The Cotton Club

Owney Madden

In 1920, Jack Johnson, the world’s first African-American heavyweight boxing champion, opened a club on 125th Street in Harlem. This club (Club De Luxe) would become one of the most infamous speakeasies of the Prohibition era. In 1923, Owney Madden, a notorious New York gangster, purchased the club from Johnson, and renamed Club de Luxe The Cotton Club. Perhaps the most famous of Harlem speakeasies employed jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington. Speakeasies in Harlem were largely responsible for the introduction of jazz to upper class whites—jazz performed by black musicians who would become the most famous proliferators of the genre. Madden, however, was no pioneer for black people. His Cotton Club was whites-only, catering to the social class of people who already believed black men and women were meant for entertainment. These “underground” speakeasies were built to provide spaces for people to mingle, dance, and drink while the American people were meant to avoid them all. Speakeasies in Midtown Manhattan were more likely to introduce different classes, races, and genders of people to one another than the speakeasies of Harlem, owned by racist whites who ran these clubs to uphold the status quo. Ironically, the speakeasies in Harlem were less inclusive than those built throughout the rest of the city. While these spaces would introduce jazz to New York’s white population, the black entertainers and jazz performers were segregated from the crowd and were not allowed to mingle with the white patrons. While Prohibition did not actually cause Americans to drink more—in fact, Americans drank less, because even if you made your way to a speakeasy, the liquor would be exorbitantly expensive—it did lead to the exploitation of jazz musicians, which is arguably more dastardly than the sale of gin.

Blesser, Barry and Salter, Linda-Ruth. Spaces Speak, Are You Listening? Experiencing Aural Architecture. MIT Press, 2006.
Elmayan, Laura. “Vintage Photos: Inside the Cotton Club, One of NYC’s Leading Jazz Venues in the 1920s” last modified August 4, 2013.
Lee, Jennifer. “Evoking the Era of a Harlem Speakeasy” last modified December 5, 2008.
"Louis Armstrong."