Cotton Club. Where It All Started.
The most famous night club in New York City operating during Prohibition started as Club De Luxe at 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem in 1920 and was established by Heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson. It mustn’t have been a very successful venture for him as he sold the business to a well-established gangster Owney Madden in 1923. It was Madden who decided to bring a bit of a plantation vibe to a city, renamed the place The Cotton Club and set the rule of the severe racial segregation: blacks on stage, whites everywhere else. While the club featured many of the greatest African American entertainers of the era, such as Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, The Nicholas Brothers, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, and Ethel Waters, it generally denied admission to blacks. During its heyday, it served as a chic meeting spot in the heart of Harlem, featuring regular "Celebrity Nights" on Sundays, at which celebrities such as Jimmy Durante, George Gershwin, Al Jolson, Mae West, Irving Berlin, Eddie Cantor, Moss Hart, New York mayor Jimmy Walker and other luminaries would appear.
The club reproduced the racist imagery of the times, often depicting blacks as savages in exotic jungles or as "darkies" in the plantation South. 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 twenty-one years of age. Ellington was expected to write "jungle music" for an audience of whites.
Nonetheless, the club also helped launch the careers of Henderson, who led the first band to play there in 1923, and Ellington, whose orchestra was the house band there from 1927 to 1931. The club not only gave Ellington national exposure through radio broadcasts originating there, 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 over 100 compositions during this era, while building the group that he led for nearly fifty years. The club eventually relaxed its policy of excluding black customers slightly in deference to Ellington's request.
Cab Calloway's orchestra brought its Brown Sugar revue to the club in 1930, replacing Ellington's group 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, who 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 closed temporarily several times. Early in it’s history for breaking the law of Prohibition (reopened quickly and with no fuss on the law enforcement side, perhaps due to enormous power of it’s owner, who was always short with time on his rather brief vacations from Sing-Sing) and in 1936 after the race riot in Harlem the previous year. Club reopened later that year at Broadway and 48th Street. 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.
It was re-born in 1978 in Harlem. Although the Cotton Club fell on hard times for a number of years and is no longer at its original location, it’s alive and swinging again during the new Harlem Renaissance. This historic spot still exudes Old-World glamour. Frequent blues and jazz shows, including buffet dinners, are offered as well as weekend gospel brunches. Despite its having seen the likes of Duke Ellington and other famous African-American entertainers, the dim locale's modest stage and dance floor huddle in the corner, surrounded by crowds of tables. The Cotton Club All-Stars, a house band comprised of a gospel quartet, seven-piece jazz ensemble and 13-string swing group is something you cannot miss.