The Cotton Club was a New York City night club located first in the Harlem neighborhood on 142nd St & Lenox Ave from 1923 to 1935 and then for a brief period from 1936 to 1940 in the midtown Theater District. The club operated most notably during America’s Prohibition Era.

The club was a whites-only establishment even though it featured many of the best black entertainers of the era including: musicians Cab Calloway, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Fats Waller, vocalists Adelaide Hall, Ethel Waters, Avon Long, the Dandridge Sisters, the Will Vodery Choir, Berry Brothers, Nina Mae McKinney, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, and dancers Bill Robinson, The Nicholas Brothers, Stepin Fetchit, and Earl Snakehips Tucker.

During its heyday, the Cotton Club served as a hip meeting spot featuring regular “Celebrity Nights” on Sundays, which featured guests such as Jimmy Durante, George Gershwin, Sophie Tucker, Paul Robeson, Al Jolson, Mae West, Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin,Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice, Langston Hughes, Judy Garland, Moss Hart, and Mayor Jimmy Walker among others.

The cruise ship MSC Opera has a lounge called “Cotton Club” and bears the same logo as the original New York night club.

The Harlem years

Cotton Club on 125th Street in New York City, December 2013.
Cotton Club on 125th Street in New York City, December 2013.

Shows at the Cotton Club were musical revues and several went under the heading of Cotton Club Parade and would have the year they were being presented added to the title. The revues featured dancers, singers, comedians and variety acts, as well as a house band. These revues helped launch the careers of many artists including Fletcher Henderson who led the first house band to play there in 1923. It also helped push Duke Ellington’s career, whose orchestra was the house band there from December 4, 1927 to June 30, 1931. In 1927, the first revue that Duke Ellington took over as house band was called ‘Rhythmania’ and featured Adelaide Hall, who had just recorded several songs with Ellington including Creole Love Call. Their recording of Creole Love Call became a worldwide hit. The club not only gave Ellington national exposure through radio broadcasts originating there (first through WHN, then over WEAF and after September 1929 through the NBC Red Network – WEAF was the flagship station for that network – on Fridays), but enabled him to develop his repertoire while composing not only the dance tunes for the shows, but also the overtures, transitions, accompaniments, and “jungle” effects that gave him the freedom to experiment with orchestral colours and arrangements that touring bands rarely had. Ellington recorded over 100 compositions during this era. Eventually, in deference to a request by Ellington, the club slightly relaxed its policy of excluding black customers.

Cab Calloway’s orchestra brought its Brown Sugar revue to the club in 1930, replacing Ellington’s orchestra after its departure in 1931; Jimmie Lunceford’s band replaced Calloway’s in 1934, while Ellington, Armstrong, and Calloway returned to perform at the club in later years.The club was also the first show business opportunity for Lena Horne, who began there as a chorus girl at the age of sixteen. Dorothy Dandridge performed there while still one of The Dandridge Sisters, while Coleman Hawkins and Don Redman played there as part of Henderson’s band. Tap dancers Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Sammy Davis Jr. (as part of the Will Mastin Trio), and the Nicholas Brothers starred there as well.

The club also drew from white popular culture of the day. Walter Brooks, who had produced the successful Broadway show Shuffle Along, was the nominal owner. Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh, one of the most prominent songwriting teams of the era, and Harold Arlen provided the songs for the revues, one of which, Blackbirds of 1928, starring Adelaide Hall featured the songs I Can’t Give You Anything But Love and Diga Diga Doo, produced by Lew Leslie on Broadway.

In 1934, Adelaide Hall starred at the Cotton Club in Cotton Club Parade 1934, the biggest grossing show that ever appeared at the club. The show opened on 11 March and ran for eight months, attracting over 600,000 paying customers. The score was written byHarold Arlen and Ted Koehler and featured the classic song Ill Wind. During Hall’s performance of Ill Wind, to add authenticity to the production, a dry ice machine was used on stage to create a fog effect. It was the first time such equipment had been used on a stage. Featured on the bill was the 16-year-old Lena Horne.

The Midtown years

The club was closed temporarily in 1936 after the race riot in Harlem the previous year. Photographer Carl Van Vechten vowed to boycott the club for having such racist policies in place. The Cotton Club reopened later that year at Broadway and 48th.  The site chosen for the new Cotton Club was ideal. It was a big room on the top floor of a building on Broadway and Forty-eight Street, where Broadway and Seventh Avenue meet – an important midtown crossroads, and in the heart of the Great White Way, the BroadwayTheater District. While Herman Stark and the club’s owners were quite certain the club would do well in its new location, they realized that depended on a smash-hit opening show. In fact a 1937 New York Times article writes, “The Cotton Club has climbed aboard the Broadway bandwagon, with a show that is calculated to give the customers their money’s worth of sound and color – and it does”. The most lavish revue in the Cotton Club’s thirteen-year history opened on Broadway on September 24, 1936. Robinson and Calloway headed a roster of some 130 other performers. Stark agreed to pay tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson $3,500 a week, the highest salary ever paid to a black entertainer in a Broadway production, and more money than had ever been received by any individual for a night club performance.

It closed for good in 1940, under pressure from higher rents, changing tastes and a federal investigation into tax evasion by Manhattan nightclub owners. The Latin Quarter nightclub opened in its space and the building was torn down in 1989 to make way for a hotel. All in all, the Broadway Cotton Club was a highly successful blend of old and new. The site may have been new, the décor may have been slightly different, but once a patron entered and was comfortably seated, he knew he was in a familiar place.

Other branches

Jazz writer James Haskins wrote in 1977, “Today, there is a new incarnation of the Cotton Club which sits on the most western end of the 125th Street under the massive Manhattanville viaduct. The windowless block of a building has a less dramatic display out front but seems to be popular with tourists for Sunday jazz brunches.”

A Chicago branch of the Cotton Club was run by Ralph Capone and a West Coast branch of the Cotton Club existed in Culver City, California in the late 1920s and early 1930s, featuring performers from the original Cotton Club such as Armstrong, Calloway and Ellington.

Please join Artistic Director/Conductor Clint Ashlock & The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra for our 2015/’16 Concert Series, as we take you on a  Swingin’ Musical Journey!  To ensure you have the very best seats available, and to enjoy the best big band swing music in the land, please take a moment to renew or purchase your season tickets!

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KC Studio covers the performing, visual, cinematic and literary arts, and the artists, organizations and patrons that make Kansas City a vibrant center for arts and culture.

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