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"Café society" described the mixed group of "Beautiful People " and "Bright Young Things" that gathered in fashionable restaurants of Paris, London, Rome or New York, beginning in the late 19th century. Café society was not the same as old money, the Establishment or "high society ", the people who went to one another's private dinners and balls, reunited at spas and elegant resorts and married one another's children. Café society was replaced in the late 1950s by the Jet Set .
Café Society was also a New York City nightclub opened in 1938 in Greenwich Village by Barney Josephson to showcase African American talent and to be an American version of the political cabarets he had seen in Europe before the war. Josephson also intended the club to defy the pretensions of the rich; he chose the name to mock Clare Booth Luce and what she referred to as "café society", the habitués of more upscale nightclubs. Josephson not only copyrighted the name but advertised the club as "The Wrong Place for the Right People." Josephson opened a second branch on 58th Street, between Lexington and Park Avenue, in 1940.
The club also prided itself on treating both black and white customers equally, unlike many venues, such as the Cotton Club, that featured black performers but barred black customers. The club featured many of the greatest black musicians of the day, from a wide range of backgrounds, often presented with a strongly political bent. Billie Holiday first sang "Strange Fruit" there; at Josephson's insistence, she closed her set with this song, leaving the stage without taking any encores, so that the audience would be left to think about the meaning of the song.
Relying on the keen musical judgment of John Hammond, Josephson helped launch the careers of Lena Horne and Hazel Scott and popularized gospel groups such as the Golden Gate Quartet and the Dixie Hummingbirds among white audiences. The club was also a regular venue for such artists as the boogie woogie pianists Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson, blues shouter Big Joe Turner, singer and activist Paul Robeson, country blues singers Josh White and Big Bill Broonzy, and jazz giants Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Art Tatum, James P. Johnson, Sarah Vaughan, and Mary Lou Williams. The club also served as a place for musical interchange and development: the Dixie Hummingbirds, performing under the name "the Jericho Quintet", sang with Lester Young's combo, while adopting some of the stage moves that their more popular rivals, the Golden Gate Quartet, had perfected.
The club was the scene of numerous political events and fundraisers, often for left causes, during and after World War Two. In 1947 Josephson's brother Leon was subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which led to hostile comments from columnists Westbrook Pegler and Walter Winchell. Business dropped sharply as a result and the club closed the following year.
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