Black History Month celebrates the many important contributions that African Americans have made to science, technology, history, the performing arts, and other areas of society. The theme for this year is “African Americans and the Arts.” One particular club in New York, the Cotton Club, is worth remembering because it served as an important springboard for the careers of many African American performing artists.
What Was the Cotton Club?
The Cotton Club, a prominent nightclub in Harlem, operated from 1920 to 1940. According to Britannica.com, it was initially opened as Club Deluxe in 1920 by Jack Johnson, the renowned first African American heavyweight boxing champion.
In 1922, Owen Madden took ownership and rebranded it as The Cotton Club. The club’s design evoked the ambiance of a Southern plantation.
Madden made significant renovations to the club, expanded it and tailored the club’s service exclusively to white audiences. The period between 1922 and 1935 is often cited as the heyday of The Cotton Club, marking an era when many African American entertainers began their ascent to fame.
Several entertainers contributed to the club’s success:
- Louis Armstrong – A leading trumpeter and one of the most influential artists in jazz history. He played at the Cotton Club during its golden years.
- Ethel Waters – A blues and jazz singer and dramatic actress whose singing, based in the blues tradition, featured her full-bodied voice, wide range, and slow vibrato. She sang at the Cotton Club as a headliner.
- Lena Horne – A singer and actress who first became famous in the 1940s. She started her career as a chorus girl at the Cotton Club.
- Bill (“Bojangles”) Robinson – A dancer of Broadway and Hollywood, best known for his dancing roles with Shirley Temple in films of the 1930s. He performed as a tap dancer at the Cotton Club.
- The Nicholas Brothers – A tap-dancing duo whose suppleness, strength, and fearlessness made them one of the most extraordinary tap dance acts of all time. They got their big break when they were hired at the Cotton Club in 1932.
- Duke Ellington – A pianist who was the greatest jazz composer and bandleader of his time. In late 1927, he became the first black bandleader to have a nationwide reach when the Cotton Club started broadcasting on the radio.
- Cab Calloway – A bandleader, singer, and all-around entertainer known for his exuberant performing style and for leading one of the swing era’s most highly regarded big bands. He became the second house bandleader for the Cotton Club in 1931.
Unfortunately, segregation was a common practice at the Cotton Club. Despite showcasing outstanding African American talent, The Cotton Club maintained a policy that prevented these performers from being patrons of the club. The chorus girls at the club were subject to rigid standards regarding their height, age, and skin color, whereas the criteria for chorus boys were more lenient.
What Happened to the Club?
Following the Harlem Riot of 1935, The Cotton Club relocated to Broadway and 48th Street, but it struggled to replicate its earlier success and closed its doors in 1940. In 1978, an effort was made to revive the club, and its history has been depicted in various films.
The Cotton Club was both a springboard for many artists’ careers and a testament to the challenges of segregation. The artists associated with The Cotton Club paved the way for future generations of African American performers and are an inspiring group to commemorate during Black History Month.