Have you ever heard that old Righteous Brothers song that says, “If there’s a rock and roll heaven, you know they’ve got a hell of a band”? Well if there’s a jazz and swing heaven, and if that heaven ever once existed on earth, and if that heaven was actually an incredibly ironic monument to racial discrimination, than the Cotton Club in the 1920’s and 30’s would be it.
Originally called Club De Luxe, the Harlem venue located at 142nd and Lenox Ave. was renamed the Cotton Club when Owney Madden, a famous New York gangster and bootlegger, took it over in 1923 (while imprisoned in Sing Sing, nonetheless). Drawing largely on the exploding jazz and swing scene as well as the nearly infinite talent pool of artists, actors, and musicians creating a little revolution called the Harlem Rennaisance just down the block, Madden created a Depression-proof sensation by showcasing the country’s most talented and influential black artists firmly within the context of contemporary racial prejudices.
Aside from the not-so-subtle name of the place, the Cotton Club capitalized on their white-only audience’s fascination with blacks as foreign “others.” The deep, booming drum beats and ecstatic rhythms that characterized swing styles like the Lindy Hop and the Balboa took on a whole new meaning when housed in Madden’s “exotic” revues. Duke Ellington, who was the Cotton Club’s house orchestra leader from 1927 – 1931 (succeeded by Cab Calloway), was told to write “jungle music” for white patrons.
Therein lies one of the many complicated relationships between the Club and its black musicians–while Madden’s expectations were undeniably demeaning to Ellington, with no regard for his capabilities or vision as an artist, the openness to exotic music coupled with hundreds of national radio broadcasts allowed Ellington the freedom to experiment orchestrally and the media exposure to solidify his career as one of the most important musicians of the 20th century. Eventually, his popularity was so great that it gave him enough influence to make the Club relax its whites-only policy, if only slightly.
Here’s a short list of Cotton Club headliners: Ella Fitzgerald, Louie Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Bessie Smith, Dizzy Gillespie, Nat King Cole, Fats Waller, Ethel Waters, Adelaide Hall.
Oh, and a 16-year-old chorus dancer named Lena Horne.
I’m fascinated by the Cotton Club, both for the sheer number of musical legends that have performed on its stage, and for the tragedy that such an institution could exist in the middle of Harlem while people like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston were practically two doors down paving the way for every civil rights advancement that’s happened in America since.
I think the best way I could wrap this post up is with a really cool video I found of Langston Hughes’ poem “Weary Blues” set to jazz music and footage of various jazz performances from the 1920’s, including Mr. Calloway.
Hope your weekend is the bee’s knees, everyone!