Django Cafe Society

Django – Cafe Society Uptown – NYC

Dec ’46

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The musical venues that became the sensation of the New York scene in the 1940s era. The club that made strides for racial integration of audience with artists and the extraordinary list of jazz talent that appeared there. Blues shouter Joe Turner, Jazz Singer and civil rights activist Lena Horne, saxophone legends Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker and Lester Young, Josh White and Sister Rosetta Tharpe,  boogie pianists Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis, were just some of the jazz and blues talents appearing regularly at the club. Billie Holiday performed on the opening night in 1938 and it was at Café Society that she was given the song which became her most famous political statement ‘Strange Fruit’.

Johnny Smith Guitarist – Anecdote
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HenryHudsonHotel“A funny thing happened with Django. He was staying at the Hudson Hotel in Manhattan, and I would go up in the afternoon and we’d mess around together, or maybe I’d take him round the city. At this time Les Paul was at the Paramount Theatre so Django and I went down there to visit him in the afternoon. After that, Django invited me to join him at this club where he was working, the Cafe Society, Uptown and a real hoity-toity place. I didn’t even have on a tie and he hadn’t shaved, and I didn’t want to go in but he insisted – I had to be his guest for dinner. So we go into this restaurant and the place was full of people in dinner clothes and looking immaculate. They put us at a table way over in the corner – I guess to get us out of the way. So we sat there and all of a sudden Django picked up his knife and started banging on the table. People started looking around because by now dishes were falling off the table, and waiters ran over to try to quieten him down. They spoke French, so finally we found out the reason for the commotion: he was insulted because all the other tables had a little glass vase with a flower in it and our table didn’t.   He just tore up the joint because – that was an insult! –
Inset – Henry Hudson Hotel
The big, boxy 24-story building is a peculiar presence on West 57th Street, within hailing distance of tenements and old industrial buildings. But things were meant to be so different, for the 1929 building was intended to complement a new Metropolitan Opera House across the street, and to serve as a club where professional women could network their way to success in the business world.  By the opening, 500 rooms in the American Woman’s Association Clubhouse had been taken, and the clubhouse almost made it through the Great Depression. But in 1941, with bankruptcy proceedings under way, the association gave up and the clubhouse was converted to the Henry Hudson Hotel, for both men and women.

EdHallDREGNI’S CHRONOLOGY STATES DJANGO PLAYED THE CAFE SOCIETY BETWEEN DECEMBER 16TH 1946 AND JAN 11 1947 BUT THIS WELL EXCEEDS THE 2 MONTH VISA.  The supporting band was EDMUND HALL – CLARINETTIST

Ed Hall provided the house Band for Cafe Society Uptown when Teddy Wilson and his Band left A new show featuring Jules Munshin comedy star and song and dance man of the Broadway production Call Me Mister and future co- star in the Film – On the Town with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra was due to commence his residency at the club  on the 13th January 1946

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Contemporary Photo of The Cafe Society interior.

DjangoCafeSocDjango‘s locally reported description was chunky balding man with a Chaplinesque moustache but also the fact that he played with a plectrum on an acoustic guitar with perhaps improvised club microphone amplification which may not have been professionally set up. He also indicates that Django had no preparation for such a show (nitery preem is used to say that Django appeared to be a sweet small baby thrown into a night-club for the first time).

If Django was alone during his sets then he must have cut a lonely and solitary figure with little stage craft to hold a nightclub audience’s full attention.  They were probably used to hearing strummers with Gutboxes in the norm and probably decided that conversation was more suited to the occasion than the attentive ear.  Its unlikely that Ed Hall had anything by way of suitable arrangements to assist despite having worked with Django in the past in Paris.

Press Review

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So Django might have used for his 2nd day in Cafe Society Uptown (he started on Dec 16th, 1946) the Acoustic Selmer that Delaunay gave to Django (and also damaged during transit to the States) as a gift from Henri Selmer himself. There is a photo with Django and Paul Whiteman that was shot during the 1st day

Django played there with other pictures taken proving that he still had and was using the Gibson ES-300 guitar and the Amplifier.  The term ‘gutbox’ shows that it was funny for an American to look at such a foreign acoustic guitar as they were by then accustomed to clear sounding electric guitars. (gutbox was American slang for acoustic guitar).

The author clearly analyses Django performance as a virtuoso but his music was not adapted for a night-club and also says that Django made no ‘presentation’ of what he did. In fact we know that Django was not an entertainer who was able to introduce his music as well as say Duke was so well able to “and now Ladies and Gentlemen we will play for you a very special number” and to add “We love you madly” when the final applause arrived.

The author also indicates that the audience was a ‘noisy one’ nose in the airs, more interested in drinks, conversation and being seen than in the music.  Hence the critique slogan adapted for the establishment – The wrong place for the Right people!  Needless to say Billie Holliday was also contemptuous of her less attentive audiences and used the derogative ‘hip’ terms to describe her less than polite public as Mother F*****s.

 The Cafe Society was a nightclub operated by Barney Josephson who sold his New Jersey shoe store to enter the nightclub business and try out a novel idea for Greenwich Village: Mixing Blacks and Whites both on the bandstand and within the audience.

Django knew he couldn’t play in the States without a special authorisation from the Musicians Union and without a contract (his one was with the William Morris Agency for the Duke Ellington tour and for the Café Society Uptown) , he confirmed that in an interview saying he met Benny Goodman at the 400 Club in NYC but added they couldn’t play together because he was not allowed to do it.

Johnny Smith – Guitarist confirmed it was Uptown
Uptown, East 58th Street.
Downtown,1 Sheridan Square, Greenwich Village, New York, NYThe great saxophonist Lester Young (“Prez”) played there, as did the equally great Coleman Hawkins (“the Hawk”). Ammons and Lewis played there, as did Mary Lou Williams.  Django Reinhardt played there, likewise Teddy Wilson. Burl Ives sang there, and so did Sarah Vaughan. Charlie Parker was recorded live in Downtown – All this and a great deal more took place during the course of a dozen memorable years starting on the night of Dec. 18, 1938, in a tiny L-shaped basement at that address, 1 Sheridan Square. The proprietor was a former New Jersey shoe salesman named Barney Josephson who loved jazz and was disgusted by the racism that occurred at night clubs throughout 1930s New York City, even unto Harlem’s Cotton Club, where Negroes could sing and dance but never, never be seated among the clientele.

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One of the close friends of this radical son of immigrant parents from Latvia was, oddly enough, a snobbish, catty, distinctly un-radical lady named Clare Booth Luce, and it is she who came up with the nice ironic name for Josephson’s anti-nightclub: Café Society. She also helped him devise its motto: “The right place for the wrong people.” Or “The wrong place for the right people”? Take your pick. (Café Society became Café Society Downtown when Josephson opened a parallel spot on East 58th Street.)

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CLARE BOOTHE LUCE, the journalist, socialite and later congresswoman, is credited with coining the celebrated term. In 1938, Barney Josephson, a New Jersey shoe salesman and jazz aficionado, hijacked it to mock her vision of New York’s elitist nightclub scene.  He named his own cabaret, in the basement of a century-old building on Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village, Cafe Society. And just in case anyone didn’t get the joke, he dubbed it “the wrong place for the Right people.” (Right was capitalized, in what was perceived as another jab at sanctimonious conservatives.)

“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,” he said. “There wasn’t, so far as I know, a place like that in New York, or in the whole country for that matter.”

The book 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, 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, the boogie-woogie pianists, and legendary gospel and folk artists.

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.” In particular, he sought out and developed new performing talent, and he offered musicians and performers the rare security of continuous work for months and years.

Spanning half a century from the 1930s to the 1980s, Josephson’s narrative depicts both the business and the artistic sides of Cafe Society while exposing the tensions between the club’s own progressive interracial openness and the more restrictive social and political climate in which it evolved. When his brother Leon was targeted by the House of Un-American Activities Committee, Barney was tarred by the same brush and forced to close Cafe Society. Now out of the limelight, Barney opened a hamburger restaurant, The Cookery, hiring unemployed dancers as waitresses.

Mr. Josephson died in 1988. Twenty years later, his widow, Terry Trilling-Josephson, has cobbled together a posthumous memoir. Her husband’s tape-recorded recollections and capsule oral histories from other eyewitnesses recall a cultural phenomenon that helped promote Billie Holiday, Alberta Hunter, Lena Horne (Then Helena), Sarah Vaughan, Big Joe Turner, Art Tatum, Mary Lou Williams, Jack Gilford, Zero Mostel, Imogene Coca, and more.

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Leonard Feather, Roberta Lee, Les Paul, Django Reinhardt, Lionel Hampton, the smoking Nat “King” Cole, and Illinois Jacquet.  Also below with bandleader Paul Whiteman and still in possession of the Gibson ES-300

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Ed Hall, made to order for the room, did a great job”… Cafe Society Uptown, opened in October of 1940, only two years after the first club Cafe Society Downtown. It closed in December 1947. It was located on Manhattan’s East Side at 128 East 58th Street. It was considered a pretentious, huge place (350 places, $3,5 to see and hear the Master).

REVOLUTIONARY Cafe Society Uptown, seen in 1943, left, was one of Barney Josephson’s clubs in New York;

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Sister Rosetta Tharpe playing Gibson L-5 at Cafe Society Downtown in 1940

You could get a complete dinner there back in the 1940s for a $1.50

Cafe Society: The Wrong Place for the Right People,” by Barney Josephson with Terry Trilling-Josephson, is part of the Music in American Life series

The authors’ collaboration can be as improvisational as jazz itself (“I found I had questions for Barney, but Barney wasn’t here to answer them,” Ms. Trilling-Josephson writes). Like fast riffs loosely strung together, or a documentarian’s unedited footage, the text is not always seamless and sometimes begs for context.

But Mr. Josephson’s voice comes through, gentle, passionate, occasionally larger than life, as when he archly describes his decision to open a branch of Cafe Society on East 58th Street: “I was still heavily in debt when I made up my mind that I’m the right man in the wrong place. Barney Josephson is not for Greenwich Village… I’m not a Village character… I’m for the chic, smart crowd Uptown. They want a guy like me.”

Mr. Josephson also memorably recounts a visit to the Greenwich Village cabaret from a high school teacher, Abel Meeropol, who with his wife would adopt the sons of the convicted spies Ethel and Julius Rosennberg. Mr. Meeropol (writing under the name Lewis Allan) came to deliver a new song to Mr. Josephson. The cafe owner couldn’t read music, but, he recalled, “I can sure read words, and I read lyrics on that sheet which brought tears to my eyes.”

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The song was “Strange Fruit,” a doleful protest of lynching’s in the South. Mr. Josephson stage-managed Billie Holiday’s performance of it so that “when people walked out of Cafe Society, I wanted them to remember every word of the song or at least to go out thinking about it.”

Blood at the leaves and blood at the root: It’s all part of the same song, or would have been in the days when black and white shared time and space together at a place called Café Society.

Strange Fruit Lyrics:
ThomasShippAbramSmithLynched1930Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop

Ultimately, his political cabaret was undone by politics. In 1947, after Mr. Josephson’s brother Leon, a Communist, refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the cafe owner was pummelled by prominent columnists, customers left, and both clubs were sold.

“I think Barney and his story should be made into a movie,” Art D’Lugoff, the former owner of the Village Gate, is quoted as saying. “I think Cafe Society should be the story that should be told about our century.”

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Josh White at Cafe Society Downtown
If yo’ white – that’s alright
If yo’ Brown – Stick around
If Yo’ Black – Git Back!

Mary Lou Williams was hired by the astute Barney Josephson, owner of Cafe Society, the Greenwich Village night club that featured outstanding jazz, blues and comedy unique for its day  catered to integrated audiences.

Mary thrived in an environment that included Billie Holiday (whose rendition of “Strange Fruit” became a sort of theme song in the club catering to a leftist crowd), Josh White, trumpeter Frankie Newton, dancer Pearl Primus, all of whom became special friends. When Josephson branched out and opened his Cafe Society Uptown, Mary alternated between the 2 venues.

It was through Josephson’s assistance in 1945 that she got her own weekly radio broadcast on WNEW, Mary Lou Williams’ Piano Workshop. Her program figured into Mary’s composing one of the more interesting compositions (and reflecting Duke Ellington’s movement toward creating extended works), The Zodiac Suite.

CharlieParkerCS “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Downtown Café Society. We’d like to present at this time for your listening entertainment the 2nd edition of our show, and we’d like to open the show with a band number, one that was recorded and released not long ago on the Mercury label by yours truly with strings, we hope you enjoy, without strings, equally as much, ‘Just Friends’…”
The Parker Quintet played a 4-week engagement at Café Society Downtown

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