Cotton Club

views updated

Cotton Club

The Cotton Club, at Lenox Avenue and West 142nd Street in Harlem, first opened in 1920 as the Club Deluxe but took on new ownership and its permanent name in 1922. Owney Madden, who bought the club from heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, intended the name Cotton Club to appeal to whites, the only clientele permitted until 1928. The club made its name by featuring top-level black performers and an upscale, downtown audience. It soon became a leading attraction for white tourists from high society who wanted to see the much publicized, risqué Harlem cultural life.

Following the death in 1927 of Andy Preer, leader of the house band, the Cotton Club Syncopators, Duke Ellington and his orchestra were brought in as replacements and began a four-year rise to prominence on the Cotton Club's stage. Soon after Ellington took over as bandleader, the Cotton Club Orchestra began to be broadcast nightly over a national radio network.

Responding to local protests, the club's management opened its doors to black patrons for the first time in the winter of 1928. Nonetheless, prices were kept prohibitively high and the club's audience remained virtually all white. The nightly revues, which were generally more popular than the orchestra, featured scantily clad, light-skinned women dancing to Ellington's "jungle music."

In 1931 Ellington and his orchestra left the club and were replaced by Cab Calloway's Missourians. Calloway, like Ellington, established himself as a major figure in mainstream jazz during his Cotton Club years. Calloway's Missourians remained the house band until 1934, when they were replaced by Jimmie Lunceford's acclaimed swing band. Most of the renowned jazz performers of the period appeared at the Cotton Club, including Louis Armstrong, Ethel Waters, and dancers Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers.

Following riots in Harlem in 1935, the club was forced to close due to a widespread perception among whites that the area was unsafe. It reopened downtown in

1936, at 200 West 48th Street, where it remained until its final closing in 1940.

See also Calloway, Cab; Ellington, Duke; Harlem Renaissance; Jazz; Robinson, Bill "Bojangles" (Robinson, Luther)


Charters, Samuel Barclay, and Leonard Kunstadt. Jazz: A History of the New York Scene (1962). New York: Da Capo, 1981.

Schuller, Gunther. The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 19301945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

thaddeus russell (1996)