I heard about the Cotton Club long before I moved to Harlem. It was one of the places I knew I wanted to see. But the Cotton Club I saw was not the one of legend.
The old club was located at 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue, the site of the Club De Luxe, which was owned by the black boxing champion, Jack Johnson. Owney Madden, a well-known mobster and bootlegger, bought the Club De Luxe in 1923 and renamed it the Cotton Club, an interesting name given the kind of clientele the establishment would serve.
Beginning in 1910, Harlem was part of a larger movement, a time of ideas, books, culture, art, entertainment, sports, politics and business that presented a new Negro, one that had not been seen before in America. But in this flowering of black creativity and innovation, this New Negro was still segregated.
It was also the era of Prohibition (1920-33), which turned Harlem’s clubs into speakeasies, establishments that defied the ban on the sale of alcohol, making Harlem the place to go for jazz and other nighttime entertainment.
Although the Cotton Club was a whites only establishment, it hired most of the black entertainers of the day, Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday and others. It created a playground where all the negative stereotypes of blacks were played out – blacks were the entertainment.
Its “Celebrity Nights” brought celebrities of the day like Mae West, George Gershwin, Jimmy Durante and New York mayor, Jimmy Walker uptown. Yes, the Cotton Club was the place where the well-heeled met and were entertained. It made the Cotton Club the most well-known and expensive club in Harlem.
This is how Langston Hughes describes the Cotton Club in The Big Sea:
White people began to come to Harlem in droves. For several years they packed the expensive Cotton Club on Lenox Avenue. But I was never there, because the Cotton Club was a Jim Crow club for gangsters and monied whites. They were not cordial to Negro patronage, unless you were a celebrity like Bojangles. So Harlem Negroes did not like the Cotton Club and never appreciated its Jim Crow policy in the very heart of their dark community. Nor did ordinary Negroes like the growing influx of whites toward Harlem after sundown, flooding the little cabarets and bars where formerly only colored people laughed and sang, and where now the strangers were given the best ringside tables to sit and stare at the Negro customers–like amusing animals in a zoo.
By the time I moved to Harlem, the Cotton Club of the 1920s had been been out of existence for many years. The original club moved downtown in 1936 after Prohibition ended and the original site was razed in 1958 to make way for the Savoy Houses.
It re-opened in 1978 at its present location with Cab Calloway, one of its old bandleaders in attendance. Today, the new Cotton Club draws people from around the world to Monday night Swing Dances, jazz, blues and gospel shows and weekend brunches.
The Cotton Club, 656 West 125th Street, 212-663-7980.