The Cotton Club was a New York City night club located first in the Harlem neighborhood on 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue from 1923 to 1935 and then for a brief period from 1936 to 1940 in the midtown Theater District. The club operated most notably during America's Prohibition Era.
The club was a whites-only establishment even though it featured many of the most popular black entertainers of the era, including musicians Cab Calloway, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Fats Waller, vocalists Adelaide Hall, Ethel Waters, Avon Long, the Dandridge Sisters, the Will Vodery Choir, Berry Brothers, Nina Mae McKinney, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, and dancers Bill Robinson, The Nicholas Brothers, Stepin Fetchit, and Earl Snakehips Tucker.
In its heyday, the Cotton Club served as a hip meeting spot, with regular "Celebrity Nights" on Sundays that featured guests such as Jimmy Durante, George Gershwin, Sophie Tucker, Paul Robeson, Al Jolson, Mae West, Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin, Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice, Langston Hughes, Judy Garland, playwright and director Moss Hart, and Mayor Jimmy Walker among others.
In 1920, heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson rented the upper floor of the building on the corner of 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue in the heart of the Harlem district and opened an intimate supper club there called the Club Deluxe. Owney Madden, a prominent bootlegger and gangster, took over the club in 1923 after release from Sing Sing and changed its name to the Cotton Club. " A deal was arranged between the two that allowed Johnson to still be the club’s manager. Madden "used the cotton club as an outlet to sell his #1 beer to the prohibition crowd". While the club was closed briefly in 1925 for selling liquor, it reopened without trouble from the police. A man by the name of Herman Stark became the stage manager from then on.
Harlem producer Leonard Harper directed the first two of three opening night floor-shows at the new venue.
The Cotton Club was a "Whites-only" venue. The club reproduced the racist imagery of the times, often depicting blacks as savages in exotic jungles or as "darkies" in the cotton-growing plantation South (see King Cotton). The club imposed a more subtle color bar on the chorus girls whom the club presented in skimpy outfits: they were expected to be "tall, tan, and terrific," which meant that they had to be at least 5 feet 6 inches tall, light-skinned, and under 21 years of age. The skin color of the male dancers was more varied. "Black performers did not mix with the club's clientele, and after the show many of them went next door to the basement of the superintendent at 646 Lenox, where they imbibed corn whiskey, peach brandy, and marijuana." Ellington was expected to write "jungle music" for an audience of whites. What Ellington contributed to the Cotton Club is priceless and is summed up perfectly in this 1937 New York Times excerpt: "So long may the empirical Duke and his music making roosters reign - and long may the Cotton Club continue to remember that it came down from Harlem". The prices for customers were high so the performers had very high salaries.
The Harlem years
Shows at the Cotton Club were musical revues, and several went under the heading of Cotton Club Parade followed by the year. The revues featured dancers, singers, comedians and variety acts, as well as a house band. These revues helped launch the careers of many artists including Fletcher Henderson who led the first house band to play there in 1923. It also helped push Duke Ellington's career, whose orchestra was the house band there from December 4, 1927, to June 30, 1931. In 1927, the first revue that Duke Ellington took over as house band was called "Rhythmania" and featured Adelaide Hall, who had just recorded several songs with Ellington including "Creole Love Call". Their recording of "Creole Love Call" became a worldwide hit. The club not only gave Ellington national exposure through radio broadcasts originating there (first through WHN, then over WEAF and after September 1929 through the NBC Red Network - WEAF was the flagship station for that network - on Fridays), but enabled him to develop his repertoire while composing not only the dance tunes for the shows, but also the overtures, transitions, accompaniments, and "jungle" effects that gave him the freedom to experiment with orchestral colors and arrangements that touring bands rarely had. Ellington recorded more than 100 compositions during this era. Eventually, in deference to a request by Ellington, the club slightly relaxed its policy of excluding black customers.
Cab Calloway's orchestra brought its Brown Sugar revue to the club in 1930, replacing Ellington's orchestra after its departure in 1931; Jimmie Lunceford's band replaced Calloway's in 1934, while Ellington, Armstrong, and Calloway returned to perform at the club in later years.The club was also the first show business opportunity for Lena Horne, Leona Laviscount, who sang Sweeter than Sweet with Cab Calloway, who also began there as a chorus girl at the age of sixteen. Dorothy Dandridge performed there while still one of The Dandridge Sisters, while Coleman Hawkins and Don Redman played there as part of Henderson's band. Tap dancers Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Sammy Davis Jr. (as part of the Will Mastin Trio), and the Nicholas Brothers starred there as well.
The club also drew from white popular culture of the day. Walter Brooks, who had produced the successful Broadway show Shuffle Along, was the nominal owner. Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh, one of the most prominent songwriting teams of the era, and Harold Arlen provided the songs for the revues, one of which, Blackbirds of 1928, starring Adelaide Hall, featured the songs "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" and "Diga Diga Doo", produced by Lew Leslie on Broadway.
In 1934, Adelaide Hall starred at the Cotton Club in Cotton Club Parade 1934, the biggest grossing show that ever appeared at the club. The show opened on 11 March and ran for eight months, attracting over 600,000 paying customers. The score was written by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler and featured the classic song "Ill Wind". During Hall's performance of "Ill Wind", to add authenticity to the production, a dry-ice machine was used on stage to create a fog effect. It was the first time such equipment had been used on a stage. Featured on the bill was the 16-year-old Lena Horne.
The Midtown years
The club was closed temporarily in 1936 after the race riot in Harlem the previous year. Photographer Carl Van Vechten vowed to boycott the club for having such racist policies in place. The Cotton Club reopened later that year at Broadway and 48th. The site chosen for the new Cotton Club was ideal. It was a big room on the top floor of a building on Broadway and Forty-eighth Street, where Broadway and Seventh Avenue meet – an important midtown crossroads, and in the heart of the Great White Way, the Broadway Theater District. While Herman Stark and the club's owners were quite certain the club would do well in its new location, they realized that depended on a smash-hit opening show. In fact a 1937 New York Times article states, "The Cotton Club has climbed aboard the Broadway bandwagon, with a show that is calculated to give the customers their money’s worth of sound and color – and it does." The most lavish revue in the Cotton Club’s 13-year history opened on Broadway on September 24, 1936. Robinson and Calloway headed a roster of some 130 other performers. Stark agreed to pay tap dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson $3,500 a week, the highest salary ever paid to a black entertainer in a Broadway production, and more money than had ever been received by any individual for a night club performance.
It closed for good in 1940, under pressure from higher rents, changing tastes and a federal investigation into tax evasion by Manhattan nightclub owners. The Latin Quarter nightclub opened in its space and the building was torn down in 1989 to make way for a hotel. All in all, the Broadway Cotton Club was a highly successful blend of old and new. The site may have been new, the décor may have been slightly different, but once a patron entered and was comfortably seated, he knew he was in a familiar place.
Langston Hughes’ Critique
The underlying goal that Owney Madden had in mind for the Cotton Club was to provide "an authentic black entertainment to a wealthy, whites-only audience." As mentioned, Langston Hughes, a leader of the Harlem Renaissance, attended the Cotton Club as a rare black guest. Following his visit, Hughes criticized the club’s segregated atmosphere and commented that it was nothing more than "a Jim Crow club for gangsters and monied whites". In addition to the jungle music and plantation-themed interior, Langston Hughes believed that Madden’s idea of "authentic black entertainment" was similar to the entertainment provided at a zoo. Hughes said angrily that white "strangers were given the best ringside tables to sit and stare at the Negro customers--like amusing animals in a zoo."
For Hughes, the Cotton Club also affected the Harlem community as well. The craze brought an "influx of whites toward Harlem after sundown, flooding the little cabarets and bars where formerly only colored people laughed and sang." Hughes also mentions how many of the neighboring cabarets, especially black cabarets, were forced to shut down from trying to compete with the Cotton Club. These smaller clubs did not have a big show floor and a band like the Cotton Club with big names such as Duke Ellington.
A new incarnation of the Cotton Club opened on 125th Street in Harlem on December 12, 1977. Jazz writer James Haskins wrote at the time, "Today, there is a new incarnation of the Cotton Club which sits on the most western end of the 125th Street under the massive Manhattanville viaduct. The windowless block of a building has a less dramatic display out front but seems to be popular with tourists for Sunday jazz brunches."
A Chicago branch of the Cotton Club was run by Ralph Capone and a West Coast branch of the Cotton Club existed in Culver City, California, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, featuring performers from the original Cotton Club such as Armstrong, Calloway and Ellington.
In popular culture
The Cotton Club is a movie directed by Francis Ford Coppola, which offers a playboy history of the club in the context of race relations in the 1930s and the battles between Madden, Dutch Schultz, Vincent "Mad Dog" Coll, Lucky Luciano, and Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson.
The Cotton Club was briefly depicted in the 1997 movie Hoodlum featuring Laurence Fishburne, Tim Roth, and Andy García. The club was the site of a confrontation between Schultz (Roth) and Johnson (Fishburne, playing the same role as in the 1984 Coppola film)).
The Cotton Club is mentioned in the novelization of the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Far Beyond the Stars". The novelization mentions that Benny Russell's (Avery Brooks) mother and father met at the Cotton Club when Russell's mother was a dancer there. The novelization also gives some descriptive detail of the Cotton Club, such as the names of the individuals who performed there.
In an episode of the hit Disney Channel TV show Ant Farm, the main character wakes up as Ella Fitzgerald and she sings in the Cotton Club.
The Cotton Club was featured in a 2013 episode of White Collar entitled "Empire City".
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- "Cotton Club 2-CD-Box & 124-Page Book" by Bear Family Records
- The Cotton Club "First and foremost in bringing Broadway to Harlem...and Harlem to Broadway"