May 30, “The Piano Tradition of Mary Lou Williams & Others”
June 20, “Great Divas of Café Society:
An Evening With Billie, Sarah, and Lena.”

Film clips from 6-7 p.m., free and open to the public. Wine and cheese, 7-8 p.m. Concerts ($35) begin at 8 p.m. All events in Theater 2 at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center in Borough of Manhattan Community College,
199 Chambers Street. For more information call (212) 220-1460.

Sharing time and space at the Café Society


Photo by Charles B. Nadell
“The most gorgeous and magnetic young woman of all,” Billie Holiday at Café Society, 1939.

Let us go then, you and I. You and I and Willard Jenkins, a large, quiet enthusiast in a brilliant cherry-red cap who would take us back down a twisting flight of stairs to a lost shrine at No. 1 Sheridan Square. Today it’s a techno-modernized theater, the Axis. Nothing of the past is recognizable. But then…

A very funny little man named Jimmy Savo climbed up and up on chairs there, scream-singing, “River, stay away from my door!”

A very funny oversized man named Zero Mostel convulsed the audiences there with his blowharding as isolationist Senator Claghorn (“What was Pearl Harbor doing out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean anyway?”)

The 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.

A beautiful, sexy, spunky young woman named Hazel Scott—a pre-civil-rights movement all in herself—took to the piano there and boogie-woogied Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, whoever you liked.

A tall, cool, beautiful young woman named Helena Horne stood up and sang there with much style but little of the heat she would one day spill forth as Lena Horne.

The most gorgeous and magnetic young woman of all gave ineradicable voice there to a song by a onetime Bronx schoolteacher named Adam Meeropol. “Blood on the leaves and blood at the root…” she half-wailed, half-crooned. Her name was Billie Holiday. The song was “Strange Fruit.”

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.

One of the close friends of this radical son of immigrant parents from Latvia was, oddly enough, a snobbish, catty, distinctly unradical 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.)

“I’m not old enough to have been at Cafe Society,” says Willard Jenkins, 54-year-old artistic director of the Tribeca Performing Arts Center’s “Lost Jazz Shrines” series, “but I’m old enough to have been at the Half Note and the Five Spot and the jazz lofts of the 1970s.”

Those way stations were honored in previous “Lost Jazz Shrines” celebrations. This year it’s Café Society.

Already covered, two Fridays ago, were Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, via a program by Barry Harris, his trio, and saxophonist Von Freeman.

This coming Friday, May 30, is given over to “The Piano Tradition of Mary Lou Williams & Others,” with sense-memories of the woman once dubbed “the Picasso of the piano” awakened by contemporary pianists JoAnne Brackeen, Bertha Hope, and Francesca Tanksley.

Friday, June 20, brings vocalists Carla Cook and René Marie, along with the John Toomey Trio, paying homage to those “Grand Divas of Café Society—Billie, Sarah, and Lena.”

It also brings what promises to be a thrilling hour of film clips from the collection of the late jazz buff Dave Chertok, as put together and presented by his son Michael Chertok.

Though at this writing Chertok fils was still weighing what to put in and what to take out: the material may well include Billie Holiday singing “Foolin’ Myself” (backed by her beloved Prez); Holiday singing “God Bless the Child” (backed by Basie); Holiday and Louis Armstrong doing “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?”; and a reprise of some footage from Billie’s heartstopping, heartbreaking late-’50s appearance on “The Sound of Jazz” for CBS—to Chertok “probably the most celebrated and intense piece of jazz on film there is,” and not just to him.

In case you never heard of Snader Telescriptions, they were three- , four- , and five-minute TV fillers done in the early 1950s in real time. From these, for Sarah Vaughan, Chertok may select “The Nearness of You” and—in an example of her scatting—”Perdido,” from a “Bebop Reunion Show” with Dizzie Gillespie.

Lena Horne is easier to dig up—”She’s all over the place.” But one rare tidbit is a 1941 short of Ms. Horne singing “Boogie-Woogie Dream” to the hard-driving pianos of Ammons and Johnson. Also on the probable Lena Horne docket: “Love Me or Leave Me,” with Stan Kenton, 1955, and “From This Moment On,” from a 1960 Sinatra “Leave It to the Ladies” TV broadcast. A bit of Helen Humes with Basie may be thrown in for good measure.

Six-foot-seven Pittsburgh-born, Cleveland bred, D.C.- based Willard Jenkins looks more like a tight end or a power forward than a musicologist, and in fact he isn’t a musicologist; he’s a writer (Jazz Times, Downbeat, Jazz Report, and arts administrator. So is his wife Suzan.

He gives credit to the Rockefeller Foundation’s Mikki Shephard for spearheading this whole “lost shrines” effort—”and then one thing led to another, and the Tribeca Performing Arts Center decided to do a history of jazz, and executive director Linda Herring brought me in to curate.”

Jenkins began exploring and annotating “historic jazz venues” around the country—in Cleveland and San Antonio, among other places—and finally in Brooklyn, Harlem, and downtown Manhattan.

“I found so many and such a variety of venues below 14th Street”—and one of them, with bells on, was Café Society. One thing he hasn’t been able to find: the irreverent caricatures that once jazzed up the walls of Café Society. “Nobody seems to know where they are.”

Maybe Everett Quinton knows. The late Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company, now headed by Quinton, inhabited these premises for quite a few years.
Willard Jenkins, by the way, knows where he was on May 14, 1970. He was an undergraduate on the campus of Kent State, and in the cafeteria when he heard some shooting. Went out and saw several of his classmates dead or dying on the ground.

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.


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