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It is a clear, fresh New York night in March 1939. You're on a date and you've decided to investigate a new club in a former speakeasy on West 4th Street: Cafe Society, which calls itself "The Wrong Place for the Right People". Even if you don't get the gag on the way in – the doormen wear tattered clothes – then the penny drops when you enter the L-shaped, 200-capacity basement and see the satirical murals spoofing Manhattan's high-society swells. Unusually for a New York nightclub, black patrons are not just welcomed but privileged with the best seats in the house.
You've heard the buzz about the resident singer, a 23-year-old black woman called Billie Holiday who made her name up in Harlem with Count Basie's band. She has golden-brown, almost Polynesian skin, a ripe figure and a single gardenia in her hair. She has a way of owning the room, but she's not flashy. Her voice is plump and pleasure-seeking, prodding and caressing a song until it yields more delights than its author had intended, bringing a spark of vivacity and a measure of cool to even the hokier material.
And then it happens. The house lights go down, leaving Holiday illuminated by the hard, white beam of a single spotlight.