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putting the world to rights


Café Society was the New York night club that Barney Josephson founded, and where Billie Holiday performed the historically significant song ‘Strange Fruit’. Josephson wanted a place with an edge where artists and patrons could be themselves and speak freely. Stuart Nicholson talks to Josephson’s widow Terry Trilling-Josephson performing in their own towns who were great jazz or blues artists, brought them to New York, recorded them and had them appear at the club.” Subsequently, Josephson was always adamant that Hammond be credited with the high standard of jazz at his club.

The American left wing in the years between World War I and World War II was very different to the American left today. For one thing, communism exerted a powerful pull on twentieth-century American intellectuals during this period, challenging the broader economic and political foundations of America’s faith in itself. For intellectuals who came of age between the wars and who gravitated to the political left, the possibilities ranged from New Deal liberalism through various varieties of socialism (with home-grown as well as European roots) to the Moscow-financed American Communist Party. But for every intellectual who actually joined the Party, there were many more in sympathy with communism. And in the light of the panic and economic desperation following the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed, which lasted well into the 1930s, it is perhaps easy to see why. After capitalism’s perceived failure, hopes turned to strong socialist values. Another factor in communism’s pull was that many intellectuals were members of the Jewish community, some of whom who had been forced to flee the Nazis, and the communists were more concerned than most other Americans about the rise of fascism in Europe.

Café Society was scheduled to open its doors on 22 December 1938, but a delay in obtaining the liquor licence meant it opened on 28 December. But even then things were not quite ready. Food had to come in from a hot dog stand across the square, and although the liquor licence had arrived, the cabaret licence had not. The club was packed to overflowing with over 600 patrons (the limit was 210) but it was not until 11.30pm that the licence was finally delivered, and only then could Billie Holiday take the floor, backed by “trumpet tootin’” Frankie Newton and his band. “The opening of Café Society was definitely something for the books,” reported the New York Amsterdam News. “Billie Holiday, who packs them in, puts over tunes with Frankie Newton’s band as only Billie can.”

The club’s slogan, “The Wrong Place for the Right People” was everywhere and Jack Gilford derided snobbishness as part of his act. “Barney was taken with idea of having satirical comedy,” said Trilling Josephson. “He wanted his artists to have something to say, so he brought into Café Society over the years a lot of different kinds of programming.” The New York press greeted the new venture enthusiastically, but more particularly, Café Society gave Billie Holiday the opportunity to define her art in a prestige downtown location to an extent that had not been impossible before.

‘Café Society gave

Billie Holiday the opportunity to define her art in a prestige downtown location to an extent

Certainly the appeal of the American Left at this time held a great attraction for a former shoe salesman from Trenton in New Jersey, called Barney Josephson. “The politics of the left was his philosophy of life and he followed that, this was his philosophy, this is what he believed and he dedicated his life to it,” said his wife Terry Trilling Josephson. Intellectually inclined, Josephson found life in the bohemian areas of New York preferable to his staid existence in southern New Jersey. He had visited Europe in 1931 and was very taken by cabarets mounted in café society in Paris, Berlin, Prague and Vienna. “Barney had been introduced to the cafés where [the cabaret] could say anything, do anything in terms of art or songs, satire, comedy whatever,” recalled Trilling Josephson.

that had been impossible before’

Her artistic breakthrough came when she was presented with a song by Abel Meeropol, who wrote under the name of

“They were very influential before Hitler took power, they related to the audience and satirised what was going on in the world around them and this attracted Barney, he liked the idea of comedy and song and satire but also art. So from then on he always wanted to have a cabaret. When he came home from Europe this was his dream to have a similar kind of cabaret in New York, as opposed to the glitzy El Morocco and those kind of places.”

There were many things Josephson disliked about Manhattan’s night spots in the 1930s, not least that they were mostly Mob owned who had little respect for their clientele. “They were run like a racket in which they had an interest,” he recalled in his memoirs, “They don’t give you a decent drink of whiskey. They don’t serve decent food. They push you around.” In 1938, he decided to realise his ambition. He leased a former speakeasy in a basement in Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village, where West 4th Street merged with Washington Square, which he called Café Society. His first step was to employ a group of artists to work on a series of elaborate murals that set the tone of the club, spoofing the high-society night-time set and turned out to be a big hit with clientele, while table cards and menus poked fun at the idiosyncrasies of cabaret patrons.

However, the most important factor in Josephson’s club was his commitment to jazz. The only problem was he knew very little about the music business. For this he turned to John Hammond for advice. “John became Barney’s mentor,” says Trilling Josephson. “John went around the country looking for artists who were

Lewis Allen, about a lynching in the South called ‘Strange Fruit’. With its lyrics about “Black bodies swaying in the southern breeze,” her performance remains a harrowing experience even today. More dramatic soliloquy than song, for the left wing audiences of Café Society with The New Masses stuffed in their pockets it represented a powerful message delivered with a powerful punch that forced Holiday’s predominantly white, middle-class audience to stare unblinkingly into the face of racist violence. The reality of what she was dealing with was brought home to her when her recording company Columbia refused to record it, forcing her to turn to a small independent jazz label called Commodore, run by Milt Gabler, who arranged a one session release from Columbia to cut the album for posterity.

In the context of its time ‘Strange Fruit’ remains a remarkable document and a fitting tribute to the political ideology of Barney Josephson, who provided the right forum for the right people at the right time. In the context of America in the late 1930s, his was a remarkable achievement. But it does not stop there. Josephson’s contribution to the success of some of the world’s greatest jazz talent through regular appearances at his club – and Café Society Uptown which opened 18 months later – is now part of jazz legend and is deservedly being celebrated as part of the London Jazz Festival with Jazz At Café Society, featuring China Moses, Gwyneth Herbert and Alexander Stewart, at the Purcell Room, London on 17 November. Café Society: The Wrong Place For The Right People by Barney Josephson and Terry Trilling Josephson is published by the University of Illinois Press

12 NOVEMBER11 // Jazzwise

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