Black History Month is the perfect time to acknowledge an iconic venue that provided prestige, high salaries and a prominent outlet for so many of the African American entertainers we’ve written about.
The Cotton Club began as Club Deluxe in 1920, a smaller scale supper club started by boxer Jack Johnson at 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem. In 1923, it got an infusion of capital and an expansion (and a takeover) when bootlegger Owney Madden came in. It was renamed The Cotton Club as an evocation of African Americans’ long cultural association with the crop, first as enslaved people, then as tenant farmers. There was an almost subversive irony to calling the club by that name, given that the performers who worked there were some of the most successful African Americans in the country, people who worked in an arena a thousand times more glamorous, comfortable and pleasant than a cotton field. But perhaps there was an element of cruel mockery to the name as well. As a personal observation, my father grew up in a sharecropping family, and picked cotton in his childhood. I’m not sure how keen he’d be to either celebrate the fact, or to be constantly identified with it. But over time, we seem to have forgotten that aspect of the storied club’s name. Its fame and history have burnished the memory.
The nation’s top Jazz Age African American entertainers were booked at the Cotton Club, and were paid hefty salaries. The legendary talent included Leonard Harper, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Adelaide Hall, Bill Robinson, Count Basie, Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, the Nicholas Brothers, Honi Coles, Fats Waller, Fletcher Henderson, Leonard Reed, Willie Bryant, Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith, the Mills Brothers, the Dandridge Sisters, Nina Mae McKinney, the Berry Brothers, the Four Step Brothers, Jeni LeGon, Earl “Snakehips” Tucker, Billie Holiday, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson (with the Three Black Aces), the Wills Mastin Trio (featuring young Sammy Davis Jr.), Henry “Rubberlegs” Williams, Eddie Rector, and Stepin Fetchit. Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds started at the Cotton Club. The explosion of African American culture that took place there — music, dance, and comedy — happened hand in hand with the Harlem Renaissance. Branches of the club opened in Chicago and Los Angeles.
And yet the Cotton Club’s advent was but a partial triumph for African Americans. It was undeniably a showcase and a showplace for the country’s most brilliant African American performing artists, establishing for all time not just their worth, but their genius. At the same time, for all the perks the performers enjoyed, the Cotton Club undeniably marked but a refinement of the existing culture of white exploitation of blacks. The club was actually segregated. Black audiences, ironically, were not admitted. And this was in the center of Harlem. Whites came to gawk at the spectacle of blacks singing and dancing for their amusement, which was really but a new chapter of something that had gone on since plantation days, when slaves would be called on to sing, play, and dance for their masters. White celebrity clientele like Mayor Jimmy Walker and a whole long list of stage and film stars and other rich and famous people would come to be seen at the club. But the performers couldn’t socialize with them. And the themes of the numbers in the shows, dictated by the management, were often cartoonish, jungle-type displays not precisely conducive to generating an impression of equality between the two races. The power and status was all in the audience. Ultimately, though, the art and the artists lived on in film and on records, and the legacy of the club, the artistic legacy became a shared source of pride, even if the circumstances that went into its creation were hardly fair or balanced.
In 1935 there was a race riot in Harlem in which three people died, hundreds of others were wounded, and $2 million worth of damage was done to local property. This had an unfortunate chilling effect on audiences heading uptown. The following year, the Cotton Club moved down to the Theater District, Broadway and 48th, right in the heart of Times Square, where it remained open until 1940. Changing tastes and rising expenses caused it to eventually fold after two decades of storied success.
A reincarnation of the Cotton Club opened on 125th Street in 1977. And of course it was celebrated in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1984 film, which featured several performers who had actually trod the stage at the real Cotton Club a half century earlier. That gesture is one of the best things about the film, for it reminds us that while the Cotton Club has become legendary, it was also once very real.