Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Café Society: The Wrong Place for the Right People by Barney Josephson with Terry Trilling-Josephson. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009 (“Music in American Life Series.”) With a foreword by Dan Morgenstern.

Hazel Scott: The Pioneering Journey of a Jazz Pianist from Café Society to Hollywood to HUAC. By Karen Chilton. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2008.

Two recent books published by two academic presses, shed new light on the complex issues of racial, ethnic, and gender conflict in mid-century American jazz and entertainment industry history by focusing on some trailblazers, while providing new information on some key figures. Both books are labor-of-love social histories/memoirs of impresario-producers, entertainers and musicians, who contributed to American popular culture and commercial music, jazz, film, radio television and recording industry. Both books incorporate and weave together material gleaned from press reviews, magazine articles, and other contemporary accounts, with personal recollections of people who were involved (either written or oral histories). Most fascinating are the personal recollections, distinct voices heretofore not heard, including businessman-impresario Barney Josephson and pianist-singer Hazel Scott.

Café Society: The Wrong Place for the Right People tells the personal story of Barney Josephson (1902-1988) , founder and owner of the infamous interracial New York City nightclubs Café Society Downtown in Greenwich Village (opening in December 1938), Café Society Uptown (openings in October 1940), and later, The Cookery (which started presenting live entertainment in 1971). A remarkable and visionary man, Josephson was a true humanist who created a place where artists of all ethnic and racial backgrounds could perform for mixed audiences when segregation was the routine on the New York nightclub scene and most nightclubs were under mob jurisdiction. The décor of these nightclubs included satiric murals lampooning “high society.” Josephson commissioned many artists to contribute to the unique décor of his establishments, including Syd Hoff, Abe Birnbaum, John Groth, Gregor Duncan, William Gropper. Anton Refregier, and Christina Malman. Josephson told them, “You’re free to paint what you like, absolute freedom.” (p. 26).

Josephson presented the best of jazz, blues, spirituals, gospel, boogie-woogie piano, and the American songbook, performed by the best and the brightest entertainers, including Billie Holliday, Lena Horne, Hazel Scott, Paul Robeson, Mildred Bailey, Kay Starr, Sarah Vaughan. Big Joe Turner, Lester Young, Buck Clayton, Mary Lou Williams, Big Sid Catlett, and comedians Jack Gilford, Imogene Coca, and Zero Mostel; and dancer Pearl Primus, among others. Barney Josephson was an ardent friend and confidant of some amazingly talented musicians and fostered their artistic development by offering regular work and long-term contracts. Many who were given an important first break at Café Society went on to have major careers in radio, film, television, and as recording artists. Music producer John Hammond was Josephson’s key talent advisor in the early days of Café Society. Ivan Black, a friend from Josephson’s high school days, was his maverick press agent.

Underlying this epic posthumous memoir is a story of enduring love and devotion. Although this book is written in first-person, it is the work of Barney Josephson’s last wife, Terry Trilling-Josephson (they met in 1979, when he was 76), and is based on her taped recorded and transcribed interviews with Josephson at the end of his life. Trilling-Josephson, an associate professor of communications and performing arts of The City University of New York, former actress and speech pathologist, describes her husband as a “marvelous raconteur” and recognized the value of his recollections for jazz history. Two years after his death, she returned to the project to create a posthumous memoir. She interviewed many of the musicians and performing and visual artists from Barney’s life; some contributed their own memories of him to the book. She did some research and wove together his words, her interviews, press clippings, reviews and testimonies of people from Josephson’s life into this memoir. Some of book has the tone of a fond eulogy, yet other parts read like a “show business tell all.” Although a patchwork job was required to put it together, the book is generally a well-paced and fascinating read. Sometimes the chronology seems a bit muddled with some tales told out of order and a few repetitive passages, but generally it works well and make an important contribution to the literature.

This memoir contains a poignant account of life during the Great Depression, American race relations, and the inquisitions of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which focused it zealous attention on Josephson’s brother, Leon, who had ties to the Communist Party, USA. Barney Josephson was tarred with the same brush during the Red Scare which forced the closing of the Café Society. Barney Josephson re-emerged later opening a hamburger restaurant, The Cookery where he eventually added live entertainment to the very intimate space, including Mary Lou Williams, Albert Hunter (who made a comeback there at age 82 in 1977, after twenty years out of the business, working as a nurse), Helen Humes, and Susan McCorkle,.

The book also details Josephson’s long and complex relationship with Hazel Scott (later to become Mrs. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.) as her employer and manager. He was outraged by her “false testimony” against him when she appeared at a HUAC hearing (at her own request) that she performed for certain benefit concerts because Josephson insisted she do so; he said that he left the decision up to the performers whether or not to contribute a performance to benefit various causes (many identified by HUAC as communist-related organizations. Her side of this story is found in the Hazel Scott biography to be discussed in the next post.)

Some gossipy tidbits seem vindictive and may have been included to settle old scores. The tone and details of some of these reports may be hurtful to people and their families and should have been edited out, for example, the name of his lover and intimate details of his sex life at age 21. Some things should be forgotten; Barney Josephson’s role in the history of twentieth-century American music should not.

Next time:  a review of the Hazel Scott biography.

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