It was a popular Harlem night club that featured black performers but was restricted to an all-white clientele, which might seem to be a paradox but was a product of the casual racism of the time. The decor, the costumes – even the name Cotton Club – reflected an attitude that’s disquieting to us now, but was considered perfectly acceptable in the 1920s and 1930s. Even the decoration — a jungle motif — was in keeping with the feeling that early jazz, especially that performed by black musicians, was “jungle music”. The club also dictated the look of the scantily-clad girls in the chorus, who were required to meet certain qualifications; they had to be tall, attractive, and under 21, but most important, light-skinned — in the slang of the era, a “tan”. But aside from all that, for years the Cotton Club was the home – or at least the starting place – for countless talented musicians.
I’m not old enough enough to remember it, and I doubt that there are many who do since it’s heyday was 70 to 80 years ago, but I remember hearing about it and reading about it, and have always found the subject fascinating. (Along with the Savoy Ballroom, which I covered in an earlier article.) But even more important than its history, I’ve always enjoyed listening to the music that was performed at the Cotton Club – and later efforts by those same musicians – and the music is what lives on. (In a sense, the club has found new life too, since a modern version was opened in NYC a number of years ago.)
The history of the club was given the Hollywood treatment as part of a big-budget film around 20 years ago, and although I always thought that somewhere in that mess was a good movie, it was critically panned and ended up bombing at the box office. However, there were moments that did manage to convey some of the look and feel of the real thing, and the music was pretty well done. I’m not sure if Richard Gere was the right choice for the fictional main character, who was rumored to be a composite of George Raft and Bix Beiderbecke, but I thought Bob Hoskins did a good job as Owney Madden, the Irish-born gangster and bootlegger who owned the club.
Madden was a real person and was probably more unsavory than he was portrayed in the movie. There’s little doubt that when he took over boxer Jack Johnson’s original Club Deluxe, he used whatever means were necessary. He turned it into the Cotton Club, and with his direct conduit to crooked politicians it flourished even during prohibition, and additionally its patrons served as consumers of the products of his bootlegging operation. The club’s shadowy reputation might have even added to its appeal because it became the place to be – and be seen – for rich society folks and celebrities alike. These included such regulars as Jimmy Durante, Mae West, George Gershwin, Al Jolson, Irving Berlin, and New York mayor Jimmy Walker.
The music was always first class, even in the early days, but it got better around 1927 when Edward “Duke” Ellington and his group signed on as the regular house band, a job that lasted for several years. Many other bands appeared there too though, including those of Count Basie, Fletcher Henderson, and Cab Calloway, who was probably second only to Ellington in the Cotton Club’s history. His performance of “Minnie The Moocher” is probably his best known, but I always enjoyed “Jumpin Jive” because it features longer stretches of the band’s music, but it still has plenty of Cab’s singing — after all, that was his trademark.
Another fine orchestra that gets too little attention from modern jazz fans is that of Jimmie Lunceford, who brought his group into the club in the early 1930s and made a big splash with crowds, but unfortunately didn’t have the opportunity to make a long-term impact on the jazz world. He did continue his band for another decade, but was famously tight with a dollar and continually lost his best musicians to other bands, and unexpectedly collapsed and died in 1947.
One of my favorite performances from his Cotton Club days is his version of “Black And Tan Fantasy”, which to me perfectly evokes the sense of the club. Close your eyes as you listen and you can almost imagine being there. The tune was of course written by Ellington, who even put out a short film featuring the song (among others) in 1929, which would have made it one of the early “talkies”. (Although there was more music than talking.)
The Cotton Club — an important part of the history of early jazz.