A Study of Twentieth-Century American Nightclub Culture with Stephen Duncan

My interest in the subject of twentieth-century American nightclub culture and its intersection with political activism began as both highly theoretical and mundane. It started with a conversation I was having with a colleague about whether critical theorist Jürgen Habermas’s conception of “the public” held up to scrutiny. But, probably because I spent so much time in bars and clubs when I worked as a musician in my twenties, I was struck by the simple idea that postwar nightclub audiences were examples of newly-forming publics which Habermas had overlooked. In particular, Lenny Bruce’s comedy act in the 1950s came to mind, with its ability to raise controversy that traversed its way from underground clubs through mass media and back again. I quickly realized that an interesting and important question was how the nightclubs themselves played a role in this discourse. And as I traced the network of connections from clubs where Bruce performed, such as New York’s Village Vanguard or San Francisco’s hungry i, what I found surprised me. These clubs were part of a much deeper milieu, as well as a socially-conscious cultural genealogy that stretched from the earliest Parisian cabarets in the 1880s, through American jazz clubs of the 1940s and 1950s, and into cultural expressions of “freedom” that found more direct political forms in the civil rights, gay rights, antiwar, and feminist movements.

While numerous scholars have examined postwar intellectual and artistic trends, few have noted the crucial nodal points connecting dissident social networks into a national circuit: urban underground coffeehouses, nightclubs, and bars—what the countercultural poet Ed Sanders collectively called, “The Rebel Café.” In a time when “consensus” politics ruled the day, the Rebel Café was a nocturnal field on which a diverse cast of cultural radicals fought battles with conservatives foes over how to define “America.” However different all of these figures were, they shared the notion of performing dissent and the Rebel Café milieu gave them a venue.

The comic routines that Bruce performed in the subterranean nightspots of New York or San Francisco reflected the concerns and discontents of his fans and fellow nonconformists. Dissident cultural producers provided more than mere entertainment for urban seekers. They were public models of possibility who offered radical critiques of Cold War America, as the specters of racial segregation, atomic war, the triumph of corporate liberalism, felicitous consumption, and concomitant conformity led some to wonder whether the promise of plenty was worth less than the sum of its parts. Even as efforts to weed out communist subversion led to the period’s truncated politics, a new rebel sensibility informed the ideas of intellectuals such as Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag, the humor of “sick” comedians, the jazz-inflected writing of the Beat Generation, and jazz musicians themselves.  

The Rebel Café therefore illuminates the institutional function of nightspots for marginal groups, linking the bohemian neighborhoods of Greenwich Village and North Beach. Nightspots served as both sociocultural laboratories and a fallout shelters, offering places of entertainment, civic engagement, and employment for leftists whose roots sometimes reached back to Depression-era dissent—even as the changing context of the 1950s led many radicals to shift from class-based politics to issues of identity. The Rebel Café also played a role in developing musical and literary styles, intellectual currents, and its most lasting contribution: socially-conscious “brick wall” comedy. The story of the culture industry and intellectuals in New York is well known. But The Rebel Café also explores San Francisco as part of a national counterculture that challenged dominant social and aesthetic norms through the interconnected spaces of radical nightspots, record labels, and publishing houses. Lastly, I have aimed to demonstrate the social and political consequences of the nocturnal underground’s cultural liberationism, tracing its impact on notions of race, sexuality, artistic expression, and freedom itself. Key to that transformation was nightclub culture, where nonconformists met and played—with words, with sounds, and with the sociocultural ideas that reshaped the national psyche.

Of course, the Rebel Café milieu was no utopia and I have also tried to chronicle the clashes, occasionally violent, between its contentious denizens. The nightclub underground’s sociopolitical and cultural effects were undoubtedly a mix of successes and failures. So the complex picture that emerges in The Rebel Café is one that, I hope, balances my argument about nocturnal culture’s role in the American public sphere with narrative and vibrant vignettes, making it of interest to professional scholars and general readers alike.

Stephen R. Duncan is an assistant professor of history at Bronx Community College of the City University of New York. Most recently he is the author of Rebel Cafe: Sex, Race, and Politics in Cold War America's Nightclub Underground.