One of our earliest iterations of Tribeca Performing Arts Center’s ongoing Lost Jazz Shrines series was a season celebrating the unique legacy of Cafe Society. In 1938 a New Jersey shoe salesman named Barney Josephson sought to open his own nightclub for jazz and jazz-inspired presentations. He had spent years investigating other Manhattan clubs and what he found was often distasteful, particularly the often discriminatory policies he found regularly. One classic example he particularly abhorred was the legendary mob-operated Cotton Club in Harlem, where strict club policy found Black artists confined to the stage, along with Black waitstaff and a Whites only patron policy which particularly favored the well-heeled clientele.
Josephson steadfastly sought to open his club as a place where patrons, artists and waitstaff were comfortable mingling openly regardless of race, ethnicity or class considerations. The result was Cafe Society, which opened in January 1939 at 2 Sheridan Square in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village district. Billed as “The Right Place for the Wrong People,” Josephson’s club booked many legendary performers for varietal shows. Opening night included the boogie woogie piano players Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson – known later as the Boogie Woogie Boys – and Billie Holiday. Later, Cafe Society served as the place where Billie Holiday debuted the remarkable song “Strange Fruit,” the anti-lynching poem which was destined to be referred to as the opening protest anthem of the Civil Rights Era in the U.S.
As part of our 3-concert Cafe Society series at Tribeca PAC in Spring 2003, one concert celebrated the rich saxophone tradition of Cafe Society with a rare NYC performance by Chicago great Von Freeman. Here’s that concert: