The Cotton Club

views updated

The Cotton Club

Founded by the British-born gangster Owney Madden, the Cotton Club nightclub opened its doors on December 4, 1923, at a time when the black cultural revival known as the Harlem Renaissance was going into full swing. The club provided entertainment for white New Yorkers who wanted to go to Harlem but were afraid of its more dangerous aspects. The Cotton Club has never been surpassed as Harlem's most outrageous club and its lavish entertainment is still a matter of awe even in this day of Las Vegas excess. The Cotton Club presented the best in black entertainment to an exclusively white audience and became famous for its use of light skinned, or "cotton colored," black women in its chorus line.

Madden opened the club to provide an outlet for his bootleg beer. The club floor was in a horseshoe shape, designed by Joseph Urban. It was decorated with palm trees and other jungle elements. There were two tiers of tables and a ring of banquettes. The menu offered not only Southern food but also elaborate European specialties. Prices were the highest in Harlem but the food was not particularly memorable. The entertainment, however, was spectacular. Black waiters provided an elegant setting with their sophisticated demeanor, a contrast to the whirling servers in neighboring clubs. These waiters also informed patrons that it was not fashionable to put their bottles of beer on the floor. Rather they were instructed to place them in their pockets. Failure to comply led to ejection.

Cotton Club entertainment, or floor shows, lasted as long as two hours. There was a featured act and the gorgeous Cotton Club chorus line. The girls were beautiful and uniformly light skinned; they were also young—under 21—and tall—five-foot six inches or more. Cab Calloway's songs "She's Tall, She's Tan and She's Terrific" and "Cotton Colored Gal of Mine" are apt reflections of the girls in the

line. The shows were fast-paced and featured the greatest black entertainment possible. Ethel Waters, Adelaide Hall, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and others performed there.

The Cotton Club was part of the area of Harlem known as "Jungle Alley." This strip, located on 133rd Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenues, was densely packed with clubs. The Cotton Club was one of eleven clubs in the area, most of which served a white trade. The Cotton Club, Connie's Inn, and Small's Paradise were the most renowned.

The color line was strictly enforced at the Cotton Club, and performers and audience were kept separate. White mobsters owned the club, its shows were written by whites (Dorothy Fields was a major contributor), and the audience was all white. Black performers often went next door to drink or smoke marijuana. The only African Americans officially allowed in the Cotton Club were its outstanding performers. On December 4, 1927, Duke Ellington began his run at the Cotton Club, one of the more important engagements in jazz history. The run lasted into 1932, with breaks for movies and tours allowed. In addition to playing his music regularly, writing for the shows, and providing a basic income to keep his men together, the gig provided Ellington with a large radio audience who came to know his music. At this time, Ellington developed what he termed his "jungle sound," a use of various tonal colors that he associated with Africa, a constant theme in his ever-evolving music. He debuted "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" and "Mood Indigo" to Cotton Club audiences.

The Cotton Club of the late 1920s and 1930s helped to define the emergence of African-American culture in the period, coinciding as it did with the Marcus Garvey movement, W. E. B. DuBois's Pan African Movement, and the flowering of African American literature known as the Harlem Renaissance. The Cotton Club of this era has since been memorialized in E. L. Doctorow's historical novel Billy Bathgate (1989) and in the Francis Ford Coppola movie The Cotton Club (1984).

—Frank A. Salamone

Further Reading:

Haskins, Jim. The Cotton Club. New York, New American Library, 1977.

Kennedy, William, and Francis Ford Coppola. The Cotton Club (screenplay). New York, St. Martins's Press, 1986.

Mayer, Clarence. The Cotton Club: New Poems. Detroit, Broadside Press, 1972.