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The golden age of the Cotton Club

Let's talk about the most popular Speakeasy Club in New York City during Prohibition era

It’s with "The Best" of Duke Ellington in the background that I am writing this post. I find it so inspiring as it seems to get me back in time ... in those times that I had not experienced of course, as I am talking about the Roaring Twenties. Duke's mesmerizing arrangement of "Limehouse Blues" is one of my favourite and one of the most renowned masterpiece of Jazz music as it remains in its standard repertory.

The period from the end of the First World War until the start of the Great Depression in 1929 is known as the "Jazz Age". Since 1920, jazz music has become recognized as a major form of musical expression, "one of America's original art forms". The Jazz scene was developing rapidly throughout the United States, though older people considered it immoral. Dances such as the Charleston and the Black Bottom were very popular during that golden age and dancers used to feed their souls to the tune of live performances by jazz bands, typically consisting of seven to twelve musicians. However, this kind of music would not probably gain such popularity and recognition around the globe during the 1920s without the crowded clubs that housed bands playing this musical genre.

Night-clubs became very crowded, representing the music and spirit of the time and being the favourite hangout of celebrities and personalities of the Roaring Twenties. Jazz Bands spread like wildfire as they ride the wave of this new trend and, since these bands were merely composed by black people, they seize the opportunity to redeem themselves from discrimination and whatever form of racism. However, before musicians could reach the grand uptown theaters or the big festival stages, they had to first make it in the clubs.

King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band

King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band from New Orleans was one of the best and most important bands in early Jazz. The Creole Jazz Band was made up of the cream of New Orleans Hot Jazz musicians, with young lion Louis Armstrong on second cornet.

The New Orleans Rhythm Kings

In 1920s they were the finest group to be on record in early jazz scene. This white band has served as proof that, even that early, African-Americans were not the only ones who could play jazz with individuality and integrity.

Call it Jazz Age, the Roaring Twenties or Les Annés Folles … it was the era of progress and economic prosperity. The age of industry development, fast cars, luxury, Art Deco. The years of the Flappers belonging to a lost generation without morals, the age of a crazy finance that led to the 1929 crash … The decade of 1920s marked huge advances in the music industry. It developed pretty fast thanks to the phonograph music records that everybody sitting on their sofas could now listen to. Every band around wished to see their new “hit” on top of charts. Beginning of 1920s, indie record labels like Gennett Records from Indiana and Chicago Paramount were in competition to record best jazz groups of the time. End of 1920s the radio would become the most important medium in the music industry and entertainment, becoming less expensive time after time.

The Wolverine Orchestra

The Wolverine Orchestra, on their first record date, in the Gennett Records recording studio, Richmond, Indiana, February 18, 1924.

Paramount Records poster, 1920s

Edison Radio, 1920s

“What is music to you? What would you be without music? Music is everything. Nature is music (cicadas in the tropical night). The sea is music, the wind is music. The rain drumming on the roof and the storm raging in the sky are music. Music is the oldest entity. The scope of music is immense and infinite. It is the ‘esperanto’ of the world.”

— Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington

January 16, 1919. the Amendment was ratified by 36 of the 48 states needed to become law.

Man cannot talk about the Jazz Age without mentioning Prohibition in the United States. In 1919 US went dry as the Volstead Act became law. No liquors were allowed in bars and distilleries were banned.

The clandestine market of alcohol became a billion dollar business for criminals who started bootlegging and to import it illegally, producing it in their own poor quality distilleries and breweries. A real underground economy was created, with organized crime having the monopoly on liquors trade and smuggling. They sold their illegal liquors to bars and saloons that increased consistently after the prohibition law.

These bars were called “Speakeasy”, as everybody had to speak quietly about such spots in public so that the police would have found out nothing about the existence of clubs serving alcohol.

"Closed", 1920

Prohibition in the 1920s: You better get rid of liquors man!

The entrance to the Harlem Cotton Club in Lenox Avenue, early 1920s

One of the most popular Speakeasy Club in New York City was the Cotton Club located in Lenox Avenue in Harlem NY City, which was also a leading Jazz venue of the 1920s and 1930s.

Nightclubs and dancehalls were often in competition to present the best entertainment: live bands, singers, dancers, floor shows, revues with skits and music for dancing. The Cotton Club, aka “The Aristocrat Of Harlem” was Harlem’s most prominent nightclub during the Jazz Age delivering some of the greatest music legends of Jazz. Located on the second floor of a long, modern apartment building, the Temple of Jazz was an historical landmark for all the lover of this musical genre.

Owney Madden, aka "The Killer" (December 18, 1891 – April 24, 1965) was a leading underworld figure in Manhattan, most notable for his involvement in organized crime during Prohibition. He took over the ownership of the Cotton Club in 1922 and was a leading boxing promoter in the 1930s

The club opened its doors for the first time in 1920 thanks to Jack Johnson, a retired African-American heavyweight boxing champion, under the name of "Club Deluxe." It was in 1922 that famous bootlegger and gangster Owney Madden took over the club and renamed it "Cotton Club" using it as a Speakeasy bar for selling his illegal self-produced liquors. However, it was said the Cotton Club was the most classy, charming and elegant among all the illegal bars that opened at the time. It was addressed to demanding customers, who were high society white people only, though it featured many of the most popular black entertainers of the era such as Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Chick Webb, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Fats Waller, Willie Bryant, Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith, Aida Ward, Avon Long and the Dandridge Sisters to name a few.

In its heyday, the Cotton Club served as a hip meeting spot, with regular "Celebrity Nights" on Sundays that 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, playwright and director Moss Hart, and Mayor Jimmy Walker among others.

A trade sign indicating the entrance of the Cotton Club Speakeasy night club in 1920s. It was originally located at the corner of Lenox Avenue and W. 142nd St. in Harlem. But after the 1935 race riots in Harlem, the area was considered unsafe for whites — who comprised the majority of the Cotton Club’s clientele — and the club was forced to close in February 1936. It reopened in September 1936 downtown on 200 W. 48th St.

Cotton Club Orchestra, Harlem, 1925

Cotton Club orchestra, 1926

Duke Ellington and his Cotton Club Orchestra - The Mooche (1928). Duke Ellington led that band from 1927 to 1930, and sporadically throughout the next eight years. The Cotton Club and Ellington’s Orchestra gained national notoriety through weekly broadcasts on radio station WHN some of which were recorded and released on albums.

Duke Ellington and his Orchestra at the Cotton Club, 1927 ca.

The young and dashing Duke Ellington became a superstar in the years following his Cotton Club residency

In 1927 Dorothy Fields began collaborating with composer Jimmy McHugh on songs for Cotton Club floorshows

Maude Russel and her Ebony Steppers, performing in the 1929 Cotton Club show called ‘Just A Minute’.

Cotton Club Menu (front)

Cotton Club menu, inside

The program of the Cotton Club aka "The Aristocrat of Harlem", 1932.

Live national radio broadcasts from The Cotton Club on both the CBS and NBC networks were enormously popular. Anyone with a radio anywhere in America could tune in to the sophisticated sounds of The Duke Ellington Cotton Club Orchestra broadcasting live for dancing from the fabled nightspot.

The club was forced to close for a short time in 1925 for violating the Prohibition Act, but it reopened soon without any problems keeping on the illegal sale of liquor until 1933, when national Prohibition of alcohol ended.

In 1935, with the appearance of first race riots in Harlem, the area was no longer considered safe for whites and the Cotton Club closed. It reopened in 1936 in Broadway keeping on delivering good jazz music and being one of the most popular hangouts in New York city.

Jimmy Lunceford and His Orchestra in 1934. They were the Cotton Club resident band betwen 1934 and 1937

Cab Calloway on New Year's Eve at The Cotton Club, 1937. Cab Calloway and his orchestra replaced Duke Ellington band after Duke left the club in 1931. They were replaced by Jimmy Lunceford and His Orchestra in 1934 and came back in 1937.

Cotton Club moved to 48th Street in Broadway after the 1935 riots that forced the owners to move from Harlem

Cotton Club in Brodway, 1936

Cotton Club, Broadway, 1936

Louis Armstrong and his Sebastian New Cotton Club Orchestra, 1930s

A map showing the night clubs scene in Harlem in 1932. Among them, of course, the Cotton Club with Cab Calloways Band as resident orchestra

Broadway Cotton Club, 1938

Cotton Club advertisement, 1937

An advertisement for the Nicolas Brothers, for a performance in 1938 at the Broadway Cotton Club.

Cab Calloway and dancers at the Cotton Club in 1937

Singer Lena Horne started out her career in the Cotton Club in 1930s, beginning as chorus line singer and eventually becoming a headlining star in her own right.

Joe DiMaggio dines at the Cotton Club’s new Midtown location after the opening game of the 1937 World Series.

The Dandridge Sisters began their careers singing at the Apollo Teather as well as at the Cotton Club end of 1930s

Before she moved to Paris, where she became a star, Josephine Baker started her career at the Cotton Club for few dollars. Her costume, consisting of only a girdle of bananas, became her most iconic image and a symbol of the jazz age and the 1920s.

The Cotton Club menu in 1938

However, after just 4 years of glory the club closed definitively in 1940, crushed by the cost of rents, the change in music tastes and federal tax evasion. It was the end of an era and even if the Broadway experience served as a career starting point for many artists, the years of the Jazz Age (during the 1920s) remained incomparable.

In the mind of collective consciousness the name of the Cotton Club will always be associated with Harlem, Roaring Twenties, prohibition, Speakeasy clubs, charleston, luxury, flappers and of course … good jazz!


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