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  • Cafe Society: The Wrong Place for the Right People
  • Jonathon Bakan
Cafe Society: The Wrong Place for the Right People. By Barney Josephson with Terry Trilling-Josephson. (Music in American Life.) Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009. (xxi, 376 p. ISBN 9780252034138. $32.95.) Illustrations, bibliography, index.

In 1938 and 1940 Barney Josephson, a former shoe salesman with an interest in social justice, opened two of New York's most controversial and historically significant nightclubs, the venue known as "Cafe Society" and its affiliate operation, "Cafe Society (Uptown)." Josephson's innovative nightclubs were notable for their nightly presentations of topical political satire and swing era jazz. But most important of all, Cafe Society and Cafe Society (Uptown) were especially significant as Manhattan's first major nightclubs to break the color barrier and operate under a strict policy of complete racial integration.

Cafe Society: The Wrong Place for the Right People provides Josephson's firsthand account of the establishment, meteoric success, and eventual demise of his nightclubs. As such, the book is an important contribution to a growing body of historical research on the clubs and their relationship to the overlapping worlds of jazz, politics, and Hollywood entertainment from 1938 to 1949. Josephson's account illustrates the profound ways that American cultural life of the late 1930s and early 1940s was mediated, first through the left wing political movement known as the "Popular Front," and subsequently through the conservative political backlash of the postwar period. Indeed, the book's firsthand portrayal of the human damage wreaked during the McCarthy era, and of the ways that race and politics conditioned the production and consumption of mass culture during the Great Depression and Cold War, will make this book of interest to historians of jazz music, American popular culture, and American cultural history more generally.

Josephson's clubs rose to become two of New York's most prominent performance venues. It was from them that musicians and actors such as Billie Holiday, Zero Mostel, Hazel Scott, and Imogene Coca; the Boogie Woogie pianists Meade "Lux" Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson; [End Page 96] as well as many others first achieved national attention. But the Cafe Society operation was also enormously controversial. With their daring policy of complete racial integration, the two Cafe Society nightclubs became favorite gathering places for leading figures in the "Popular Front" movement. Indeed, the two nightclubs became among the most prominent of Popular Front institutions, frequently hosting and supplying talent for benefit performances in support of various progressive causes.

But all this came to an abrupt halt when the Cafe Society nightclubs became caught up in the growing anti-Communist hysteria of the postwar period. In 1947, Josephson and his nightclubs became the target of the right-wing press, and Josephson himself was identified as a Communist sympathizer. Various government agencies began harassing Josephson and his clubs, and patrons stopped coming. Eventually, Josephson was forced out of business. The original Cafe Society closed in December 1947, and the Uptown club was sold in 1949.

Cafe Society: The Wrong Place for the Right People is jointly authored by Josephson and his wife Terry Trilling-Josephson, but, as Trilling-Josephson states, "this is Barney's story, in his words" (p. xvii). However, the book was completed after Josephson's death, with his words edited together from tape-recorded interviews that Trilling-Josephson conducted with her husband and from Trilling-Josephson's handwritten notes of their conversations about his life and the people who came through his nightclubs. As Trilling-Josephson states, "I transcribed the tapes before Barney passed. He read the pages, and we worked together to clarify some of the stories" (p. xv).

Trilling-Josephson has also interspersed her husband's recollections with other accounts from journalists, musicians, comedians and others, giving the book what she calls a "choral quality" and creating a "kind of conversation" between the various accounts (p. xvii). The dialogic format provides both context and perspective on Josephson's own reminiscences. In this way Trilling-Josephson has fashioned a richly textured account that sheds new light on the history of these important nightclubs and their relationship to the broader left wing movement of...


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