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Culture Clubs: A History of the U.S. Jazz Clubs, Part II: New York

Culture Clubs: A History of the U.S. Jazz Clubs, Part II: New York
Karl Ackermann By

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Jazz didn't abandon Chicago but its further development only began to take on a distinct personality in the 1960s. By the late 1920s, the next phase of the jazz scene had shifted from Chicago to New York though, initially, there was no red carpet rolled out. As jazz bands made their way to New York they tended to be lobbed into a mix of vaudeville acts, comedians and other nomadic entertainers passing through with hopes of striking gold. The music itself was viewed as a novelty and black performers as caricatures. It was with the arrival of New Orleans' Original Dixieland Jass Band—an all-white group—that heads began to turn. Still, it was a reluctant gamble for the record labels with Columbia signing, and almost immediately dropping ODJB, and then the Victor label picking them up. Their success (more than one million records sold) piqued the interest of music fans and created new opportunities for performers and the establishments that would support audience demand.

New York

If any venue symbolized the Jazz Age, it was The Cotton Club. It began life in 1920 as the Club Deluxe, a Harlem supper club at 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue. Run by boxer Jack Johnson, the club was taken over by a paroled mobster, Owney Madden, in 1923 and the name changed to The Cotton Club. Johnson remained the manager but the club essentially became a front for selling liquor during prohibition. The club operated from 1923 to 1935 at the Harlem location, moving to midtown Manhattan in 1936 and then closing in 1940. Despite featuring the most popular black artists of the era, The Cotton Club served a "white-only" clientele, was decorated in blatantly racist themes, and performers and patrons were strictly segregated. Writer Langston Hughes described the setting as "a Jim Crow club for gangsters and moneyed whites..." Despite the oppressive working conditions, the club provided beneficial exposure for the musicians (often through affiliated radio broadcasts) as well as a relatively high pay rate. Among the performers were Cab Calloway, Fletcher Henderson, Billie Holiday, Jimmie Lunceford, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Fats Waller and Duke Ellington. It was Ellington's stature and influence that eventually convinced club management to relax—but not eliminate—its racial admission restrictions.

In polar opposition to the exclusive and glitzy Cotton Club was Café Society. Located in the Sheridan Square section of Greenwich Village, this "neighborhood" was a small triangle plot at the intersection of Washington Place, West 4th Street, and Barrow Street. A microcosm of an ideal culture, Café Society was the first jazz club to pursue integrated audiences, going as far as providing preferential seating to patrons of color while openly welcoming celebrities and members of the privileged class. The club was strictly about the music; there was no dancing or audience socializing during performances. Billie Holiday, though she played the Cotton Club as well, made her reputation at Café Society where she sang from the club's first day in business. Singers were the specialty of the club with Hazel Scott, Big Joe Turner, Lena Horne and Sarah Vaughan all performing on its small stage.

Café Society was run by Barney Josephson who had an affinity for left-wing causes and privately hosted related events in support of those efforts. Those undertakings led to his brother being called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947. The committee was a precursor to the Joseph McCarthy "red scare" hearings of the 1950s, convened to investigate any citizen suspected of having Communist ties. The allegations against Josephson were fueled by a popular and ruthless New York gossip columnist, Walter Winchell, whose unsubstantiated claims and negative coverage of Josephson badly damaged business at Café Society. The following year, the club closed.

Harlem's Lenox Lounge opened in 1939 at 125th Street and Lenox Avenue (more recently designated as Malcolm X Blvd.). Established by Ralph Greco, the venue was later taken over by his nephew Dominic Greco who started working at the club as a seventeen-year-old bartender. Jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Billie Holiday all played there and the club's notable clientele included Langston Hughes, Malcolm X and James Baldwin.


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