The Cotton Club: History, Performers & Harlem Renaissance

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  • 0:00 What Is the Cotton Club?
  • 0:21 History of the Cotton Club
  • 2:36 Cotton Club Performers
  • 3:24 Harlem Renaissance
  • 4:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Laura Armstrong

Laura is a freelance musician and has taught college Music courses and holds a D.M.A. in Music Performance.

The Cotton Club was an essential part of the Harlem nightlife in New York City during the 1920s and 1930s. In this lesson, we will discuss the rich history of the club and learn about many famous musicians whose careers were launched there.

What Is the Cotton Club?

Duke Ellington. . . Cab Calloway. . . Ethel Waters. . . Louis Armstrong. . . Lena Horne. Where could you go to hear all of these musicians, and many others, perform live? If you were around in New York City's Harlem neighborhood in the 1920s, the hot-spot was the Cotton Club.

History of the Cotton Club

In 1920, Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion, opened the Club Deluxe on 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue in the center of Harlem. Owney Madden, a white gangster, took over operations in 1923, and renamed the venue the Cotton Club. Madden expanded the former 400-seat nightclub to 700 seats, and updated the decorations to reflect a stylish 'plantation environment' to cater to the upper-class white patrons who came to enjoy the performances of the best jazz musicians of the day. It quickly became the most popular cabaret in Harlem.

The Cotton Club was also an active speakeasy, an illegal drinking spot, during Prohibition and was forced to close several times. Prohibition lasted from 1919 through 1933, and during this time, the manufacturing, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages was illegal. Although the Cotton Club was forced to close for serving alcohol, especially Madden's own blend called 'Madden's Number One,' his political connections enabled him to reopen the club.

Shows at the Cotton Club typically included musical revues with singers, dancers, comedians, variety acts, and a house band. African-American jazz musicians used the notoriety of performing at the Cotton Club to help launch their careers. However, it must be noted that cultural stereotypes were initially forced upon them. The primitive decorations in the club, as well as the music, included elements that created a jungle atmosphere. The African-American employees were forced to act as though they lived on plantations or were savages.

On March 19, 1935, the Harlem Race Riot broke out in Harlem due to police brutality and an extended unemployment crisis. Damage to property from the riot totaled over 200 million dollars; 75 people were arrested, three African-Americans were killed, and over 60 more were injured. The Cotton Club's white patrons felt the neighborhood was unsafe and the nightclub was forced to close. It reopened the end of 1936 in a new location at Broadway and 48th Street, but after failing to regain its former popularity, closed in 1940.

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