The following review appeared in the January 16-March 1, 2010 issue (issue 323) of Jazz & Blues Report which is downloadable as a pdf file from www.jazz-blues.com.
CAFE SOCIETY: THE WRONG PLACE FOR THE RIGHT PEOPLE
by Barney Josephson & Terry Trilling-Josephson
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS (2009 465 PAGES)
I remember going to The Cookery when I was living in New York between 1978 and 1983 and having the privilege of seeing Alberta Hunter, Helen Humes and others perform there. What an experience and to hear its proprietor, one Barney Josephson introduce the performers before getting to listen to some American originals. I also remember reading about Cafe Society, legendary night clubs that Josephson operated from the late 1930s until they closed as a result because of Red Scare witch-hunt of the post-war World War II era. I knew that Cafe Society was where Big Joe Turner and the Boogie Woogie Trio played after their success at the legendary Spirituals to Swing Concert and that Billie Holiday had started singing “Strange Fruit” there. But there is much more to the club’s (and Josephson’s) story than that.
While Barney Josephson died in 1988, his widow, Terry Trilling-Josephson had taped his recollections as well as written down some remembrances when tape was not available. As she notes in her preface, she then conducted interviews with some of those who had played important roles in Barney’s life or performed at his clubs. She supplemented her interviews when necessary (she was unable to interview Lena Horne for example) with existing printed materials such as published interviews and contemporary press coverage of both Cafe Society and the Cookery. The result is “Cafe Society: The Wrong Place For The Right People,” part of the University of Illinois Press’ “Music in American Life” series.
Cafe Society pioneered as a night club admitting per-sons of all ethnic and racial backgrounds without preference to any particular group based on class or status, as opposed to the segregation that marked almost all other night clubs. It also presented a diverse group of performers in a dignified fashion. Blacks for example were not presented in a stereotypical role such as a Jungle Band or in mythical idyllic southern pastoral setting shows that bands played in while performing in shows at clubs like Cotton Club. This reflected Josephson’s egalitarian values when he grew up.
Barney Josephson was the youngest of six children born to the widow who had emigrated from Latvia (then part of the Russian Empire). His mother worked as a seamstress to support her family in Trenton, New Jersey. He graduated high school but did not go to college, rather working in the show store of one of his brothers who was a Hoover republican. Another brother went to law school and became a communist although not a Communist Party member. Through his brother he was receptive to socialist ideas, especially those relating to the equality of people, and became friends with the one black student at his school. He developed a love of literature, theater and the arts as a child and continued while helping his brother’s shoe business.
Somehow, he ended up opening Cafe Society in Greenwich Village with his friend John Hammond suggesting most of the musical talent such as the Boogie Woogie Trio, Billie Holiday and others while he himself decided on some of the other talent including the comedian, Jack Gilford, who was the initial emcee at the venue in addition to providing a comedy routine. Opening between Christmas and New Year with the United States not out of the Depression was not the expected recipe for success, a point that Gilford would remind Josephson regularly. He would send Josephson a letter every year timed to arrive at the anniversary of Cafe Society’s opening in December 28.
The text of one letter is given in the memoir:
“Dear Barney I keep telling you if you open a nightclub in New York City three days before New Year’s Eve you will fail. I warn you three fat piano players will not attract business. Also a female black singer with a gardenia in her hair, a blues shouter singing about a sheik in any key, and a curly haired white comedian trying to convince audiences he looks and acts like a golf ball, will get you run out of town on a rail. Take my advice and go back to Trenton and open a shoe store that sells health shoes.
Yours, Jack. December 28, 1977.”
It was not simply having someone like Hammond to suggest talent. Josephson had been to enough night clubs to know what he did not want. He did not want Blacks being in servant rolls. As far as the decor, he has a number of artists, including cartoonists for the New Yorker, do a mural for the walls, most of which spoofed high society. And there was the talent. So many famous performers were there. Teddy Wilson led a band, the great Mary Lou Williams performed there while the appearances by Hazel Scott, Lena Horne, Mildred Bailey, the Golden gate Quartet, and Zero Mostel (and how Sam Mostel got to be called Zero is told here) were crucial in their careers.
Sometimes someone would audition and he trusted his instinct in hiring them and then making suggestions as to repertoire, often buying outfits for them. He suggested “Strange Fruit” to Billie Holiday, which led to one of her signature numbers as well as recounts how the song got to be recorded.. After all, what could follow that. Even later at the Cookery when he hired Susan McCorkle who was singing mostly unknown songs, he had here concentrate on better known songs and she became recognized as a song interpreter). Josephson also hired performers for extended stays, months, even years at a time. He also provided management services for some. He was a man of his word and even when he had a management contract, he did not take any money from his performers. For example he managed Hazel Scott early in her career including handling her money which enabled her to have quite some assets which she married Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and then hosted the reception for at Cafe Society.
Cafe Society with its mix of entertainment was quite successful even though its booking policy defied what was viewed as common sense at the time and a second venue opened, Cafe Society Uptown. His clubs were trailblazing in how they presented music and as his memoir makes clear, what he did in booking unknown artists and how he had an open, diverse audience broke many rules on how night clubs operated. Its fascinating to hear his account of the two venues, and the fascinating stories of the performers.
What caused Cafe Society to shut its doors was the Post-World War 11 Red Scare. His brother Leon had been arrested in the mid-1930s in Denmark as an alleged participant in a plan to assassinate Hitler. He was exonerated but when he returned to the United States his passport was taken and even though a Communist, the Communist Party USA wanted nothing to do with him. He still worked as a lawyer for progressive courses but after World War II the House Committee of UnAmerican Activities, subpoenaed him to testify which he refused, citing the 1st Amendment. He was eventually convicted which was affirmed by the 2nd Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals (Justice Tom Clark dissenting) and the Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal. He was sentenced to a year in prison. After his brother is to jail, smears about Josephson and Cafe Society started, press coverage almost completely ceased and various licensing and regulatory agencies started harassing him and the clientele. It was only a matter of time until he was forced to close first Cafe Society Uptown and then the original venue.
He gives his own overview of the Red Scare, which saw many writers, performers and artists blacklisted while others betrayed their friends. Hazel Scott, then married to Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, testified that she only performed at certain benefits because Josephson directed her to. Josephson flat out contradicts this, stating he always left it to the performer. whether to perform for a cause. He was often asked him years later why he did not hire her for the Cookery, and here he cites her ‘false’ testimony. It was not the innuendo of being a communist or a fellow traveler. There was an undercurrent of racism. He was accused of being a red, but even worse encouraging race mixing. How dare he treat Blacks as good as Whites. It is telling that he was harassed at a time when mob-owned clubs were left alone.
After Cafe Society closed, Josephson opened an eatery called The Cookery around 1955 which expanded to three locations. However, by 1972 only one remained open, the largest one in Greenwich Village. He started presenting music there by happenstance. One day pianist Mary Lou Williams came by and mentioned to Barney how hard it was to find a place to work. She had tried to get booked at the Village Gate and was turned down. Somehow she convinced Barney to hire her and a bassist. While the Cookery lacked a cabaret license, he was still able to present a drummer-less entertainment without one. What started as an experiment, led to another decade of him presenting some of the musicians and singers who had played Cafe Society like Helen Humes, Big Joe Turner, Eddie Heywood as well as others of a similar vein like Ruth Brown and the marvelous jazz singer Susan McCorkle.
Of course, there was one singer most identified with The Cookery, and that was Alberta Hunter. Josephson recounts how he came to meet and have her perform, and have a relationship that would lead to her touring around the world as well as visiting the White House and her perform at the Kennedy Center Honors for an old friend, Marian Anderson. As good as the music Josephson continued to present, she became so identified with the Cookery, that when she passed away, a void could not be filled. This and some personal issues led to the closing of that establishment.
Barney Josephson was a most remarkable man. Being true to his values and his instincts, he operated night clubs that presented pioneering music and comedy and pioneered in race relations. He treated musicians as friends and family and the many recollections of him included here display the affection so many had for him. He lived a rich life and contributed so much to our lives and culture. There are biographies of a number of performers that may provide a different perspective on some of the events discussed here. For example, there is a new biography of Hazel Scott that I have not read. But this is Barney’s story and it makes for a compelling read. For those interested in jazz, blues, cabaret, social history and more, “Cafe Society” is spellbinding.
The review copy of this book was provided by the publisher or its publicist.