Wizard of Oz.

In lower Manhattan, Barney Josephson was presiding over the city’s first integrated nightclub, which he’d started with a couple of small loans and an intense, groundbreaking vision. Josephson’s comedians and MCs were edgy, unusually young talents like Jack Guilford and Zero Mostel. His décor was provided by Manhattan artists, who painted lavish and satirical send-ups of high society life on the walls. His politics were Popular Front, the broad leftist coalition of the 1930s. Celebrities, from Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes to Dashielle Hammett, Nelson Rockefeller and Eleanor Roosevelt, rubbed shoulders with students, labor leaders and jazz lovers.

Café Society musical acts were often suggested by John Hammond, the young aristrocrat who would help elevate the careers of performers from Billie Holiday and Count Basie to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. (Holiday debuted her version of the harrowing anti-lynching anthem “Strange Fruit” at Cafe Society; sixty years later, Time Magazine would declare it “the song of the century.”)

The Program

The Night Lights program Cafe Society: The Wrong Place For The Right People further explores the history of the legendary venue Café Society. The program includes interviews with cultural historian Michael McGerr and Terry Trilling-Josephson who, along with Barney Josephson, is a co-author of the newly-published memoir Cafe Society: The Wrong Place for the Right People. We hear music from the nightclub’s performers, including:

  • Teddy Wilson
  • Lena Horne
  • Hazel Scott
  • The Golden Gate Quartet
  • Billie Holiday
  • Frankie Newton, including several rare live Newton broadcasts from the club, one with Holiday singing.

Watch Cafe Society performers Lena Horne, Teddy Wilson, Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons in “Boogie Woogie Dream”:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DwBoh-vRubM

Music Heard On This Episode

Honeysuckle Rose
Frankie Newton — Rare Live Cuts: Cafe Society (Document, 1997)
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Honeysuckle Rose
Frankie Newton — Rare Live Cuts: Cafe Society (Document, 1997)
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Cafe Society Rag
Joe Turner/Pete Johnson/Albert Ammons/Meade Lux Lewis — Boogie Woogie and Blues Piano (Mosaic, 2008)
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I Never Knew
Teddy Wilson — Jumpin' for Joy (Hep, 1999)
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Gospel Train
Golden Gate Quartet — From Spirituals to Swing (Vanguard Records, 1999)
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Prelude in C Sharp Minor
Hazel Scott — 1939-1945 (Chronological Classics, 2003)
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I'm Gonna Lock My Heart and Throw Away the Key
Billie Holiday/Frankie Newton — Rare Live Cuts: Cafe Society (Document, 1997)
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Strange Fruit
Billie Holiday — Commodore Master Takes (Polygram, 2000)
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Bouncing for Barney
J.C. Heard — Continental Sessions V. 3 (Storyville Records, 2004)

Notes: Midpoint music bed.

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Jumpin' at the Woodside
Count Basie — America's #1 Band: the Columbia Years (Sony, 2003)
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I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues
Lena Horne — The Young Star (Bluebird, 2002)
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Hard Times Blues
Josh White — Songs for Political Action (Bear Family, 1999)
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If You Could See Me Now
Sarah Vaughan — 1944-1946 (Chronological Classics, 1997)
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On the Sunny Side of the Street
Big Joe Turner/Frankie Newton — Rare Live Cuts: Cafe Society (Document, 1997)
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David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

View all posts by this author »

  • chuck Johnson (Cali)

    THANKS GHOST!

  • David Brent Johnson

    Thanks for listening, Cali! There’s a new biography of Hazel Scott out, btw…I’m hoping to do a writeup for the blog in the next couple of weeks.

  • JohnK

    David – these shows are a joy. I’m working my way thru the archive. Congratulations!

  • chuck Johnson (Cali)

    THANKS GHOST!

  • Pingback: Where's Walden? » Strange Fruit

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