Harlem History: The Cotton Club

Cotton Club
There are a lot of pictures of the original Cotton Club at 644 Lenox Avenue and 142nd Street but most folks just recognize the grand marquees. So what did the original building actually look like?
By 1958, the Cotton Club was a boarded up building and Urban Renewal would take precedent for the arrival of the Bethune Tower superblock (Minisink) which would eventually spell the demise of Harlem’s most famous jazz nightclub.
The original Cotton Club opened in the 1920’s on 142nd street and Lenox Avenue when central Harlem was the playground of the rich. The club was segregated in the sense that only white patrons could enter the establishment while all the service and entertainment was provided by black entertainers who often worked jungle themes or black face parodies for their guests. If you were a Black woman and wanted to perform there, you had to be “light, bright, and damn near white!”

After the earlier years, what did emerge from this historic venue was a legendary jazz history. The likes of Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker to even Mae West have made an appearance at the Cotton Club. The Club was renowned world wide and still is one of the most recognizable names associated with Harlem.

The hey day was enjoyed well into the 20’s and 30’s until race riots of 1936. The club shut its doors but soon opened on Broadway in midtown. By then the times did indeed change and the club could not keep its momentum. The Cotton Club of the Harlem Renaissance closed for good in 1940.


Today, there is a new incarnation of the Cotton Club which sits on the most western end of 125th street under the massive Manhattanville viaduct. The windowless block of a building has a less dramatic display out front but seems to be popular with tourists for Sunday jazz brunches.

Source and Wikipedia

Leave a Reply

Get the best updates with the Harlem World Editor's Picks.