THE COTTON CLUB
“It was a classy spot but there was another part that was degrading.”
The way Jack Johnson, the first black heavy weight champion of the world, tormented his white opponents made him black America’s powerful equalizer in a racist world where white was right, except in his victorious ring.
The champ loved fast cars, women, nightlife and toying with his huge seven-foot bass fiddle. In 1920, Johnson, a native Texan, purchased the Douglas Casino at 644 Lenox Avenue and 142nd Street and renamed it Club Deluxe, creating a supper club seating 400.
He sold the club in 1923 to the infamous mobster Owen “Owney” Madden, who was in prison at the time. However, he spared no expense renovating the newly baptized Cotton Club to seat 700 and redesigning its interior in a stereotypical African and southern motif. Andy Preer’s Missourians, later renamed the Cotton Club Syncopators, provided the music.
In the heart of Harlem, Madden instituted a strict “whites only policy,” as at Connie’s Inn, his Harlem rival. “Tall, tan, and terrific” was the motto for the dancing chorus line, wearing revealing exotic outfits and seen as part of the décor. Admission was a mere $2.50.
Duke Ellington and his Washingtonians became the house band in 1927. During his five-year tenure his orchestral composition style progressed while obliging the owners with dance tunes, accompaniments, transitions and “jungle music.” Ellington stated, “It was a classy spot but there was another part that was degrading and humiliating to both Negroes and whites.” Upon expressing his displeasure with the color policy it was slightly relaxed. Despite the club’s contradiction it advanced the careers of Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, the Nicholas Brothers, Jimmy Lunceford, Cab Calloway, and Ellington, who all benefited from the live-broadcasted national CBS radio shows. The audience was a happy mix of gangsters and celebrities like Jimmy Durante, George Gershwin, Mae West, and New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker.
Federal investigations into uptown mob-run clubs prompted the Cotton Club’s relocation to 200 West 48th Street in 1936. The high midtown rent and rising costs of elaborate floor shows caused the permanent closing on June 10, 1940.
In 1978 John Beatty opened his version of the Cotton Club on 125th Street & 12th Avenue. The club serves as a link to a famous storied past.
—by Ron Scott