The Cotton Club was a famous night club in New York City that operated during Prohibition. While the club featured many of the greatest African American entertainers of the era, such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, The Nicholas Brothers, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, and Ethel Waters, it generally denied admission to blacks. During its heyday, it served as a chic meeting spot in the heart of Harlem, featuring regular "Celebrity Nights" on Sundays, at which celebrities such as Jimmy Durante, George Gershwin, Al Jolson, Mae West, Irving Berlin, Eddie Cantor, Moss Hart, New York mayor Jimmy Walker and other luminaries would appear.
Heavyweight champion Jack Johnson opened the Club Deluxe at 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem in 1920. Owney Madden, a prominent bootlegger and gangster, took over the club in 1923 while imprisoned in Sing Sing and changed its name to the Cotton Club. While the club was closed briefly in 1925 for selling liquor, it reopened without trouble from the police. The dancers and strippers occasionally performed for Madden in Sing Sing after his return there in 1933.
The club reproduced the racist imagery of the times, often depicting blacks as savages in exotic jungles or as "darkies" in the plantation South. The club imposed a more subtle color bar on the chorus girls whom the club presented in skimpy outfits: they were expected to be "tall, tan, and terrific", which meant that they had to be at least 5 feet 6 inches tall, light skinned, and under twenty-one years of age. Ellington was expected to write "jungle music" for an audience of whites.
Nonetheless, the club also helped launch the careers of Fletcher Henderson, who led the first band that played there in 1923, and Ellington, whose orchestra was the house band there from 1927 to 1931. The club not only gave Ellington national exposure through radio broadcasts originating there, but enabled him to develop his repertoire while composing not only the dance tunes for the shows, but also the overtures, transitions, accompaniments, and "jungle" effects that gave him the freedom to experiment with orchestral colours and arrangements that touring bands rarely had. Ellington recorded over 100 compositions during this era, while building the group that he led for nearly fifty years. The club eventually relaxed its policy of excluding black customers slightly in deference to Ellington's request.
Cab Calloway's orchestra brought its Brown Sugar revue to the club in 1930, replacing Ellington's group after its departure in 1931; Jimmie Lunceford's band replaced Calloway's in 1934, while Ellington, Armstrong, and Calloway returned to perform at the club in later years. The club was also the first show business opportunity for Lena Horne, who began there as a chorus girl at the age of sixteen. Dorothy Dandridge performed there while still one of The Dandridge Sisters, while Coleman Hawkins and Don Redman played there as part of Henderson's band. Tap dancers Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Sammy Davis Jr. (as part of the Will Mastin Trio), and the Nicholas Brothers starred there as well.
The club also drew from white popular culture of the day. Walter Brooks, who had produced the successful Broadway show Shuffle Along, was the nominal owner. Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh, one of the most prominent songwriting teams of the era, and Harold Arlen provided the songs for the revues, one of which, "Blackbirds of 1928", featuring the songs "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" and "Diga Diga Doo", was produced by Lew Leslie on Broadway.
Closed temporarily in 1936 after the race riot in Harlem the previous year, the Cotton Club reopened later that year at Broadway and 48th Street. It closed for good in 1940, under pressure from higher rents, changing tastes and a federal investigation into tax evasion by Manhattan nightclub owners. A new club with the same name opened in 1978 in Harlem.
A West Coast branch of the Cotton Club existed in Culver City, California in the late 1920s and early 1930s, featuring performers from the original Cotton Club such as Armstrong, Calloway and Ellington.
The Cotton Club is a movie directed by Francis Ford Coppola, which offers a fictionalized history of the club in the context of race relations in the 1930s and the battles between Madden, Dutch Schultz, Vincent "Mad Dog" Coll, Lucky Luciano, and Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson.