Sample material is taken from uncorrected proofs. Changes may
be made prior to publication.)
cabaret is perhaps the most fabled intersection of the jazz age
and the Harlem Renaissance, and no cabaret was more fabled than
the Cotton Clubthe "aristocrat of Harlemat the
northeast corner of Lenox Avenue and 142 Street: Between its opening
in September 1923 and its relocation downtown in February 1936,
the Cotton Club would boost the early careers of Edith Wilson,
Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Aida Ward, Adelaide Hall,
Earl "Snakehips" Tucker, Mantan Moreland, Ethel Waters,
Lena Horne, the Nicholas Brothers, and the bands of Duke Ellington
(in 1927-1931 and 1933), Cab Calloway (in 1930-1933), and Jimmie
Lunceford (in 1934-1936). As famous for its exclusionary racial
policies as for its fast-stepping revues, the Cotton Club embodied
many of the contradictions of the popular Harlem Renaissance;
its cultural meaning was shaped by the combined forces of Prohibition
economics, postwar trends in musical theater, black performance
traditions and innovations, white patronage, and the mass media.
Casinoa large, underused dance hall space resting atop a
movie househad been built at 644 Lenox Avenue in 1918. It
was sold in 1920 to the former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson,
refurbished as an intimate supper club seating 400, and renamed
the Club Deluxe. In 1923, the struggling club was resold to Manhattan's
most powerful underworld figure, Owen "Owney" Madden,
who was then in prison, having been convicted of manslaughter.
Madden had made his fortune on sales of "Madden's No. 1"
beer during the national experiment with enforced sobriety; he
also owned a number of other nightclubs in Manhattan, including
the Stork Club and the Silver Slipper. Initially, most of the
personnel of the Cotton Clubincluding cooks, waiters, busboys,
the management, and entertainerswere imported from Chicago.
George "Big Frenchy" DeMange managed the club while
Walter Brooks, who had brought Shuffle Along to Broadway
in 1921, served as front. Lew Leslie produced the first floor
shows; and Andy Preer's Missourians, renamed the Cotton Club Syncopators,
provided music. Madden himself rarely visited the newly baptized
Cotton Club, and although federal authorities padlocked the club's
doors for three months in 1925 for forty-four violations of the
Volstead Act, he faced little trouble from the police before his
voluntary return to Sing Sing and semiretirement in July 1932.
little expense in creating an exclusive, titillating uptown destination
for a well-heeled downtown crowd. The club was renovated to fit
700, with seating surrounding the dance and show floor that extended
from the horseshoe-shaped stage. Joseph Urban, Florenz Ziegfeld's
celebrated set and costume designer, redeigned the interior in
what Singer describes as "a brazen riot of African jungle
motifs, Southern stereotypology, and lurid eroticism" (1992,
100). The gangsters themselves were an attraction; DeMange was
expected to be present and visible. Admission to the club cost
$2.50 and, except for Madden's beer, drinks were expensive. Strict
decorum and studied elegance were expected of both staff and customers.
Shows (generally three per night) were scheduled to allow performers
at other locations to drop in after work; Sunday night became
"Celebrity Night," with everyone from Jimmy Durante
to New York's mayor Jimmy Walker asked to take a bow and perhaps
do a number. New floor shows opened twice each year and were budgeted
to rival Ziegfeld's Follies (indeed, somesuch as
Lew Leslie's long-running Blackbirds of 1928would
eventually find their way to Broadway). Following the closing
in 1925, Harry Block replaced Brooks as front, Herman Stark began
a fifteen-year run as stage manager, Dan Healey replaced Leslie
as floor-show producer, and Jimmy McHugh composed the music (McHugh
was joined in 1927 by the lyricist Dorothy Fields). Healey established
the formula: a top-billed singer or comedian; specialty acts in
eccentric dances and "adult" songs; a chorus line attired
in elaborate, or elaborately brief, costumes; and behind it all
top-notch jazzparticularly once Duke Ellington's Washingtonians
became the house band in December 1927 (some commentators remember
it as an offer the band couldn't refuse). At the Cotton Club,
where he had to write not only dance tunes, but also overtures,
transitions, accompaniments, and "jungle" effects, Ellington
developed much of his distinctive orchestral composition style.
A key innovation
in creating the Cotton Club's exclusive atmosphere was Madden's
seemingly paradoxical introduction of a strict color line into
the heart of Harlem. In establishing a whites-only policy regarding
customers, Madden was following the practice at Connie's Inn,
a rival Harlem club favored by moneyed whites. At the Cotton Club,
the concept was extended to the division of labor, creating a
strict divide between the whites who ran the club and produced,
wrote, and choreographed its shows, and the blacks who cooked,
waited and bussed tables, and entertained. Women in the chorus
line faced their own color bar; they were essentially conceived
as part of the club's decor, and they were expected to be "tall,
tan, and terrific": at least 5 feet 6 inches, no darker than
a light olive tone, and under twenty-one. Then in 1927 the Columbia
Broadcasting System, one of the emerging radio networks, began
to broadcast from the Cotton Club. By 1930, half-hour programs
might be broadcast over several stations and networks five or
six nights a week, giving bandleaders a chance to build a national-
and mixed- audience and greatly increasing their opportunities
to tour and record. In deference to Ellington's new clout and
his expressed regret that friends and family of the performers
were unable to see them play, the club relaxed its whites-only
policy for customers, at least for light-skinned celebrities willing
to sit near the kitchen.
Cotton Club experienced a number of changes in the early 1930s,
the Depression had trouble catching up with it. For the revue
of spring 1930, Brown SugarSweet but Unrefined, Cab
Calloway's orchestra replaced Ellington's, and the composer Harold
Arlen and the lyricist Ted Koehler replaced McHugh and Fields,
who were then (like Ellington) leaving for Hollywood. However,
the repeal of Prohibition and the increasingly visible poverty
of Harlem eventually created insurmountable problems for many
mob-run uptown clubs. The Cotton Club pulled up stakes after the
close of its show for spring 1936 and reopened in September at
200 West 48 Street and Broadway, the former site of the Palais
Royale and the future site of the Latin Quarter. After four years
of high midtown rents, the rising cost of mounting elaborate floor
shows, changing tastes in jazz, and renewed federal attention
to income tax evasion among New York's nightclubs, the Cotton
Club closed its doors permanently on 10 June 1940.
Blackbirds; Fields, Dorothy; Harlem: 3- Entertainment; Johnson,
John Arthur "Jack"; Leslie, Lew; Madden, Owen Vincent;
Nightclubs; Nightlife; Organized Crime; specific entertainers
Burns, Ken, dir. "Our Language." In Jazz. PBS
Home Video, 2000, Episode 3.
Cab, and Bryant Rollins. Of Minnie the Moocher and Me.
New York: Crowell, 1976.
Duke. Music Is My Mistress. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday,
1973; New York: Da Capo, 1988.
Jim. The Cotton Club. New York: Random House, 1977.
Edward. Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington.
London and New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.
Black and Blue: The Life and Lyrics of Andy Razaf. New
York and London: SchirmerSimon and Schuster Macmillan, 1992.
ed. The Duke Ellington Reader. Oxford and New York: Oxford
University Press, 1993.
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