NIGHTCLUBS. In the United States and in much of the world, the term "nightclub" denotes an urban entertainment venue, generally featuring music, sometimes a dance floor, and food and drink. With nineteenth-century roots in the European cabaret, the nightclub evolved in the United States in the early twentieth century along with the popular music forms of ragtime and jazz, as well as modern social dance, and an urban nightlife centered on heterosexual dating. Nightclubs eventually incorporated features of turn-of-the-century restaurants (particularly the "lobster palace"), cafes, dance halls, cabarets, and vaudeville theaters. The term "club" became attached to American cafés during Prohibition in the 1920s and the development of so-called private "clubs, " which supposedly deflected scrutiny by liquor law enforcers.
The growth of American nightclubs came in the mid-1920s and through the early Depression years. The popular clubs combined illicit liquor and lively music often available all night. Pre–World War II nightclubs promoted new music, musicians, and dance styles; became a staging ground for interracial contests and observation; and helped foster integration. The dominance of ragtime between 1890 and 1910, the emergence of southern African American blues forms after the turn of the century, and the northward migration of New Orleans jazz marked an immense historical shift in the sources and acknowledged masters of American popular music. Creative white musicians could no longer avoid reckoning with African American musicians.
White-owned cabarets, theatres, and clubs remained segregated into the 1950s. In the 1920s, "slumming" became a popular, somewhat daring pastime among urban whites, who would travel uptown to Harlem after hours for the music, food, and excitement. Many visited large, fancy clubs like Connie's Inn and the Cotton Club, both white, gangster-controlled clubs that featured black musicians playing to white-only audiences. Other whites sought out the smaller African American clubs like Pods and Jerry's Log Cabin, where Billie Holiday began singing. Harlem's club heyday lasted into the 1930s, and then succumbed to violent organized crime and expanding opportunities for black musicians and workers in neighborhoods beyond Harlem. As musical tastes have changed, so have American nightclubs' entertainment rosters. Big bands and swing combos dominated nightclub entertainment in the 1930s and 1940s. In the 1950s, clubs' tendency to specialize was exacerbated with the emergence of bebop, rhythm and blues, and then rock and roll. Las Vegas casinos offered lavish clubs with headliners that might find a loyal following over decades. The male entertainers of the "Rat Pack" (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Peter Lawford) offer just one example of this kind of act. The folk "revival" found a home in certain clubs of San Francisco, Greenwich Village, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the early 1960s. Rock became the dominant, but not the only, popular form of musical entertainment in the later 1960s. Disco music emerged simultaneously with the rapid growth of openly gay nightclubs in the post-Stonewall era of the 1970s, though disco's constituency cut across sexual, racial, and class lines. Hosting disk jockeys and reducing the stage to expand the dance floor attracted club owners looking to maximize their profits. The 1980s and 1990s saw a renewed focus on live entertainment with new as well as older forms of popular music.
Erenberg, Lewis A. Steppin' Out: New York Nightlife and the Transformation of American Culture, 1890–1930. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981.
Ward, Geoffrey C. Jazz: A History of America's Music. New York: Knopf, 2000.