When Café Society opened as a cabaret in Greenwich Village in December 1938, it was one of the few clubs in America where white and black patrons could sit shoulder to shoulder. It also became the launching pad for major jazz and blues starts like Billie Holiday, Big Joe Turner, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Sarah Vaughan, Hazel Scott, Josh White and Lena Horne. Sharon Hannon examines how this oasis of creativity and civility came to be and how it transformed our culture. We celebrate Café Society on the anniversary of its birth!

It didn’t begin with a grand plan to change the world, just a clear vision of how one person could change a small part of it. In 1938, Barney Josephson, a successful 36-year-old shoe salesman from Trenton, New Jersey, had had enough of the shoe business. Inspired by the political cabarets he had seen in Berlin and Prague, he envisioned opening a nightclub in New York City devoted to American music. And to him, the only pure homegrown American music was blues and jazz — the music created by black people.

But it wasn’t that I wanted only jazz,” Josephson would explain years later. “I wanted to make a statement, to make a social and political commentary. So, I dreamed I would come to [New York City] and open my own kind of cabaret.”

What was his kind of cabaret? “I wanted a club where blacks and whites worked together behind the footlights and sat together out front, a club whose stated advertised policy would be just that. There wasn’t, so far as I know, a place like that in New York, or in the whole country for that matter. Few nightclubs permitted blacks and whites to mix in the audience.” At that time, even in the famed Cotton Club, if you were black, but not a celebrity, you either worked there (onstage or in the kitchen) or you didn’t get in. And most clubs south of Harlem didn’t even allow black people in the front door.

But it wasn’t that I wanted only jazz, Josephson would explain years later. I wanted to make a statement, to make a social and political commentary. So, I dreamed I would come to [New York City] and open my own kind of cabaret.

The Location and the Look

Though he had no experience managing a nightclub, Josephson borrowed $6,000 from his brother Leon and two other friends, rented space in the basement of 1 Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village, and began to hone his vision. “Most nightclubs then were decorated with plush velour draperies and mirrors on the walls,” he said. “If there were columns, the columns were made into fake palm trees …I wanted a place with art.” Specifically, he wanted artwork that lampooned the wealthy and the supposed sophisticates and snobs.

He hired a talented group of local artists, including Ad Reinhardt, Sam Berman, Alice Stander, Abe Birnbaum, Christina Malman and Syd Hoff, who drew covers and cartoons for the New Yorker, Esquire, and the Washington Post, to paint murals throughout the club.

Playwright Clare Boothe Luce suggested that Josephson call the club “Café Society,” to satirize a term then used to describe the moneyed crowd. He liked it and adopted the slogan, “The wrong place for the Right people,” with the capped “R,” to emphasize the club’s leftist leanings.

The country was still deep in the Depression, so writer Helen Brown Norden, a former senior editor and film critic at Vanity Fair, suggested the doorman be dressed in raggedy clothes of the Depression era: a mangy winter coat with a fur collar worn bare, no buttons, held together only with rope. When wealthy patrons arrived at the club in their limousines, the doorman wouldn’t open the door for them. He would follow them down a steep set of steps past a monkey that looked like Hitler dangling from a pipe, and into the club where he would sit with them for a few minutes. Anything to make the swells uneasy.

Josephson loved jazz and jazz clubs, but he had no idea how to find and book musicians. Fortunately, he was introduced to John Hammond, who at that time had already produced Bessie Smith’s final and Billie Holiday’s first recordings, helped Benny Goodman get a record contract and connected him with Fletcher Henderson, Lionel Hampton, Teddy Wilson, Charlie Christian, and other black musicians. He had already begun traveling the country, searching for talented musicians, and in 1938, he produced the first “From Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall, which brought black music to all-white audiences for the first time. What Hammond needed was a place that would regularly showcase the little-known artists he was bringing to the city. Working together looked like it could be a win-win for both men; Josephson immediately decided he would leave the musical decisions to Hammond — for the most part.

Did Hammond have ideas about who should perform first at Café Society? He did: Three pianists — Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, and Meade Lux Lewis — who were introducing a new style of music, boogie-woogie, to New York; blues shouter Big Joe Turner from Kansas City; trumpeter Frankie Newton and his swing band; and a young Billie Holiday. Josephson hired the white comedian Jack Gilford to introduce the musicians, deliberately placing a white entertainer on the same stage as the black musicians.

By the time the club opened on December 28, 1938, the word was already out. Several of the murals had inspired copies in the Bergdorf-Goodman department store windows, and Café Society had been mentioned in Harpers Bazaar, Town and Country, Vogue, Vanity Fair and Look.

Things were looking good. People were coming to the club and soon the artists from Café Society were performing in other venues and at benefit concerts around the city (the musicians union, Russian war relief), all per Josephson’s request. That August, the boogie-woogie pianists, Turner, and Holiday were booked for a solid week at the 1,500-seat Apollo Theater. By the end of its first year in business, New York Amsterdam News, a newspaper for the black community, called the club the foremost swing spot below Harlem. (Perhaps not coincidentally, a benefit for the Amsterdam News, featuring Café Society artists, was held at the Apollo Theater that month.)

A Song for the Ages

A few months after Café Society opened, a man named Abel Meerepol came to the club to talk to Josephson about a song he had written called “Strange Fruit.” After hearing the lyrics, Josephson suggested they show it to Holiday, telling her that if she liked it and wanted to sing it, it would have to close the show.

“My idea was when people walked out of Café Society, I wanted them to remember every word of the song or at least to go out thinking about it,” he said. When Holiday came out for her last encore, “I stopped all service in the place. All the lights went off. The waiters were not allowed to move, had to freeze wherever they were in the room with a tray of drinks or food. The cashier can’t ring the register. The bartender can’t shake a drink. The headwaiter may not seat anyone during the performance of that song. We had a very low ceiling with one little pin spot just illuminating Billie’s face and maybe five or six inches of her bosom. Billie knew how to get under it exactly right. No other lights. Complete darkness. The spot came up on Billie. She never moved, her arms down at her side. She didn’t even touch the microphone.”

…a man named Abel Meerepol came to the club to talk to Josephson about a song he had written called “Strange Fruit.” After hearing the lyrics, Josephson suggested they show it to Holiday, telling her that if she liked it and wanted to sing it, it would have to close the show.

The song was a sensation, and after Holiday recorded it in April 1939, columnists began writing about it and more people started coming to hear her sing the controversial song.

Time magazine sent a music critic and a photographer. The fairly disparaging article the magazine ran, entitled “Strange Music,” said the song provided the NAACP a “prime piece of musical propaganda,” and they included the lyrics to the song’s first verse to make their point. Strange Fruit” quickly rose to No. 16 on the charts and would later sell more than a million copies. As a generation of rock ’n’ rollers would later prove, sometimes there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

Holiday performed at the club for most of 1939. John Chilton, author of Billie’s Blues, wrote, “Café Society was probably the happiest booking of Billie’s life. It did wonders for her confidence onstage, enabling her to project a more sophisticated act. Barney Josephson encouraged and advised Billie; later he was to do the same thing for Lena Horne.”

A few months after Holiday left Café Society, against the advice of Hammond, Josephson brought in 19-year-old Hazel Scott, a virtuoso pianist. Scott would perform at Café Society for more than seven years.

About Café Society and Hazel Scott:

Integration, to a Degree

While Josephson had succeeded in opening an integrated club, it’s clear from photographs taken at the time that the vast majority of Café Society’s audiences were white. This couldn’t have been much of a surprise. While reasonably priced (the Downtown club initially had no cover charge and offered dinner for $1.50, beer for 25 cents, and a 1¾ shot of Scotch for 40 cents), the country was still in the Depression, with many people out of work. Also, to frequent jazz clubs, a person needed a lifestyle suited to the nightlife: The first show started at 9:30, followed by a second at midnight and a third at 2:30 a.m. So, patrons of all races were welcome, assuming they had disposable income and working hours that made this type of nightlife feasible. It’s also likely that some black jazz and blues fans (who were not celebrities) in the 1930s may have been leery of a white-owned club that welcomed them with open arms … at least at first.

Taking it Uptown

Despite introducing a series of stellar musicians to New York, after a year in business, the club was losing money, and Josephson had grown disgruntled with the Village location. “I never should have opened in the Village,” he said. “I don’t belong in the Village. It’s not for me. I’m not a Village character.” He decided to look around for a spot Uptown, open a new club and then close the Downtown location.

On October 8, 1940, Café Society Uptown opened its doors on East 58th Street. The press release claimed the Uptown club was opening because the Downtown club had been such a success. Suddenly more people started heading to the Village to check out the scene. Soon what Josephson called “the Park Avenue crowd” was joining jazz lovers at both clubs, as were celebrities, writers, the rich and people who just wanted to be seen out on the town. The clubs were also starting to attract black artists, writers, and intellectuals, including Ralph Bunche, Richard Wright, E. Franklin Frazier, Sterling Brown, Langston Hughes, and Paul Robeson. World heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis was a frequent visitor, as were a number of Hollywood stars. Even Eleanor Roosevelt dropped in at the Uptown Club, which got rave reviews for its entertainment (now featuring Hazel Scott) and its food. It was a financial success within three months.

Leonard Feather, Les Paul, Django Reinhardt, and Lionel Hampton, 1948

With the Downtown club spared by its sudden success, Hammond put together a new band, hiring Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Joe Sullivan’s band to perform with the boogie-woogie pianists. On a tip from Hammond, Barney offered a young singer, Lena Horne, a job. Horne would later call it, “the sweetest job I ever got in my life.” Josephson revamped her repertoire, adding standards by Cole Porter and George Gershwin, and talked to her about stage presence. “When I went to Café Society, I found people there decent to each other,” Horne wrote later. “And I renewed a friendship with Paul Robeson. He and Barney taught me a great deal about what it is to be proud and be black and how to work.”

A short film, inspired by the artists at Café Society, featuring Lena Horne, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson and Teddy Wilson and his orchestra:

Club Policies: No Contracts, Long Engagements, Pro-Union

With a steady inflow of new talent, reasonable prices, and good food, the two clubs remained successful throughout the war years. Clearly Josephson was right — there was an audience for an integrated nightclub; the people opposed to that idea weren’t the clientele Josephson wanted anyway.  

But, along with his progressive views on race relations, Josephson was a disrupter when it came to business practices and took on the traditional way musicians were contracted to work at clubs. “Most clubs engaged an artist at most two, three weeks,” he noted. “Four weeks was a tremendous gig. I wanted to give my artists steady employment.”

At that time, most musicians survived by performing live. Sure, some were paid to play on studio sessions, but most didn’t start receiving royalties on their records until the mid-1940s, assuming they even had recording contracts. A long-term gig was a luxury few musicians were afforded. Along with steady employment, often an elusive goal for musicians, these long engagements gave the artists time to develop a following and reputation, work on their material and stage show and mature as artists. As a result, Hazel Scott, Mary Lou Williams, Billie Holiday, Imogene Coca, Teddy Wilson, Sarah Vaughan, Lena Horne, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, and Meade Lux Lewis all spent months and years working at Café Society.

When I went to Café Society, I found people there decent to each other, Horne wrote later. And I renewed a friendship with Paul Robeson. He and Barney taught me a great deal about what it is to be proud and be black and how to work.

The exposure from their regular gigs at Café Society allowed the stars to play solo shows at Town Hall, benefit concerts and revues at Carnegie Hall, and even participate in variety shows on Broadway. Some artists like pianist Mary Lou Williams and baritone Edward Tyler both performed solo recitals at Town Hall.

Josephson also urged his employees to join unions and claimed to have paid them a wage higher than union scale. And he didn’t believe in contracts saying, “I never signed artists to contracts unless they wanted one. That was our understanding. I always believed that you don’t keep anybody working for you under contract.”

Because he didn’t have a contract with her, nine months after Lena Horne started at Café Society, she signed with an agent and told Josephson she was leaving. He was crushed and felt betrayed. She later said, “I cried when I left Café Society. It was family. But I’d signed with an agent who wanted me to try a black revue being produced in Hollywood.” After Horne left, Josephson did sign contracts with Scott and few other musicians, primarily to represent them in their negotiations with movie studios and only at their request.

The Legends Who Played There

Between 1938 and 1949, a who’s who of musicians, mostly black, some white, performed at the two clubs. Some, like Count Basie and Django Reinhardt, Lester Young, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Leadbelly, and Big Bill Broonzy were there for short but memorable engagements. For others, their engagements at Café Society provided a springboard for their careers:

Hazel Scott: The 19-year-old pianist singer joined the fun in Village at the original club in early 1940. The virtuoso pianist performed regularly at the Uptown and Downtown clubs into the mid-1940s and, with Josephson as her manager, she appeared in several films. In 1950 she became the first person of African descent to have her own television show, The Hazel Scott Show. The show was cancelled after a few months when an anti-Communist publication listed her as a Communist sympathizer, despite Scott’s voluntary appearance before the HUAC to deny the accusation.

Joe Sullivan: While appearing at Café Society in December 1939, this premier white boogie-woogie piano player changed his group to a seven-piece band that included black members. Sullivan himself had grown up playing in clubs with black musicians in Chicago, and his “mixed” band, as it was then called, was a huge hit in New York.

 Sister Rosetta Tharpe: Now reaching a new audience thanks to several electrifying clips on YouTube, the electric-guitar playing gospel and blues singer started at the Downtown club in 1940. To Josephson, she was a pioneer, signing with a major record label (Decca) in 1938 and becoming one of the first commercially successful gospel singers. According to Hammond, “[Rosetta Tharpe] was one of the first to use [the guitar] for melody-plucked lines. Her technically astonishing lead breaks invented the rock and roll guitar.” In Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times, Anthony Heilbut wrote, “Her song style was filled with blues inversion… She bent her notes like a horn player, and syncopated in swing band manner.” Tharpe was 11 years older than Chuck Berry, so he most likely heard her play well before he was writing songs and playing guitar. (Just sayin’.)

Sister Rosetta Tharpe live, 1960s:

Big Joe Turner: Discovered by Hammond in a bar in Kansas City, the blues shouter (not singer, shouter) was tall and slim and never stopped moving while he sang. “He had an endless repertoire of blues, not just slow, sad blues of the Deep South, but he pepped it up some. The women were all crazy over Big Joe,” according to Josephson. Turner worked at Café Society off and on for more than five years. “Turner is probably the greatest of the blues singers, stretching from Blind Lemon Jefferson and Big Bill Broonzy through Jimmy Rushing and down to the white English rock singers,” wrote jazz critic Whitney Balliett. “He sings of every human condition — loneliness, comedy, death, irony, fear, joy, desperation — and he does so in a godlike manner.” Turner would later return to perform at Josephson’s Cookery in the 1970s.

Sarah Vaughan: When Josephson believed in an artist, he was willing to book them until they caught on with his audience. In 1946, Hammond arranged for Vaughan to audition for Josephson, who loved her voice and immediately booked her in the club. Though he was determined she’d leave his club a success, her style divided the audience — some appreciated her voice, others hated it. After six months, he felt he’d done what he could for her, and she left the club. Soon after, she had her first hit as a solo artist, “It’s Magic,” and her career took off. 

Josh White: A folk singer from Greenville, South Carolina, White had already appeared in a musical on Broadway and performed at President Roosevelt’s 1941 inauguration when he opened at the Downtown club after his first album, “Southern Exposure,” was released. The album, filled with anti-Jim Crow songs, took a hard look at the lives of black people in the South. “He sang songs of social conscience, some of which he wrote,” Josephson said. “He sang of Jim Crowism, of slums, of lynchings, of chain gangs, of hunger. He played marvelous guitar. He was a treasure.” As a child, White had been paid to escort blind musicians, who played on the streets or at small gatherings. Eventually these musicians, including Blind Lemon Jefferson, taught him to play guitar and sing spirituals.

Jesus Gonna Make up My Dying Bed (covered by Dylan and Led Zeppelin):

White had immense charisma and was a dynamic performer onstage. In short, he was a star. Josephson explained: “Josh was sex personified, and he knew it. The girls would literally line up outside waiting for him.” White turned out to be such a hit he continued to perform at Café Society throughout the ’40s, while also appearing on Broadway and in films. After he was ensnared in the anti-communist roundup of the late 1940s, White voluntarily testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), angering many progressives. His bookings in the U.S. dried up, so he moved the Europe in the mid-50s and spent much of the rest of his life there.

 And in the End

In 1947, HUAC subpoenaed Josephson’s brother, Leon, a well-known Communist and the attorney for the two clubs. At his hearing in Washington, Leon refused to answer the committee’s questions and was charged and convicted of contempt of Congress. He began a one-year jail sentence the following March. Right-wing columnists, including Walter Winchell and Lee Mortimer, pummeled Leon and Barney in the press and business at the two clubs dropped 45 percent in three weeks. When his losses reached more than $90,000 the following year, Josephson sold the clubs and on March 2, 1949, he closed the doors. New owners took over the Downtown club until it was closed for good in 1951 by IRS agents due to non-payment of back taxes.

  [Rosetta Tharpe] was one of the first to use [the guitar] for melody-plucked lines. Her technically astonishing lead breaks invented the rock and roll guitar.

But Barney Josephson’s life still had another chapter to come. In the 1960s, he opened a restaurant called the Cookery and started booking live music the following decade after Mary Lou Williams asked him to put in a piano. In 1977, Josephson reintroduced Alberta Hunter, then 82, to the public; she performed at the Cookery until her death in 1982. The Cookery closed in 1984 when Josephson was 82.

After Barney Josephson died on September 29, 1988, a memorial concert was held for him that November at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Manhattan. About the event, the New York Times wrote, “Mr. Josephson was remembered both as an esthete with a sharp eye for talent and as a passionate civil-rights champion whose clubs helped a whole generation of black performers to enter the show-business mainstream.”

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