Billie Holiday

Welcome to Café Society: The Wrong Place for the Right People, a famous interracial nightclub in New York opened in 1938. Imagine yourself here, in the jazz-filled 40s, a unique club, where artists of all ethnic and racial backgrounds could perform on the same stage, and black and white patrons could sit together. Look around you at the décor of satiric murals ridiculing “high society.” Find yourself surrounded in the sound of the best of jazz and blues, performed by the best and the brightest musicians of the time.

Enter the world within Café Society here.

Reading about the life of the jazz singer Billie Holiday inspired this playlist and the first track is a duet between Holiday and saxophonist, Lester Young. Both Holiday and Young had a light and cool style – markedly different from the rich, heavy tone that was then in vogue. The years immediately following Holiday’s appearances at Café Society – the early 1940s – saw her achieve the peak of her popularity. Benny Goodman was a famous clarinettist, known as the ‘king of swing’, and was responsible for getting Holiday the opportunity to make her first record. Goodman was one of the first white band leaders to employ black musicians and features in the second track ‘Breakfast Feud’ with Charles Christian on guitar.

Miles Davis, the American trumpeter, was another notable performer at Café Society. He began his musical studies at age 13, when his father gave him a trumpet and arranged lessons for him. Against the fashion of the time and the wishes of his teacher, Davis kept using heavy vibrato – a pulsating effect achieved by changing the mouth position. Davis would carry his clear signature tone throughout his career, and which you can hear throughout this track.

Artie Shaw was a clarinetist and his band employed Billie Holiday, promising that he would ‘make it work’ at a time when a racially integrated band was not accepted socially. Despite Shaw’s good intentions, Holiday was subject to much racial discrimination and degradation and swore she would never tour with a dance band again.

One customer at Cafe Society, named Lewis Allen, who was a poet and schoolteacher, showed Holiday a poem he had written. The poem entitled ‘Strange Fruit’, was a protest against racial brutality. The words describe lynchings in the South and the poem moved Holiday, who helped adapt it into a song, fitting with Cafe society’s liberal atmosphere. The curtains of this playlist close with this song, as Josephson insisted that Holiday close each show with “strange fruit”, a song which became one of the most powerful pleas for black rights that had yet been made.