File spoon-archives/marxism-international.archive/marxism-international_1997/97-03-01.214, message 39

Date: Fri, 28 Feb 1997 12:41:33 -0500 (EST)
Subject: M-I: Cafe Society

Lena Horne, who began singing at Cafe Society in early 1941 at the age of 
twenty-three, later wrote that "Josh White ... introduced [me] to another kind 
of music--protest songs and sin songs. More important, he reinforced the 
notion ... that singing could be an art." Hazel Scott, who "had the fiercest sort 
of racial pride," was also "an influence" on Horne, "despite the frequent ... 
clash of temperaments." Moreover, when Dizzy Gillespie later recalled the 
radical musicians of the period, he cited Cafe Society band leaders. "There 
were a bunch of musicians more socially minded," he wrote, "who were 
closely connected with the Communist Party. Those guys stayed busy 
anywhere labor was concerned ... A few enlightened musicians recognized 
the importance of Paul Robeson, amongst them Teddy Wilson, Frankie 
Newton, and Peter Seeger--all of them very outspoken politically." Seeger, of 
course, was a young folk singer, but Wilson and Newton were both band 
leaders at Cafe Society.

Teddy Wilson, remembered by one contemporary as the "Marxist Mozart," 
was a key figure in Cafe Society circles, both musically and politically. By 
the time Cafe Society opened, he was already the Jackie Robinson of swing, 
the first black musician in a white big band, appearing with Benny 
Goodman. Born in 1912, Wilson came from an educated family; his father 
was an English professor and his mother chief librarian at the Tuskegee 
Institute. He came to New York to play with Benny Carter and joined 
Goodman in 1936 after Carter's band broke up. Beginning in 1935, Wilson 
made a series of classic recordings with Billie Holiday, and he briefly led his 
own big band before leading a sextet at Cafe Society between 1940 and 1944 
(first at the Downtown club, and the then at the second Uptown club). Wilson 
taught jazz at the left-wing Metropolitan Music School, appeared at New 
Masses benefits, took part in the Russian War Relief benefit organized by 
Marc Blitzstein, Music at Work, in May 1942, and chaired the artists 
committee for Benjamin Davis.

Frankie Newton was a highly respected trumpet player, born in Virginia in 
1906 and active in a number of bands in the 1930s; he was part of the 
interracial band that John Hammond assembled in 1933 to accompany Bessie 
Smith. In 1938, he formed the band that opened at Cafe Society, and 
accompanied Billie Holiday on her 1939 Commodore recordings that 
included "Strange Fruit." "At Cafe Society," one musician recalled, "Frankie 
Newton, who could be a very serious guy, would get some listeners around 
him, and he'd talk about pretty deep subjects like 'the economics of Marcus 
Garvey's return to Africa scheme,' or 'The Soviet Five Year Plan.'" Though 
Newton's career was interrupted by illness and he died in 1954, he and 
Wilson were both musical and political leaders at Cafe Society.

Moreover, for the musicians, the key political influences were less Josephson 
and Hammond [the club owners and members of the CPUSA] than the group 
of black artists and intellectuals who frequented the cabaret. These included 
Sterling Brown (who introduced the Spirituals to Swing concert), Walter 
White, E. Franklin Frazier, Romare Bearden, Duke Ellington, Canada Lee, 
Joe Louis, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, and Paul Robeson. Hughes was 
not only a regular, but wrote songs and skits for Cafe Society performers, 
joined Arne Bontemps in introducing Hazel Scott, and worked on a Cafe 
Society revue that was to star Scott and dancer Pearl Primus. Robeson had 
returned from almost a decade abroad in October 1939 and he quickly 
became a leading figure in the US Popular Front and the circle around Cafe 
Society. Several Cafe Society performers, including Lena Horne, Pearl 
Primus, and Sarah Vaughan, recalled Robeson's encouragement. Robeson, 
Lena Horne remembered, "did everything he could to reinforce my weakened, 
mostly dormant sense of racial identity ... Thanks to Paul and Josh White and 
to the whole atmosphere around Barney's clubs ... I began to interest myself 
in matters like Civil Rights and equal opportunities for everyone." Both 
Hughes and Robeson stood as important political examples for the Cafe 
Society musicians.

(From the newly published Verso title "The Cultural Front" by Michael
Denning. Denning, a Professor of American Studies at Yale. The goal of
Denning's book is to show the deep influence made by artists and
intellectuals in the CP milieu on the rest of American society. No matter
how trenchant your anti-Stalinist message, comrade Trotskyites, there is
much you can learn about communicating with working people from the CP
in this period. Young historians of my generation like Mark Naison and
Maurice Isserman, influenced strongly by E.P. Thompson's "Making of the
English Working Class," are providing a lot of interesting material.
This also is the goal of my interviews with Fred Baker. I also plan to
schedule interviews with David McReynolds, a highly respected Debsian
socialist and an American Trotskyist. The ideal person to have interviewed
>from the Trotskyist movement was a leader of the antiwar movement by the
name of Fred Halstead, but he has passed on.)

Louis Proyect

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