Duke Ellington and his Cotton Club Orchestra, 1927

The Harlem Renaissance represents a flowering of African-American achievement in music, poetry, painting, photography, and the other arts. An extraordinary number of talented people gathered in Harlem in the 1920s. They enriched each other's art as well as American culture at large. Yet the Renaissance is not simply a story of individual and group achievement. It is also a powerful instance of innumerable obstacles African Americans, even those of great genius, faced.

Harlem was becoming "the Mecca of the New Negro."

During the 1920s and 30s, The Cotton Club was the most famous nightclub, not only in Harlem, but in all of New York City. Most of Harlem’s famous musicians played the Cotton Club, from Louis Armstrong to Duke Ellington, from Ethel Waters to the Bill Robinson. As well as being a crucible for new musical styles, The Cotton Club could also be seen as a lightning rod for Harlem history: although many black stars made their debuts on its stage, the audience was reserved for whites only. The club was forced to close after the 1935 riots because it was considered unsafe for the club’s downtown clientele.

The original Cotton Club opened in 1923. It remains the largest, most extravagant club in Harlem’s history.

The name “Cotton Club” was conceived by the original owner, mobster Owney Madden, from the light brown color of raw cotton. Madden hoped to cash in on the growing Harlem music scene, featuring “Black” entertainment for an upscale white audience. Madden demanded the girls on his chorus line be “cotton colored,” or light-skinned Blacks.

The Cotton Club, was itself a black-and-tan fantasy for the whites-only clientele. The wait staff were all dark-skinned, the chorus line all light-skinned, as illustrated in the program at right. The club got its name from its Old South plantation decor. Patrons could imagine themselves back in a mythic South with black and tan slaves eager to do their bidding.

The show at the Cotton Club was a musical review, loosely based upon “Ziegfeld’s Follies” and featuring singers, dancers, and occasional guest stars. There were two performances a night, at midnight and 2:00. Before and after the midnight show, the orchestra played dance music for the patrons.

As Harlem gained a reputation throughout the nation as the “Negro Capital,” more African Americans chose it as their new home. In the same fashion, as clubs opened where the new music—first called “jass” and then “jazz”—drew white patrons as well as black, musicians flocked to Harlem.

Depite the fact that few Harlemites could afford the Cotton Club, it allowed the genius of a generation of Black performers to flourish. The house band, led by the stylish and gifted young composer Duke Ellington, debuted such Swing masterpieces as It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing), Mood Indigo and Take The ‘A’ Train to an enthralled audience.

Until the club moved downtown to 48th Street after Prohibition ended, virtually every major Black artist in big band and jazz history had graced its stage.