There is nothing that can match hearing jazz performed live, in a club; I say that as a longtime collector of recorded music, a jazz radio listener, and a former DJ. I’m not talking about concert venues, where you sit in your seat and applaud politely (or enthusiastically) after each set—though they too have their place in history, as do the big outdoor “jazz festivals.”
Like so many businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic put a serious crimp in attendance at jazz clubs across the country and sadly, some longtime venues have had to close. April is Jazz Appreciation Month in the U.S, and when pondering this installment of Black Music Sunday, I got to thinking about the venues where I’ve done a lot of appreciating jazz myself: the jazz clubs of New York City. The city of my birth was where I first got to experience live jazz, and plays a major role in that history, so it’s our focus this week. But fear not: In Sundays to come, you can expect visits to other cities and their jazz scenes.
The name that inevitably pops up in any conversation about New York’s jazz clubs is the iconic Cotton Club. It’s a venue that featured a who’s who of the jazz elite during the Harlem Renaissance, including Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Chick Webb, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Fats Waller, Ethel Waters, Cab Calloway, Bessie Smith, The Mills Brothers, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Adelaide Hall, and tap dancers like the Nicholas Brothers. And yet the other side of the Cotton Club’s history points to an underbelly of racism and segregation which is often unacknowledged, brushed over, or overshadowed by the luster, fame, and talent of the Black stars who performed there.
This compilation offers an aural glimpse of what live music sounded like in the Cotton Club back then … though I certainly cringed when I heard Duke Ellington introduced as “the greatest living master of jungle music.”
You can find the track list from Jazz Essential here.
The Cotton Club opened in December 1923, after prominent British bootlegger Owney Madden took over the club from boxer Jack Johnson, who opened the space as Club DeLuxe in 1920.
Jazz and classical music streamer service Vialma has more:
[Madden] had his eyes set on using the club to bring the thriving Harlem music scene to a whites-only audience. This experience would be accompanied by ‘Madden’s Number One’ booze, a luxury to the Prohibition-struck upper-class white population of New York.
Upon taking over, Owney set about swiftly rebranding the Club DeLuxe, which included increasing its capacity from 400 to 700 and installing an entirely new décor built around the exotic plantations and jungles which purportedly reflected the origins of the black population of the Harlem neighbourhood of New York. The staff were 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 showstopping attires. His final stroke before the club opened was to rename it the Cotton Club after the light brown colouring of raw cotton.
Langston Hughes was a “rare” Black patron allowed into the club. As the African American Registry notes, he made it clear in his autobiography, The Big Sea, that he was not a fan.
Following his visit, Hughes criticized the club’s segregated atmosphere and commented that it was "a Jim Crow club for gangsters and monied whites". In addition to the "jungle music" and plantation-themed interior, Hughes believed that Madden’s idea of "authentic black entertainment" was similar to the entertainment provided at a zoo and that white "strangers were given the best ringside tables to sit and stare at the Negro customers - like amusing animals in a zoo." Hughes also believed that the Cotton Club negatively affected the Harlem community. The club brought an "influx of whites toward Harlem after sundown, flooding the little cabarets and bars where formerly only colored people laughed and sang." Hughes also mentioned how many of the neighboring cabarets, especially black cabarets, were forced to close due to the competition from the Cotton Club. These smaller clubs did not have a large floor or music by famous entertainers like Ellington.
Additionally, Hughes wrote, Black folks in Harlem “did not like the Cotton Club.”
[N]ow the strangers were given the best ringside tables to sit and stare at the Negro customers--like amusing animals in a zoo.
The Negroes said: "We can't go downtown and sit and stare at you in your clubs. You won't even let us in your clubs." But they didn't say it out loud--for Negroes are practically never rude to white people. So thousands of whites came to Harlem night after night, thinking the Negroes loved to have them there, and firmly believing that all Harlemites left their houses at sundown to sing and dance in cabarets, because most of the whites saw nothing but the cabarets, not the houses.”
Hughes also noted that some Black-owned clubs made the “grievous error” of emulating the Cotton Club’s segregation policies—to their own peril.
Claudia Roth Pierpont, writing about Duke Ellington for The New Yorker in 2010, minced no words.
More than half a century after the Civil War, the most famous night club in New York was a mock plantation. The bandstand was done up as a white-columned mansion, the backdrop painted with cotton bushes and slave quarters. And the racial fantasy extended well beyond décor: whites who came to Harlem to be entertained were not to be discomfited by the presence of non-entertaining Negroes. All the performers were black—or, in the case of the chorus girls, café au lait—and all the patrons white, if not by force of law then by force of the thugs at the door. Ellington had to ask permission for friends to see his show. Ironically, it was the Cotton Club that allowed Ellington to expand his talents, by employing him to arrange and compose for a variety of dancers, singers, miscellaneous acts, entr’actes, and theatrical revues.
These two film clips—which I believe to be from a season four episode of American Experience titled “Duke Ellington: Reminiscing in Tempo”—set the scene at the Cotton Club when Duke Ellington’s band was hired.
Kareem Abdul- Jabbar also took a scathing look at the Cotton Club’s history 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 tradition in Harlem that included other fancy clubs such as Connie's Inn and Small's Paradise. These clubs, though operating in the heart of black Harlem, catered exclusively to white customers. Yet, in their shows and decor they still promoted an idealized but wholly inaccurate black lifestyle similar to those in minstrel shows. Menacing bouncers were stationed at the doors to make sure no black faces were admitted to the establishments, located on the same blocks where these black men and women lived. Eleven such segregated clubs were listed in Variety, but the most famous and popular of the group was the Cotton Club, the largest, fanciest, highest-priced, which featured 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 Harlem clubs trying to compete with the Cotton Club were sometimes met with violence. The Plantation Club tried to imitate the Cotton Club's style and venue by hiring Cab Calloway and his orchestra away from the Cotton Club. Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher" routine was famous and a big attraction. Cotton Club owner Madden was not pleased, so he sent a few of his men over to the Plantation Club to break up the place. They destroyed tables and chairs, shattered glasses, and dragged the bar out to the curb. Calloway returned to the Cotton Club.
Here’s that famous Calloway routine:
The BBC’s 1985 documentary, The Cotton Club Remembered, doesn’t focus on the racial segregation at the club, though at one point, the Nicholas Brothers disagree with Cab Calloway about whether Black customers were allowed.
The Cotton Club, of course, was far from the only club in Harlem.
Things were very different at the Savoy Ballroom, which was integrated.
If I could take a time machine back to Harlem, I’d be at the Savoy, not the Cotton Club—even if it weren’t segregated.
Harlem offered many more places to go—just take a look at this 1932 nightclub map of Harlem (see a larger version at the Library of Congress).
Please 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.