There are two sides to every story, including that of the legendary Cotton Club in Harlem

Bestinau got that-

This compilation offers an aural glimpse of what live music sounded like at the Cotton Club back then…although I certainly cringed when I heard Duke Ellington was introduced as ‘the greatest living master of jungle music’.

The tracklist of Jazz Essential can be found here.

The Cotton Club opened in December 1923, after prominent British bootlegger Owney Madden took over from boxer Jack Johnson, who opened the space as Club DeLuxe in 1920.

Streamer service for jazz and classical music Vialma has more:

[Madden] had his sights set on using the club to bring Harlem’s thriving music scene to a white-only audience. This experience would be accompanied by “Madden’s Number One” booze, a luxury for New York’s Prohibition-stricken white upper class.

Upon the acquisition, Owney embarked on a rapid rebrand of the Club DeLuxe, which included increasing the capacity from 400 to 700 and installing an all-new backdrop built around the exotic plantations and jungles that are supposedly the origins of the neighborhood’s blacks. Harlem in New York. York. The staff was hired and dressed to serve this offensively inaccurate aesthetic, with a dark-skinned waiting team in smart red tuxedos and a young, light-skinned troupe of tall dancers in skimpy showtopping attire. His last stroke before opening the club was to call it the Cotton Club, after the light brown color of raw cotton.

Langston Hughes was a “rare” black patron who was allowed into the club. As the African American Registry notes, he made it clear in his autobiography: The Great Seathat he wasn’t a fan.

After his visit, Hughes criticized the club’s segregated atmosphere, noting that it was “a Jim Crow club for gangsters and white people.” In addition to the “jungle music” and plantation-themed interiors, Hughes believed that Madden’s idea of ​​”authentic black entertainment” was similar to zoo entertainment and that white “strangers were given the best front-tier tables to sit and stare at the Negro patrons—as funny animals in a zoo.” Hughes also believed that the Cotton Club was negatively impacting the Harlem community. The club brought an “influx of whites to Harlem after sunset, flooding the small cabarets and bars where previously only people of color laughed and sang.” Hughes also mentioned how many of the neighboring cabarets, especially black cabarets, were forced to close because of competition from the Cotton Club. These smaller clubs didn’t have a big floor or music from famous entertainers like Ellington.

In addition, Hughes wrote that black people in Harlem “didn’t like the Cotton Club.”

[N]The strangers got the best tables at the ringside to stare at the Negro customers – like funny animals in a zoo.

The niggers said, “We can’t go downtown and stare at you in your clubs. You won’t even let us in your clubs.” But they didn’t say it out loud, because Negroes are practically never rude to whites. So night after night thousands of whites came to Harlem, thinking the negroes liked them there, and firmly convinced that all the Harlemites left their homes at sunset to sing and dance in cabarets, because most whites saw nothing but the cabarets, not the houses.”

Hughes also noted that some Black-owned clubs made the “serious mistake” of pursuing the Cotton Club’s segregation policy — at their own peril.

Claudia Roth Pierpont, Prescribing About Duke Ellington The New Yorker in 2010, mince no words.

More than half a century after the Civil War, New York’s most famous nightclub was a fake plantation. The bandstand was decorated like a mansion with white columns, the background painted with cotton bushes and slave quarters. And the racial fantasy stretched far beyond the decor: Whites who came to Harlem to be entertained were not to be discouraged by the presence of unentertaining Negroes. All the performers were black—or, in the case of the chorus girls, café au lait—and all the patrons were white, if not by law, then by the violence of the crooks at the door. Ellington had to ask permission from friends to see his show. Ironically, it was the Cotton Club that allowed Ellington to expand his talents, hiring him to arrange and compose for a variety of dancers, singers, various acts, entr’actes and theatrical revues.

These two movie clips – which I believe are from a season four episode of… American experience titled “Duke Ellington: Reminiscing in Tempo” – set the tone at the Cotton Club when Duke Ellington’s band was hired.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar also took a scathing look at the history of the Cotton Club in his book, On the Shoulder of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance, cited here in an NPR review.

The Cotton Club was part of a bizarre Harlem tradition that included other chic clubs like Connie’s Inn and Small’s Paradise. These clubs, while operating in the heart of Black Harlem, catered exclusively to white clientele. Yet in their shows and decor, they still promoted an idealized but completely inaccurate black lifestyle, similar to those in minstrel shows. Threatening bouncers were stationed at the doors to ensure no black faces were allowed into the establishments, which were located in the same blocks where these black men and women lived. Eleven such segregated clubs were listed in Varietybut the most famous and popular of the group was the Cotton Club, the biggest, fanciest, most expensive, with the most extravagant shows.


Duke Ellington and his orchestra were the house band from 1927 to 1931 and again in 1933. Between 1931 and 1933, Cab Calloway took over as bandleader.

Other clubs in Harlem that tried to compete with the Cotton Club were sometimes met with violence. The Plantation Club tried to imitate the Cotton Club’s style and location by renting Cab Calloway and his orchestra away from the Cotton Club. Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher” routine was famous and a major attraction. Cotton Club owner Madden wasn’t happy, so he sent some of his men to the Plantation Club to break up the business. They smashed tables and chairs, shattered glasses and dragged the bar to the curb. Calloway returned to the Cotton Club.

Here’s that famous Calloway routine:

The 1985 BBC documentary, The Cotton Club recalled, does not focus on racial segregation in the club, although at one point the Nicholas Brothers disagreed with Cab Calloway over whether black clients were allowed.

The Cotton Club, of course, was far from the only club in Harlem.


It was very different in the Savoy Ballroom, which was integrated.

If I could take a time machine back to Harlem, I’d be in the Savoy, not the Cotton Club—even if it wasn’t segregated.

Harlem offered many more places to go — just take a look at this 1932 Harlem nightclub map (view a larger version at the Library of Congress).

Join me in the comments section below for even more music from the Harlem Renaissance period, and feel free to post your favorites from the era.

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