Jazz & Blues: What Was the Legendary Cotton Club?

The Cotton Club was the definitive nightclub of the Harlem Renaissance, where Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday found fame.

Jun 27, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

what was the cotton club jazz blues


The Cotton Club was the riotous nightclub of the roaring twenties and the Harlem Renaissance, where African American performers made radical new breakthroughs in the worlds of swing, jazz and blues. The club burst onto the Harlem night scene at a time of political instability, when racial segregation was still rife across the United States. This meant the nightclub occupied a controversial discord – while performers and staff at the nightclub were exclusively black, audience members were definitively white. Nonetheless, the Cotton Club launched the careers of numerous extraordinarily talented performers who gained worldwide fame. It was also a speakeasy during the prohibition era, run by a band of bootleggers and mobsters. We examine the notoriously divisive nightclub in more detail, and its role in the United States at a time of fraught racial tension. 


The Leading Nightclub of the Prohibition Era

the cotton club 1920s harlem renaissance
The Cotton Club during the 1920s


The Cotton Club became the most popular nightclub of the Harlem Renaissance, due to its outstanding showcases of musical talent. Named after the cotton plantations of the old south and slavery, the club on 142nd Street and Lennox Avenue in the center of Harlem was run by white mob boss and bootlegger Owney Madden, who took up the helm in 1923. He originally established the club as a speakeasy for the illegal sale of alcohol (what he called his #1 Beer), which he hoped wouldn’t attract police attention if situated in a black neighborhood. While the club was occasionally forced to close during the 1920s for selling alcohol, the political connections the owner held meant he was always able to reopen again not long after. 


The Cotton Club Was a Segregated Venue

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Cab Calloway performing at The Cotton Club


The Cotton Club was established during a difficult period of segregation in the United States and it was clearly a product of its time. In what we would recognize today as overt racism, Madden deliberately designed the club with a ‘plantation’ theme, encouraging musicians to play lively music with a ‘jungle’ sound. He paraded the black performers and employees as savages or plantation residents, playing to the illicit appeal this would have for middle class white audiences, and hoping this would help him sell more alcohol. However, it was the quality of the music that came to draw audiences in from far and wide, which allowed many of the club’s most successful African American performers to seize the reins of the club and steer it in their own direction.


The Most Popular Nightclub of the Harlem Renaissance

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Poster for The Cotton Club

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In spite of its problematic circumstances, many of the prodigiously talented performers who lit up the stage at the Cotton Club found monumental, worldwide success through performing in its nightly revues. News spread about the club’s high standard of daring, experimental music and what was once an edgy, underground venue became increasingly popular throughout New York City audiences. Eventually WHN radio station began recording and broadcasting the venue’s legendary performances and translating them into albums, which played a significant role in bringing their musical adventures out into the wider field of American culture


The Cotton Club Was the Birthplace of Modern Jazz and Blues

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Jazz musician and orchestra conductor Duke Ellington playing piano with other jazz musicians, via Columbia Alumni Association


The Cotton Club became a radical space for musicians to experiment with jazz, blues, swing and big band music. The house orchestra was led by the iconic Duke Ellington from 1927 to 1930, whose inimitable spirited compositions, arrangements and performances are now recognized as the stuff of legend. Meanwhile performers including Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Count Basie gave some of their most powerful and emotive performances here, during a time when music became one of the most potent means of self-expression.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.