It’s a long time since I got so wrapped up in a book that I didn’t want to stop reading it — but CAFE SOCIETY: THE WRONG PLACE FOR THE RIGHT PEOPLE (Barney Josephson with Terry Trilling-Josephson, Univ. of Illinois Press, 2009) is just that book.
Who was Barney Josephson (1902-88)? If he hadn’t worked very hard to make his dreams become reality, we would only know him as a successful businessman: his specialty, stylish shoes.
Happily for us, Barney had thoughts beyond Cuban or French heels: a yearning to run a nightclub in New York City, a keen sensitivity to talent, a hatred of social injustice. And CAFE SOCIETY is the book his life and accomplishments deserve. It could have been dull, academic, or third-hand. But it’s a lively memoir of Barney’s life, taken from the tape recordings he made — he was a born raconteur — subtly annotated and expanded by his widow Terry Trilling-Josephson.
CAFE SOCIETY (like the Downtown and Uptown nightclubs that had that name) is energetic, memorable, full of memorable anecdote and gossip. Josephson was someone who had good instincts about what artists — musicians, comedians, or actors — whose work had substance. He said he viewed himself as a “saloon impresario”: “I love it when people say that because I’m not more than that. It’s the way I view myself. In this business if you’re an ‘impresario,’ I say that with quotation marks around the word, you have a feeling. You hear something, and you say, ‘This is it!’ You go ahead and you do it. You don’t analyze. You have to follow your hunches.”
Josephson had the good fortune to have John Hammond as his guide, instigator, and occasional arm-twister. When Barney wanted to start a New York night club with music, it was Hammond who urged him to hire the three boogie-woogie pianists, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, and Meade Lux Lewis, the blues singer Big Joe Turner, and Billie Holiday.
Cafe Society is remarkable for the improvisers who played there: Teddy Wilson with a band including Joe Thomas, Emmett Berry, or Bill Coleman; Benny Morton; Ed Hall or Jimmy Hamilton; Sidney Catlett. Frank Newton with Sonny White, Kenneth Hollon, Tab Smith, Eddie Dougherty, Johnny Williams. Ed Hall with Mouse Randolph and Henderson Chambers. Ellis Larkins with Bill Coleman and Al Hall.
Later on, at the Cookery, Teddy Wilson, Mary Lou Williams. Josephson brought back Helen Humes and Alberta Hunter for successful late-life “comebacks.” And it wasn’t simply jazz and popular songs: think of the Revuers (with Judy Holiday and Adolph Green), of Jack Gilford and Zero Mostel, of the now-forgotten Jimmy Savo, all given encouragement and room to develop by Josephson.
But this isn’t purely a list of who-sang-what and how they were received, a collection of press clippings and schedules. Josephson was a first-class storyteller with a remarkable memory, and the stories he remembered are priceless. Nowhere else would I have learned that Emmett Berry, when trying to get someone to take a drink, would ask, “Will you have a drink of Doctor Berry’s rootin’ tootin’ oil?” For me, that’s worth the price of the book. Wonderful photographs, too.
And the stories!
Billie Holiday, at first not knowing what to do with the lyrics of STRANGE FRUIT when they were handed to her, and showing her displeasure in the most effective non-verbal way when an audience annoyed her.
Zero Mostel, always onstage, making life difficult for the man trying to fit him for clothing.
Barney’s firing of Carol Channing and his missing a chance to hire Pearl Bailey.
Tallulah Bankhead complaining — at high volume — about what she’d encountered in the ladies’ room.
Teddy Wilson’s drinking problem, late in his career.
The dramatic entanglements of Hazel Scott and Adam Clayton Powell.
The amorous hopes of Joe Louis for Lena Horne.
Big Joe Turner and the magic bean.
Mildred Bailey’s religious beliefs.
And there is a deep, serious undercurrent throughout: the difficulty of having an establishment where neither the bands nor the audiences were segregated, and the looming shadow of the House Un-American Activities Committee. (Leon Josephson, Barney’s brother, was a particular target, which cast a shadow over Barney’s endeavors.)
Ultimately, the book is delightful for its stories (and the wonderful photographs) and the way Terry Trilling-Josephson has woven recollection and research together. And the book is — on every page — the embodiment of Barney’s achievements and of the deep love he and Terry shared. Not to be missed!