Mobster Owen The Killer Madden appeared as your average guy, but not to be fooled by his weak facade, Owen was a tough man. In his former gang, he had been shot eleven times at a close range, and by the time he had recovered, he had killed most of the members of the opposing gang (Boland, 5 & 6). So when he bought the Club Deluxe from former boxing world champion Jack Johnson, he knew how to make the club one of the finest speakeasies in New York. He started a legend, naming it The Cotton Club. By 1923, the club had opened on 142nd Street & Lenox Avenue in Harlem, New York. Owen or Owney Madden used the club to sell his #1 Beer to the Prohibition crowd. The club was closed down many times for short periods in the beginning due to the illegal sale of alcohol, but the fact that Owney was a mobster was to his advantage. He had many political connections, and his revenge tactics, along with paying off city hall, always triumphed, therefore the club was saved and running (Winter, 1).
The Cotton Club held all the right elements, and it attracted many people. It was a white-patron only club; contradictory to the rule, most of the staff and entertainment were black. The club had dancers who were held to strict standards. They had to be at least 56, light skinned with a slight tan, and under 21 years of age. The theme of the club was directed towards the upper-class and white clientele, creating a stylish plantation environment. Employees were represented as either black savages or white plantation residents. Heavy drum beats and fast trumpet playing brought a jungle-minded atmosphere to the room. This emphasis on plantation and jungle like setting, heavy and oppressive discrimination, and the appearance of many celebrities brought high demand to The Cotton Club, and also emphasized on black stereotypes (Winter, 2 & 3).
There was a whole plethora of entertainment down at The Cotton Club. Shows included dancers, singers, comedians, and whole variety of acts, as well as a house band. In 1927, Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, which included the reputable saxophonist Johnny Hodges, was hired for the club. For Duke, this club would be the inception of his career. He was put under a lot of pressure by Owney Madden, but the product of that pressure turned out to be legendary (Boland, 10 & 12). Hit classics by Ellington like Mood Indigo, Black and Tan Fantasy, and many more were debuted at The Cotton Club (britannica.com, 3). He played there for six nights a week, and the band soon gained national popularity (Boland, 11). Radio stations played his songs, and subsequently he released an album. Duke and his orchestra played there up until 1931, when decided to take the band on the road to success (britannica.com, 3).
Cab Calloway took over in 1931 who supposedly got the job by mafia urging. Calloway was definitely not the same as Ellington in the sense of style of music, but he did have his own unique style at the time. He was known to interact with the crowd by scatting; he would scat, and the crowd would scat back. Calloway had quite the same long run of success as Ellington did in his years of performing at The Cotton Club (Boland, 14, 15, & 16)
These two bandleaders made an opening for many other talented acts to perform there. Many of the finest black artists of the time were staged at the club, including Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Ethel Waters, and many more. Towards the end of the clubs heyday, Ella Fitzgerald performed at the young age of 17, after she had been discovered at a Harlem talent show (Boland, 18). There were also many revues, or theatrical sketches accompanied with music dancing, held at The Cotton Club. Lew Leslie was staged there with his famous Black Bird series. These revues featured dancing girls, tap dancers, vaudeville performers, and many other things along with it (L. Morgan, 1) . Needless to say, The Cotton Club never ceased to entertain its patrons, all up until 1935.
The club had prospered for 13 years until the Harlem Race Riot of 1935 broke out. A Puerto Rican boy named Lino Rivera was caught shoplifting a 10 cent knife. Lino Rivera in defense bit the hand of the policeman, and afterwards an ambulance had arrived for him. Unfortunately, a mistaken women misunderstood the situation, and yelled out that the boy was being beaten.
Everyone around her heard her yelling and the riot commenced. Not only did the crowd think the ambulance was for the boy, but the boy had also mysteriously disappeared from the crowd, therefore everyone thought he was dead. This had produced a giant uproar which caused 75 blacks to be arrested, and $200 million dollars worth of property damage. Even though this was called a race riot, there was no actual clash between two races. Still it went down in history as the first modern race riot of its time (creoleindc.typepad.com, 1, 2, 3, & 7).
The beginning of race riots in Harlem caused The Cotton Club to temporarily close down and relocate to 48th street. After 5 years of only little success, very far from the success it previously had, The Cotton Club closed down in 1940 (britannica.com, 4).
Night clubs in Harlem have since then kept The Cotton Club legacy alive, and in 1978 a reincarnated version of the club opened. Francis Ford Coppola, a movie director, created a film that paid homage to the cotton club in 1984, called The Cotton Club. The story itself is fictional, but it is very similar to the real thing (britannica.com, 4). The club now sits at 125th street New York, New York (cottonclub-newyork.com, 5). Although the outside appearance is just a building with no windows, the inside is still a popular place to dance and listen to some of todays finest jazz, open for all races.
The Cotton Club was the most popular speakeasy nightclub of its time, not only birthing the careers of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, but also staging some of the most legendary performances and musicians of Jazz history.