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Cafe Society: The Wrong Place for the Right People

Overview

Set against the drama of the Great Depression, the conflict of American race relations, and the inquisitions of the House Un-American Activities Committee, Cafe Society tells the personal history of Barney Josephson, proprietor of the legendary interracial New York City night clubs Cafe Society Downtown and Cafe Society Uptown and their successor, The Cookery. Famously known as "the wrong place for the Right people," Cafe Society featured the cream of jazz and blues performers--among whom were Billie Holiday, ...

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Overview

Set against the drama of the Great Depression, the conflict of American race relations, and the inquisitions of the House Un-American Activities Committee, Cafe Society tells the personal history of Barney Josephson, proprietor of the legendary interracial New York City night clubs Cafe Society Downtown and Cafe Society Uptown and their successor, The Cookery. Famously known as "the wrong place for the Right people," Cafe Society featured the cream of jazz and blues performers--among whom were Billie Holiday, boogie-woogie pianists, Big Joe Turner, Lester Young, Buck Clayton, Big Sid Catlett, and Mary Lou Williams--as well as comedy stars Imogene Coca, Zero Mostel, and Jack Gilford, and also gospel and folk singers. A trailblazer in many ways, Josephson welcomed black and white artists alike to perform for mixed audiences in a venue whose walls were festooned with artistic and satiric murals lampooning what was then called "high society."

Featuring scores of photographs that illustrate the vibrant cast of characters in Josephson's life, this exceptional book speaks richly about Cafe Society's revolutionary innovations and creativity, inspired by the vision of one remarkable man.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Cafe Society is a valuable document in the long, complex tale of America’s popular culture. Barney Josephson played his part in that tale, and played it with honor. And he certainly had a long run."--The Wall Street Journal

"Packed with insights and new facts and anecdotes, and assiduously researched, Cafe Society brings Josephson and his achievements vividly to life, doing its subject, and jazz in general, proud."--AllAboutJazz.com

"An epic ode to personal integrity, creative vision and entrepreneurial tenacity, shedding timely light on the germination of the civil-rights movement."--Kirkus Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This inspirational, exciting, atmospheric read takes readers to New York's West Village in the late 1930s, and the white-owned establishment that championed jazz, discovered Billie Holiday and welcomed its mixed-race crowd in a time when such mingling was unheard of. Former New Jersey shoe salesman Josephson (1902-88), frustrated with frivolous American clubs and their racial discrimination, was inspired by European political cabarets to open Club Society in the West village in 1938. A jazz club in which most of the performers, and much of the audience, was black, Josephson's stories from the pioneering music spot are incredible, including Leonard Bernstein performing Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock solo on piano at five in the morning; the virtually unknown Billie Holiday performing, for the first time, Lewis Allen's Strange Fruit; and a well-known policy of kicking out anyone who "objected to sitting next to Negroes." Other Society notables include Lena Horne, Zero Mostel, Sarah Vaughn, and Hazel Scott, and the club's success led to a second location on Park Avenue (which quickly proved wrong predictions that the uptown crowd would never integrate).
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Kirkus Reviews
The owner of two New York City nightclubs that boldly confronted prejudice recalls their glamorous, gritty heyday. Shifting race relations have played a crucial role in the artistic evolution of jazz, and here Josephson (1902-88) tells that story from within the mural-festooned walls and smoke-filled air of Cafe Society Downtown and Cafe Society Uptown, the extraordinarily successful nightspots he operated from 1938 to 1947. Doggedly challenging entertainment-industry convention by integrating blacks and whites both in the audience and onstage, Josephson sought to recreate the "political cabarets" he'd seen in Europe, with his gracious, distinctively American flair. Vivid recollections taped before his death-edited, organized and supplemented with documentary material by his widow-offer a bird's-eye view of everything from the ubiquitous presence of the mob and the absence of undergarments beneath singers' gowns to up-close encounters with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Studded with enlightening quotes from such musicians as Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson and Lena Horne, comics including Jack Gilford and Imogene Coca, actors, painters and journalists, this complex tapestry of pivotal moments and colorful minutiae is a delightful, albeit occasionally overstuffed time capsule. Josephson, a self-made businessman whose eye for new talent put several careers on steep upward trajectories, ingenuously reminisces about growing up in suburbia and eventually recalibrating the social climate of his adopted milieu, one carefully produced show at a time. An epic ode to personal integrity, creative vision and entrepreneurial tenacity, shedding timely light on the germination of thecivil-rights movement.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780252034138
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press
  • Publication date: 3/6/2009
  • Series: Music in American Life Series
  • Edition description: 1st Edition
  • Pages: 456
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 4.40 (d)

Meet the Author


Barney Josephson (1902-88) was a night club impresario and producer in New York City. Terry Trilling-Josephson is associate professor emerita of communications and performing arts in one of the twenty-three colleges of The City University of New York.
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 4, 2009

    The story of this small, unique NY music club teems not only with music, but with the back story of civil rights and fearless courage.

    From a current perspective, it is too easy for those who were not there to assume that black music moved into the mainstream by some natural progression...and that it did so almost apart from everything else that was going on in the world. This view, as are many from the distance of a few decades, is completely false.
    The acceptance of black music and black artists were things that were fought for by the only people who were allowed to raise that type of challenge: white bandleaders, white disc jockeys and, in particular, one white club owner in New York City.
    Cafe Society brings the reader back to the grass roots of integration in the New York club scene through the words of the owner of that establishment, Barney Josephson. But author Terry Trilling-Josephson has also captured the words of many of the artists and reviewers of the period in question and wraps them both in the local history of pre- and post-war jazz in New York, the McCarthy era, and the changes in American pop music.
    Cafe Society is funny, poignant, moving and, in its best moments, quite revealing. It is a must read for any jazz enthusiast.

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    Posted January 14, 2010

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 21, 2009

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